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Philip Roth’s 2004 warning about demagogues is more relevant than ever

Philip Roth, Donald Trump, and The Plot Against America.

Obama Confers Nat'l Medal of Arts And Nat'l Humanities Medal To 20 Honorees
President Barack Obama presents the 2010 National Humanities Medal to novelist Philip Roth.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On March 30, literary agent Erik Hane wrote a lament about the way Donald Trump’s presidency loomed over the drafts crossing his desk. Assessing “an inbox full of novels promising fascist regimes, stolen elections, unhinged presidents, and the looming threat of nuclear war,” Hane worried that “these authors are not writing the political moment so much as the moment is writing them.”

But one author did write this political moment, and he died last week. In 2004, Philip Roth published The Plot Against America, a work of alternative historical fiction imagining a world where Charles Lindbergh drove Franklin D. Roosevelt from office. As we mourn Roth’s passing, it is worth remembering his warning.

Roth’s Lindbergh sweeps to the presidency on, literally, an “America First!” ticket. He takes over a fractured Republican Party and campaigns against the advice of consultants and politicians, flying his own plane around the country, offering plainspoken denunciations of interventionism and identity politics.

“We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we must also look out for ours,” says Roth’s Lindbergh of the Jews. “We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.”

This, throughout The Plot Against America, is Lindbergh’s message: that America is being taken advantage of, that it has lost sight of its own needs amid the clamoring of its interest groups, that its diversity has become a weakness, that the world will only respect us if we elect a leader whose steel they fear.

The crowds roar in response. “Lindbergh can deal with Hitler, they said, Hitler respects him because he’s Lindbergh. Mussolini and Hirohito respect him because he’s Lindbergh.” The echoes of Republicans cheering Trump’s aggression and brazenness as a foreign policy unto itself ring loudly.

Lindbergh wins an upset victory, of course, and Roth is damning in his portrait of how quickly the political system adjusts, how easily it abandons its old sureties to embrace a new inevitability:

Though on the morning after the election disbelief prevailed, especially among the pollsters, by the next everybody seemed to understand everything. The radio commentators and the news columnists made it sound as if Roosevelt’s defeat had been preordained. What had happened, they explained, was that Americans had shown themselves unwilling to break the tradition of the two-term presidency that George Washington had instituted and that no president before Roosevelt had dared to challenge. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Depression, the resurgent confidence of young and old alike had been quickened by Lindbergh’s relative youth and by the graceful athleticism that contrasted so starkly with the serious physical impediments under which FDR labored as a polio victim.

Though the explanations for Lindbergh’s victory are different from the ones that followed Trump’s — though the emphasis on the Democratic candidate’s physical stamina offers an unexpected echo — the dynamics by which the political system rushes to make conceptual peace with whoever wins the election feel desperately familiar.

The great power of The Plot Against America is its restraint. Roth’s Lindbergh is a far more credible candidate than our Trump. He is calm and convincing, eloquent and careful. Alternative history tends to deal in wild hypotheticals — what if aliens invaded during World War II? What if time travelers gave the South machine guns during the Civil War? — but Roth tilts reality a mere five degrees off its axis. He builds a world we can imagine inhabiting, a demagogue we can imagine electing. Then he watches it all unfold through the eyes of a Jewish child — a child whose nightmares return, whose family turns on itself, whose sense of safety is shattered; a child whose alarm manifests in ways instantly familiar to anyone reading the stories of immigrant children today.

The world Roth paints is more believable than our own. That is why its warning was so prescient. Even before Trump, Roth knew what much of America’s political class had forgotten: that the boundaries of the possible were wider than either the Democratic or Republican parties believed, that isolationism and xenophobia are powerful tools in the hands of a charismatic political outsider, that there is nothing in the American heart that inoculates us against the allure of demagogues.

“The truly resonant Trump Novels won’t actually be about Trump,” predicted Hane, and he’s right. The Plot Against America resonates so deeply precisely because it’s not about Trump — because it’s about someone more subtle, more appealing, and thus, more dangerous. The Plot Against America resonates because it is about us, because it is convincing in its argument that it can happen here, that there will always be those among us who want it to happen here, and if we are not vigilant, someday, it will.

If Roth’s book has a weakness, it comes at its end, when the Lindbergh administration collapses in a way I, as a reader, found somewhat absurd. I won’t spoil the plot, but on reflection, while the denouement is ridiculous, it is scarier for it: It feels like Roth wrote a fascist takeover of American politics so realistic that even he couldn’t write a convincing way out.

We are perhaps lucky that in 2018, for all the awful policies and real horrors, our story is thick with plot holes and absurdities. We do not need to reach for the deus ex machina Roth did to imagine escape. But if America is to learn the hard lessons of this era, it will need to grapple not just with the very real danger posed by Trump’s unpopular, improbable, incompetent presidency but with the threat posed by the cannier strain of demagogue Roth reminded us to fear.