A national celebrity with no political experience wins the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Running against a Democrat with strong connections throughout Washington, the celebrity Republican’s candidacy is considered a long-shot at first. However, the Republication runs a populist “America First” campaign that taps into America’s distrust of career politicians, and eventually wins a decisive Electoral College victory. After taking office, the new president meets with tyrannical leaders of nations once hostile to the United States. Years later, information showing the president received assistance from one of those foreign dictatorships comes to light.
Perhaps the only time fiction is stranger than truth, is when a work of the imagination predicts the actual future.
In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate history of America in the World War II era, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, and then signs agreements with Germany and Japan that keep the United States out of of the global conflict. I downloaded the audiobook (which features an outstanding performance by the late Ron Silver) because I have a fascination with this period of history, and enjoy fictive tales of how history could have turned out differently. I had no idea the book’s plot so eerily paralleled the rise to power of The Fraud, but the similarities cannot be ignored. (I should note that after the 2016 election and shortly before his death, the author denied making any attempt to comment on modern American politics.)
While Lindbergh’s election and subsequent actions are the primary events in the novel, most of the action centers around a fictionalized version of Roth’s family and other Jewish households in Newark, New Jersey. After taking office, Lindbergh establishes the Office of American Absorption, which temporarily relocates Jewish youth into Christian communities. It’s a thinly-veiled attempt to eliminate Judaism through cultural assimilation, and by showing how the campaign affects a single family, the devastating impact of the alternative history becomes very real.
The novel is riveting until it reaches its epilogue, which provides an implausible explanation which excuses Lindbergh’s behavior. This ending is a major disappointment, and its portrayal of Lindbergh is so inconsistent with the earlier part of the novel that I wonder if the author was pressured to write the epilogue. It’s hard to imagine a writer of Roth’s reputation would succumb to that pressure, but the epilogue definitely reads like a capitulation.
But in spite of this disappointment, the novel is a major success, and especially insightful for anyone seeking to understand how authoritarianism could come to power in the United States.