By Jillian Countey
It’s inauguration day and the celebrity won over the experienced politician. The man celebrated because his intense allegiance to true American values, traditions, and heritage mustered a strong tide of support from the mid-West and the South. The liberals didn’t see it coming and many Americans saw their worst fears of a backwards thinking, unprofessional president taking office. The Roths, a family of Jews from New Jersey, visit Washington DC, to watch their country come crumbling down. “It’s not like living in a real country anymore,” Bess Roth mutters to her husband as they walk by the White House.
No, this is not a scene from January of 2017, but an excerpt from the fictional author Philip Roth’s 2004 counterfactual novel, The Plot Against America. Roth’s novel presents an alternative history in which Franklin Roosevelt is defeated in the 1940 presidential election by Charles Lindbergh, the American aviation hero. Lindbergh, in the novel and in reality, is a household name known for making the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight. His solo trip from Long Island to Paris boosted Lindbergh from his obscure status as a U.S. air mail pilot to world fame. Before America had officially joined World War II in 1941, Lindbergh had become known as a Nazi sympathizer for praising Hitler’s government and joining the isolationist America First party. He was supported by many Americans who had rejected the idea of the US becoming involved in “Europe’s War.”
In Roth’s alternate universe, Lindbergh makes a surprise appearance on the the last night of the Republican National Convention and, to everyone’s surprise, is nominated by the Republicans to run for president. This “what-if” story lays out America’s fate where an isolationist celebrity becomes president. The novel’s premise holds many similarities to Donald Trump’s election last year. It also raises many of the same questions about American culture and politics that resulted from Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. People are now questioning whether America has really progressed when it comes to race, gender, and sex relations, and many are now realizing possible failures of democracy. Roth’s creepily prescient novel portrays a historical trend in American democracy that has allowed an infamous man to hold the most powerful position in our country and arguably the free world.
Roth senses the susceptibility of Americans to celebrity and the tyranny of the majority as a major weakness in American politics. Roth’s political novel exemplifies how Americans are vulnerable to unscrupulous politicians due to an unwarranted sense of freedom and trust in our political entities that stiffens our will to resist political depravities. The current breakdown of major party influence justifies Roth’s critique. Trump’s presidential candidacy and election has preyed on how indiscernible and corrupt our major parties have become. There are few differences in Republican and Democratic views, such as the opposing stances on abortion and gun control. The two parties even receive donations from the same entities, with few exceptions. The weakened bipartisan system has given Trump room to negotiate with both sides. During his candidacy, Trump drew some support from both parties. He appealed to the conservatives with his tax reform and an immigrant ban from Muslim countries connected to terrorism. For the liberals, he negotiated the debt ceiling, DACA, and even Obamacare.
Americans are more willing to remain politically illiterate and concentrate on their own individual needs than to sense a greater social reality due to a blind faith in a weak bipartisan system. This depressing truth of the American mentality explains why it’s not surprising that a celebrity, no matter how damaging his or her beliefs are, can be elected president. Trump and his supporters regard his political outsider persona as an asset. A celebrity candidate seems ideal due to their ability and willingness to spout the popular, unadulterated personal views that are often too crude for traditional politicians. Trump, like Lindbergh in Roth’s novel who fights for American values in the face of FDR’s push toward the war effort in Europe, claims to speak for the every man of America. The celebrity is a spokesperson who doesn’t subscribe to any single political ideology, molded by the layperson. Trump feeds on the approval of his supporters and tailors his language and ideas (without regard for how offensive or extreme they may be) to gain more support. He is the voice to the unheard majority – a voice usually ignored by politicians.
In his novel, Roth projects the dangerous results of a celebrity president. Lindbergh’s fictional presidency triggers a slew of anti-Democratic occurrences. While free speech is not officially banned, media critics who speak out against Lindbergh’s nazi-sympathizing views are assassinated. Lindbergh takes a stance against America entering the war by alienating Jewish citizens as Europeans who have infiltrated the US government and media, pushing the country toward a war that it has no reason to be in except to help “the Jewish cause.” Lindbergh’s outspokenness regarding an under-wraps, prejudice view of Jews held by many leads to open violence against Jews, including a string of pogroms across the country.
Lindbergh’s outspokenness popularized what was once underlying anti-Semitism in America, similarly to the way in which Trump’s fight against political correctness has made racism and sexism acceptable beliefs to hold. Prior to Trump’s candidacy, it was looked down upon to publicly state, “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one…When can we get rid of them?” However, this statement was made at a campaign town hall in New Hampshire on September 17, 2015. To this outburst from the crowd, Trump responded, “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things. You know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.” In the same way that Lindbergh had framed Jews as a danger to America and Hitler had framed them as a danger to Europe, Trump has scapegoated Muslims as the reasons for America’s problems. The religion of Islam has been morphed into the epicenter of terrorism and the threat to American freedom.
The Plot Against America reveals how daily life is invisibly, yet decisively, dependent on politics, especially the executive. It is impossible to separate the individual from politics. Roth’s family and Jewish neighborhood is destroyed by the election of Lindbergh. The ideals popularized and outspoken during his term destroys his identity as an American Jew. Trump’s presidency is on a path predicted by Roth in the early 2000s — one by which Americans will be forced to either fight for their individual freedoms or allow their democratic rights to slowly be destroyed by underlying fascist rule. Roth saves the American people in his book by killing off Lindbergh in a plane accident, allowing FDR to earn a third-term presidency and save democracy. Unfortunately, Roth’s authorial hand is not present in the real world to provide the deus ex machina needed to save America from such threats to the political world.