The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As with so many of the best novels, its page-by-page complexities—intellectual and emotional—are infinite, but the concept and plot can be summed up shortly: The Plot Against America is the memoir of Philip Roth’s lower-middle-class Newark boyhood in an alternate America where isolationist aviator Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election and unleashes official and unofficial anti-Semitism on America’s Jewish populace, from an assimilationist program of forced relocation from Northern cities to the rural South and Midwest to outright pogroms when gossip columnist and radio host Walter Winchell rises to challenge Lindbergh and is then cut down by an assassin’s bullet.
When the novel was published in 2004, readers thought it was a cryptic allegory against the George W. Bush administration. Roth denied this at the time, and in fact the parallel doesn’t hold. Bush explicitly cast himself as a wartime leader, spreading democracy like Wilson and battling fascism like Roosevelt. While his explicitly “born again” religious inflection of cowboy Americana grated on the secular liberal’s ear, he was also carefully ecumenical, prefacing “Christian” with “Judeo-,” declaring Islam a religion of peace, and making opposition to anti-Semitism a plank in his martial and global opposition to “terror.” Some of its more perceptive contemporary critics, whether favorable to the novel or not, saw an entirely different allegory in The Plot, however. For example, Bill Kauffman contributed a notoriously acidic review to the then-new paleocon journal The American Conservative:
Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is the novel that a neoconservative would write, if a neoconservative could write a novel. […] This is a repellent novel, bigoted and libelous of the dead, dripping with hatred of rural America, of Catholics, of any Middle American who has ever dared stand against the war machine. All that is left, I suppose, is for the author to collect his Presidential Medal of Freedom.
For Kaufmann, Roth oversimplifies history, traduces the anti-war movements of the past, and launders his elitist contempt for “flyover country” as enlightenment, all in service of America’s military empire. This might be just what we’d expect to hear from a prairie populist whose review takes pains to defend the original America First movement as cosmopolitan and well-intentioned; yet Paul Berman’s New York Times review—quoted (though not attributed to Berman) on the front cover of the paperback—spies a similar subtext, though Berman is the author of the anti-isolationist Terror and Liberalism, an influential 2003 tract that defined political Islam as heir to all the totalitarian movements spawned since the French Revolution and therefore a legitimate and unavoidable enemy of liberal democracy:
The anti-Semitism Roth describes in the 1940’s springs mostly from an antiwar resentment—from the belief that the Jews, and not the Nazis, bear responsibility for the war, and are trying to advance their own narrow interests at everyone else’s expense. And perhaps a bit of this has likewise turned up in our own time. During the last two or three years, large publics in Western Europe and even in the United States have taken up the view that, if extremist political movements have swept across large swaths of the Muslim world, and if Baathists and radical Islamists have slaughtered literally millions of people during these last years, and then have ended up at war with the United States, Israel and its crimes must ultimately be to blame. And if America has been drawn into war in Iraq, it is because President Bush’s second-level foreign policy advisers include a few Jews (though all of his top-level advisers are Protestants), and these second-level figures have manipulated everyone else to the bidding of Ariel Sharon.
Like Kaufmann, but from the opposite ideological pole, Berman sees a critique of the anti-war left as the novel’s subtext, despite its overt polemic against the nativist right. As a member of the anti-war left, I avoided the novel when it was first published, despite admiring Roth as a writer, for fear this might be the case; when I finally read it over the past week, I felt a different kind of fear. Though critics credited The Plot with prescience when Trump was elected in 2016 on an America First platform—and right-wing anti-Semitic violence did erupt during Trump’s tenure, as in the Tree of Life massacre—it is not under the aegis of American nativism or isolationism that Jewish people are being beaten on the streets of our cities in 2021. With an academic-activist left increasingly insistent on dogmas like collective racial guilt for institutional misdeeds and a definition of ill-gotten privilege that includes most human attainment—dogmas sharing an obvious logic with “the socialism of fools”—perhaps this violence should come as no surprise.
None of the above, anyway, answers the question: what, if any, is the ideology promoted by this ostensibly political novel? A passage from the middle of the book, one that reprises a theme sounded at the beginning (“Our homeland was America”), give us a clue:
Their being Jews didn’t issue from the rabbinate or the synagogue or from their few formal religious practices, though over the years, largely for the sake of living parents who came once a week to visit and eat, several of the households, ours among them, were kosher. Their being Jews didn’t even issue from on high. To be sure, each Friday at sundown, when my mother ritually (and touchingly, with the devotional delicacy she’d absorbed as a child from watching her own mother) lit the Sabbath candles, she invoked the Almighty by his Hebrew title but otherwise no one ever made mention of “Adonoy.” These were Jews who needed no large terms of reference, no profession of faith or doctrinal creed, in order to be Jews, and they certainly needed no other language—they had one, their native tongue, whose vernacular expressiveness they wielded effortlessly and, whether at the card table or while making a sales pitch, with the easygoing command of the indigenous population. Neither was their being Jews a mishap or a misfortune or an achievement to be “proud” of. What they were was what they couldn’t get rid of—what they couldn’t even begin to want to get rid of. Their being Jews issued from their being themselves, as did their being American.
In defining the sources of identity, this passage impressively rejects religious faith or ritual, formally distinct cultural practices, and blood-and-soil nationalism. What is left, what is it that makes these characters definitely, unapologetically—but not boastfully—Jewish and American? Roth can’t name this mysterious quiddity, this sine qua non that is a je ne sais quoi, because to name it would be to fall into the essentializing trap of the religionist or nativist. But whatever it is, it emerges from living where one lives, speaking the language one speaks, and sharing a world with one’s neighbors; it is not an essence but an experience, renewed in action and dialogue every day, as a novel itself unfolds word by word in time as well as space. There is as little point affirming it as denying it. Over and above the novel’s conspiracy thriller elements, the titular plot refers to any scheme to turn America into a place where identity needs to be more than this necessary minimum of spontaneously shared life.
The word “indigenous” used with reference to the dominant Christian culture in the passage above will strike today’s right-thinking reader oddly, but Roth doesn’t shy from its implications later in the narrative, when young Philip’s father and brother drive desperately through a Southern hellscape to rescue one of their neighbors whose mother was killed by a bigoted mob:
[A]n analogy could be made…to the uninvited white settlers who first poured through the Appalachian barrier into the favorite hunting grounds of the Delaware and Algonquin tribes, except that instead of alien, strange-looking whites affronting the local inhabitants with their rapaciousness, these were alien, strange-looking Jews provocative merely by their presence. This time around, though, those violently defending their lands from usurpation and their way of life from destruction weren’t Indians led by the great Tecumseh but upright American Christians unleashed by the acting president of the United States.
Roth distinguishes the culpable “rapaciousness” of the whites from the mere innocent “presence” of the Jews, but it doesn’t entirely blunt the analogy’s force. If the word “indigenous”—and its recently fashionable, all-explanatory antonym “settler colonialism”—unavoidably connotes land and lineage as identitarian essence, then any diaspora is illegitimate as such, an inorganic interloper on someone’s sacred soil, even if the soil has never witnessed anything other than a succession of trespassers claiming primacy since time began. Roth implicitly defends America as an inherently diasporic nation, a nation that is—to quote one of modern fiction’s most iconic Jewish cosmopolites—“the same people living in the same place,” nothing less and nothing more, though this “nothing” is everything to our narrator besotted with reverence for the scenes of his childhood and the endurance of his family.
Given its paean to the heroic petite bourgeoisie of the middle 20th century, The Plot Against America might be the capstone literary work to what historian Daryl Michael Scott has recently tried to explain—and not from a position of sympathy, either—as the ideology behind the Trump administration’s 1776 Project, launched to counter the rival 1619 Project’s harsh interrogation of the nation’s founding:
The original conservative view of American history isn’t well articulated anymore, but the Lost Cause is the one most of us can still identify. American exceptionalism is a liberal product that becomes everything after World War II—the idea that America is a “set of ideas.” The liberals trace it back to the beginning of time—they trace it back to 1607, somehow. […] So from the very beginning we have liberals who are a kind of white nationalist and want a liberal white nation, and we have the people in the North who develop the point of view that America should be a set of ideas that anyone can participate in.
Roth duly stigmatizes the “Lost Cause” through the novel’s Jewish villain, Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who marries the narrator’s aunt and becomes a chief advisor to Lindbergh on the assimilation of urban Jews. Bengelsdorf is a southerner who elegies Judah P. Benjamin, the first Jewish senator and an officer in the Confederate cabinet, and looks down on the Roths as paranoid “ghetto Jews.” He recruits Philip’s brother Sandy for much of the narrative to his assimilationist and social-climbing hauteur. Moreover, the South is the infernal setting of the novel’s climactic vision, an America literally on fire with hatred—a regional topos in our literature that goes back to Crèvecœur, with his own democratic outrage against the South as a sweltering outpost of caste degradation in what was supposed to be a New World. In extolling his parents’ humble work ethic, Roth correspondingly disparages his family members and neighbors who prefer easy or unethical (“rapacious”) means to crudely materialistic ends, from his social-climbing aunt who marries Bergelsdorf to Newark’s mobsters and machers who try ineffectually in the end to defend the community. Roth is a liberal, but on balance a liberal of the left.
Even the novel’s over-the-top anti-Catholicism—Kauffman was not wrong when he observed this—gives way to an affectionate if slightly stereotypical portrait of an Italian immigrant neighbor who gives Philip’s father a gun to defend himself from the anti-Semites, memorably advising him that to fire the weapon, “You pulla the trig’.” And why not? Father Coughlin was real enough, but so was Al Smith; the second largest population lynched by the Klan were Italian; and my late grandmother, daughter of immigrants, used to tell me about the time they marched down the street and burned a cross on the lawn next door when she was a little girl. With allowances for the obvious distinctions, I recognize something of the neighborhood world Roth eulogizes—I saw the end of it, at the end of the American century—and no amount of intellection can prevent me from sometimes mourning its loss as well.
On the other hand—there is always another hand for the author of The Counterlife—how seriously should we take this whole scenario? Hasn’t Roth himself been the scourge of Jewish parochialism and paranoia from “The Defender of the Faith” to The Ghost Writer? The novel’s basic alt-history scenario, especially as it comes to its unlikely conclusion, seems deliberately cartoonish. To quote Berman’s review, might Roth not be “laughing at his own imaginings,” mocking “[p]hony victimhood” as “the sentimentality of our time”? I think of this sentence, the context of which is Sandy’s return from a summer spent at a Kentucky farm as part of Lindbergh’s assimilationist “Just Folks” program: “Seemingly as a direct consequence of Sandy’s having eaten bacon, ham, pork chops, and sausage, there was no containing the transformation of our lives.” The magical thinking and fairy-tale illogic leap from the page: yes, Roth is jesting in part—but only in part. The novel’s first sentence is, “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear,” and its concluding chapter is called “Perpetual Fear.” Roth gives us not a sober dystopia nor actionable political tract, but a phenomenology of fear, a Jewish American nightmare—what if the diaspora’s American luck runs out?—delivered, it must be said, with the absolute authority of the dreaming mind in its nocturnal compositions, no matter how unbelievable or incoherent some of the internal logic.
Too flattened by the novel’s profligacy of character and incident, its relentless unspooling of anguished eloquence, to be bothered by its flaws, I want to reach for pat reviewery phrases like “the height of his powers.” There is the long second chapter about the Roths’ D.C. vacation marred by escalating anti-Semitic incidents at the beginning of Lindbergh’s administration; and the even better fourth chapter, about Philip’s cousin, who loses his leg fighting the Nazis on behalf of Britain and Canada and returns to fascinate and appall Philip with his suppurating stump, the novel’s central symbol of life’s inherent incompleteness; and the aforementioned final chapter with its febrile underworld journey through the burning South. The narrator’s lapses into paranoia and sentimentality—what Kaufmann calls “Time-Life prose”—are there but part of the design, the kind of thing that this kind of person having this kind of nightmare would think and say. Roth’s crowning irony is to call “this kind of person” himself, playing on his reputation for narcissism by composing one of his most fantastical, imaginative narratives as an autobiography.
In one of the novel’s gem-like but somehow organically expansive scenes—a bad dream in a minor comic key—young Philip accidentally locks himself in a neighbor’s bathroom. His friend’s mother tries to console him through the door as his panic increases; when he’s freed, she tells him “that it didn’t matter and that these things happen to people all the time.” This ridiculous existential wrongness is the novel’s ultimate theme—Roth’s ultimate theme—and the passion with which he wrestles it into his perfectly wrought sentences and scenes and chapters testifies that it did matter to him, and should matter to us, too.
Great review. Loads here to think about
Roth was aware as far back as 1961 that novelists would have a hard time competing with American reality: “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
Not long ago, the phrase “President Donald Trump” would have struck a lot of people as impossibly outlandish, a true instance of reality “continually outdoing our talents.”
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