I don’t know how it was received in 2004, but in 2020 Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America reads like The Great American Novel of Our Times—a book written for our present moment. It tells the tale of an American celebrity politician, Charles A. Lindbergh, who consorts with the Nazi government in the run up to World War II to keep America out of it. With the pacifist agenda of staying out of the war, Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 election, and deals with American Jews in his own way—installing government programs designed to “assist” them to “assimilate” into the broader American society.
At the center of the story is the Roth family, and the narrator-protagonist is young Philip. After Lindbergh is elected, the family takes a trip to Washington, DC to see the monuments, and hears half-hushed comments from strangers about the “loudmouth Jew” father who likes Roosevelt and can’t stop saying so, openly to his children in what’s now decidedly Lindbergh country. After that the older teenage brother, Sandy, a gifted artist, is “invited” by a government program to spend a summer working on a farm in Kentucky. He returns with tales of eating pork, harvesting the tobacco crop, loving all of it and thinking Lindbergh is the answer. Alvin, the even-older cousin who lives with the Roths after losing his own parents, doesn’t trust anything about Lindbergh; he travels to Canada and signs up to fight Hitler and the Nazis in the European theater. Young Philip isn’t sure what to think, given that his father is vehemently opposed to Lindbergh, seeing him as a Nazi collaborator who has it in for America’s Jews.
Into the family circle comes one Rabbi Bengelsdorf, an official in the Lindbergh administration who helped Lindbergh get elected by “koshering Lindbergh to the goyim,” as Alvin had put it, preaching in the largest temples about his confidence in the candidate’s bona fides toward America’s Jews. Philip’s aunt—his mother’s sister—now works for and eventually marries the much older Bengelsdorf, all of which adds to the many cross-currents that are confusing young Philip and tearing the family apart.
"A rabbi was a rabbi, but Alvin meanwhile was [battling] Hitler, and in my own house—where I was supposed to wear anything except my good clothes—I had to put on my one tie and my one jacket to impress the very rabbi who helped to elect the president whose friend was Hitler."
In short order, Lindbergh’s government assists in the rejuvenation of the German-American Bund, a formerly pro-Nazi organization now trimmed out as an anti-Communist movement, “as anti-Semitic as before, openly equating Bolshevism with Judaism in propaganda handouts and harping on the number of ‘prowar Jews’” in a rally that fills Madison Square Garden, featuring lapel buttons reading “KEEP AMERICA OUT OF THE JEWISH WAR”.
All of which leads, eventually, to a government-sanctioned forced-relocation of American Jews across the land. As Walter Winchell, the muckraking lone voice in the American media’s treatment of the Lindbergh administration, has been saying all along:
"Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press! Flash! To the glee of rat-faced Joe Goebbels and his boss, the Berlin Butcher, the targeting of America’s Jews by the Lindbergh fascists is officially under way. The phony moniker for phase one of organized Jewish persecution in the land of the free is ‘Homestead 42’. . . . Two hundred and twenty-five Jewish families have already been told to vacate the cities of America’s northeast in order to be shipped thousands of miles from family and friends. This first shipment has been kept strategically small in order to escape national attention. Why? Because it marks the beginning of the end for the four and a half million American citizens of Jewish descent. The Jews will be scattered far and wide to wherever Hitlerite America Firsters flourish."
It doesn’t stop there. The plot thickens, hordes of hooligans appear everywhere, a few patriots here and there. A long, rambling account is given by our young narrator, Philip, of what he did and thought and dreamed to cloud out the seemingly endless nightmare he was living through.
Positioned at the end of the novel is a nearly thirty-page Postscript, which helpfully separates fact from fiction, with true accounts of all the primary historic players, and shorter notes on other real persons who figure in the narrative.
Finally, a request. I’ve dipped into Roth’s catalogue only a few times. The first was American Pastoral, which on one level is a baseball book and on another his best work, according to some. I didn’t get through it, for whatever reason. Later, I did enjoy both Everyman and The Ghost Writer, and the experience of reading The Plot Against America has me looking for another in the near future. Any recommendations out there? Just hit the Comment button (or write me an email) and let me know.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .