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Literature / The Plot Against America

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An Alternate History novel written by Philip Roth and published in 2004. There's a live-action adaptation Mini Series, produced by HBO and written by David Simon and Ed Burns, the creators of The Wire, which aired in March 2020.

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 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 Hawaiʻi.

However, The Plot Against America diverges from actual history beginning with the Republican National Convention that met concerning the 1940 election, at which aviator Charles Lindbergh, instead of Willkie, is depicted as becoming 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. Consequently, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America's subequent entrance into World War II are averted. Antisemitism continues to spread, meanwhile, as the alliance between the American and Nazi governments strengthens.

Meanwhile, Philip Roth is a preteen Jewish boy who must cope with the ever-growing antisemitism 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, his brother Sandy is turned against 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.
  • Artistic License – Politics: Having lost in a general election, there's no way Roosevelt would have been "restored" to the Presidency, at least not until the next Presidential election, in 1944. The designated order of succession following President and Vice President (at the time) would have been Secretary of State, and on down through the Cabinet posts, in the order in which their departments were established.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Eventually, history gets back on track, with FDR resuming the presidency just before Pearl Harbor – which comes a year later – and the Nazis are defeated. Everyone still pays the price, however. Many of the antisemitic rioters pull off a Karma Houdini, including the Ku Klux Klan members who killed Seldon's mother. It is never revealed just why Lindbergh turned Nazi or vanished, although theories abound. Mrs. Roth and Evelyn only reconcile to the point that Evelyn can stay at their house until it's safe. And Seldon and many other children are traumatized by the experience, as Philip muses on whether the tragedies could have been avoided.
  • Break the Haughty: Aunt Evelyn is reduced from a smug Category Traitor to a dirty, desperate disheveled woman on the run. Her own sister turns her away, so she has to hide in the Roths' basement to avoid arrest. Mrs. Roth and Philip later think this is punishment enough for being a conspirator.
  • Central Theme: Where’s the line between turning a blind eye to something horrible happening and being an active participant in it?
  • 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!
  • The Dog Bites Back: After witnessing all of the injustices and absurdities that her own sister and brother-in-law are enabling, which includes brainwashing Jewish kids with propaganda, it is satisfying when Mrs. Roth calls out Aunt Evelyn for being a Category Traitor and only showing up when she's desperate and in need of help.
  • A Friend in Need: Mr. Roth and Sandy drive to rescue Seldon when his mother is killed in the purges. Philip, despite not liking the other boy, is determined to take care of him as well until he is emotionally healed.
  • 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 to readers who are unaware that Lindbergh held such views and mainly know of him as a celebrity aviator. Roth does soften this a bit by implying that Lindbergh is coerced into implementing his pro-German policies.
    • Even more so the portrayal of Lindbergh's Vice President, Burton K. Wheeler. The real man, though opposing US entry into the war, was a well-known progressive who had exposed the Teapot Dome scandal in the '20s, consistently supported labor unions and worker's rights and backed Roosevelt's New Deal policies until breaking with FDR over his "court packing" plan in 1937. Wheeler did associate himself with Lindbergh and America First (though following Pearl Harbor he enthusiastically supported the war), but he isn't known to have expressed any of the bigoted or pro-fascist sentiments attributed to him in the novel.
  • Humble Pie: Evelyn tries brown-nosing with Nazis in power to maintain a higher social standing. She starts the climax pathetically begging her sister to hide her from the politicians and police that arrested her husband. Mrs. Roth kicks her out, understandably. She only acquiesces on learning Philip was feeding Evelyn in the basement, and her sister had fallen ill.
  • 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.
  • Mama Bear: After seeing Sandy fall victim to the Antisemitic propaganda, Mrs. Roth yells at her sister for trying to appeal to Philip's mercy. She says that Evelyn is not taking another of her children.
  • 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 Nazis, who had kidnapped his son (who is thought to have been killed). Note however this is never proved. In any case, while antisemitic policies are begun by Lindbergh, they're much milder than what the Nazis did, which indicates the theory may be correct.
  • 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. Though Lindbergh never goes nearly as far as Hitler did, American Jews 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, and his heart really wasn't in it.
  • Rage-Breaking Point: Philip's mother has been tolerating her sister's simpering and collaborating with the Nazis. She refuses to help, however, when Evelyn shows up on her doorstep begging for safety as her husband and older son Sandy are going to pick up the son of a family friend, as riots and purges are going on. Mrs. Roth tells off Evelyn for only coming when she needs to escape from the fascist state she created, yelling at Evelyn for trying to appeal to Philip's mercy. As she puts it, Evelyn already ensured that the Roths lost Sandy to propaganda and she's not taking their other son.
  • Sacred Hospitality: Despite himself and his mother's reaction, Philip sneaks food to Evelyn when she hides out in the basement. Eventually, Mrs. Roth finds out and lets Evelyn stay for a short while.
  • 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 Unreveal: 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 antisemitic 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.