As almost every American high school student knows, Franklin D. Roosevelt was first elected as President of the United States in 1932 and enacted a New Deal that helped to end the Great Depression. He was was elected to his third term in 1940, riding on his popularity as well as a promise to the American people that he would not get the United States involved in the Second World War raging in Europe, defeating Wendell Willkie. America did not get involved in World War II until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawai'i.
However, The Plot Against America diverges from actual history starting with the Republican National Convention that met concerning the 1940 election, where Charles Lindbergh instead of Wendell Willkie is named as the Republican nominee for President. Jewish people across America spontaneously and loudly protest this as soon as they hear the news. Why? Lindbergh is a Nazi sympathizer and a proud recipient of the Order of the German Eagle who even refused to return it after Kristallnacht, saying that it would constitute an "unnecessary insult" to the Third Reich. However, Lindbergh is able to use his popularity as a famous aviator as well as his isolationism to defeat FDR in the 1940 election. Thereafter, he signs "understandings" with both the Third Reich and Japan, making nice with both governments. Thus, the bombing of Pearl Harbor as well as America's 1942 entrance into World War II are averted. Anti-Semitism increases in popularity as an alliance between the American and Nazi government strengthens.
Meanwhile, Philip Roth is a preteen Jewish boy who must cope with the ever-growing anti-Semitism in America. His mother has started saving money in a Canadian bank in case things get so desperate that the Roths must leave the country. Phil's Aunt Evelyn grows closer to the Republican politicians and the visiting Nazi dignitaries. Phil's brother Sandy is turned against the Jewish culture and his cousin Alvin comes back home wounded after fighting in World War II for the Canadian army. It gets worse.
This work provides examples of:
- All Gays Are Pedophiles: Phil and a friend of his are implored by an older man to come into his house. They say, "Oh no, he's a fairy!" and run away.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: With the present historical narrative of America as generally supportive of the Allies, but unable to get personally involved in World War II until the Germans, sorry, Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the idea that at any point in history an American could not only express positive views about the Nazis and still be able to show his face in polite society but also receive a medal from Adolf Hitler himself without being ostracized can seem very far-fetched indeed without deeper historical knowledge.
- Deus ex Machina: Just when things are starting to turn really dark in America, Lindbergh's plane disappears, Roosevelt is restored to the presidency, and everything is better. Presto!
- From Bad to Worse: After Lindbergh's disappearance, his Vice President, Burton Wheeler briefly takes over the presidency and institutes martial law, mass arrests and outright repression. This is what spurs Congress to remove Wheeler from office and reinstate FDR.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: The portrayal of Charles Lindbergh as a A Nazi by Any Other Name, as rooted in truth as it is, can come off as this, especially at first, to readers who didn't know that Charles Lindbergh held such views and mainly knew about him as a celebrity pilot. Roth does soften this a bit by implying that Lindbergh is coerced into implementing his pro-German policies (whereas his Vice President, isolationist Senator Burton K. Wheeler, is depicted as a true fanatic).
- Joisey: One good way to tell whether or not a person has actually read this book is to ask them where it takes place. Since Phil's pride in being a New Jerseyan is repeated almost every other paragraph but the New Jersey setting is overshadowed by the Alternate History element of Charles Lindbergh's presidency in reviews and such about the book, you can tell if a person has actually read this if they answer any question about the setting with an unhesitating "New Jersey."
- Mind you, fans of Roth would've probably already guessed where the book takes place.
- A Nazi by Any Other Name: Subverted. While it seems for much of the book that Lindbergh is a Nazi, a member of the protagonist's family who worked in the Lindbergh administration claims that Lindbergh was forced to govern by the Nazi's, who had kidnapped his son (who is thought to have been killed). Note however this is never proved.
- Putting on the Reich: Strangely, it's more subtle than one would expect. When Charles Lindbergh is elected as President, he enacts some Nazi-lite policies specifically targeted at Jewish people, such as the relocation of Jewish families, forcing Jewish boys of a certain age to live with a Gentile family for the summer so that they will be turned against Jewish customs such as keeping kosher. Charles Lindbergh never goes nearly as far as Hitler ever did, but Jewish people are still clearly facing persecution. This may support the in-universe Conspiracy Theory that he was only doing it due to blackmail from the Nazis, thus his heart really wasn't in it.
- Self-Insert Fic: A literal example, as the main character is Philip Roth himself as a preteen.
- Shown Their Work: Roth adds a long appendix featuring speeches, primary documents and reading recommendations to illustrate how much of the story draws from fact.
- The Un-Reveal: It is never revealed what happened to Lindbergh's plane. Did it crash? Was the plane sabotaged? Or was he kidnapped? And if yes, by whom? The British, desperate for American assistance? The Nazis, because Lindbergh wasn't pushing ahead with the anti-Semitic policies they wanted? Or members of the FBI and the armed forces who feared he would join the war on Germany's side? These theories are all presented in the book, but nobody knows which is correct.
- Wiki Walk: At times, the narration feels like one of these, what with the amount of information that Phil, the narrator gives. It sometimes gets to the point where the reader could conceivably forget what was going on plot-wise before the load of information given in the narration before it goes back to the events of the plot.