There’s been a lot of chatter about dystopian novels of late. I cannot imagine why. I’ll save my take on 1984 for another time, but if you haven’t read Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. In the book, Charles Lindbergh is nominated by the GOP in 1940 and defeats Franklin Roosevelt on a platform of isolationism and appeasement with the help of Nazi Germany. In the real world, the Nazis were paying off prominent isolationist Senators who, despite the rhetoric, put America second and their wallets first. It all sounds painfully familiar, doesn’t it?
The 83-year-old Roth has retired from writing but shared his views about Trumpism via email with the New Yorker’s Judith Thurman. Below are some excerpts of their electronic epistolary exchange. Try saying that four times. Dare ya.
Roth wrote in the Times Book Review that “The Plot Against America” was not intended as a political roman à clef. Rather, he wanted to dramatize a series of what-ifs that never came to pass in America but were “somebody else’s reality”—i.e., that of the Jews of Europe. “All I do,” he wrote, “is to defatalize the past—if such a word exists—showing how it might have been different and might have happened here.”
Last week, Roth was asked, via e-mail, if it has happened here. He responded, “It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’ ”
It’s hard to argue that point. Trump has become the most successful flim-flam man in American history. In fact, his white nationalist regime has stolen our history and put it on a perilous path of putrid populism. I love the smell of alliteration in the morning.
Another quote from the great novelist:
“It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type—the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist—that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.
“I was born in 1933,” he continued, “the year that F.D.R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I’ve been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”
That’s a tremendous analysis of a very, very bad dude. Believe me.
I would love to hear Roth’s take on the brown eminence behind Trump, Steve Bannon. I’ve been shouting from the rooftops about Bannon since last summer. I’m glad people are finally taking notice of this sinister albeit rumpled figure. Trump is not only Putin’s useful idiot, he’s Bannon’s as well.
I’ll give Philip Roth the last word:
“My novel wasn’t written as a warning. I was just trying to imagine what it would have been like for a Jewish family like mine, in a Jewish community like Newark, had something even faintly like Nazi anti-Semitism befallen us in 1940, at the end of the most pointedly anti-Semitic decade in world history. I wanted to imagine how we would have fared, which meant I had first to invent an ominous American government that threatened us. As for how Trump threatens us, I would say that, like the anxious and fear-ridden families in my book, what is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”