When Philip Roth published his novel The Plot Against America it was 2004, shortly before George W. Bush’s re-election. The novel tells the story of an alternate history in which famed aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh was elected President in 1940 and took America to the brink of its own anti-Semitic fascist regime. At the time, critics saw the book as a broadside against Bush, a warning of what could happen if America gave in to patriotic fervour and forgot its multiethnic roots.
In the winter of 2020, HBO aired a miniseries version of Roth’s novel, adapted by The Wire and The Deuce scribe David Simon. Again, the story was seen as a criticism of a contemporary Republican president — in this case, Donald Trump. Sixteen years had passed, but once again there was a perception among a large number of people — not without cause — that America was on the precipe of sliding into a fascist dictatorship, of becoming the next Nazi Germany.
This seems to be a perennial fear in American politics. In 1935, Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here portrayed the rise of an American dictator. In the 1980s, pioneering graphic novels Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns imagined a dystopian future of eternal reign by Nixon and Reagan respectively. Of course, the American right wing has imagined even milquetoast Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as communist dictators in the making. The racial component of The Plot Against America is also a kind of democratic apocalypse. These texts envision a moment in which all the disguises of liberal, multi-racial democracy are thrown off and the naked face of the white supremacist state reveals itself.
And yet, there are some curious blind spots in The Plot Against America. In both versions of the story, the government’s persecution seems to be aimed entirely at Jews. When the administration implements Just Folks, a policy designed to disperse the Jewish population by sending them to rural locations, Roth’s eponymous narrator notes that despite its ostensible aim at occurring broad assimilation, the program has only targeted Jews, not African-Americnas or other ethnic groups. This observation is repeated in the series by Herman, the father of Roth’s childhood stand-in. Later in the novel, Roth writes of the black population of Harlem listening to barnstorming Jewish commentator Walter Winchell with disinterest: “a few laughed and a handful applauded but most remained respectfully dissatisfied, as though to work his way into their antipathies would requires his delivering a very different spiel.” Winchell notes that other minority groups could be next, but we never see this come to pass. This absence is even more notable when one considers David Simon’s history of creating shows like The Wire and Treme that featured heavily black casts.
But is it really credible that an American fascist movement wouldn’t target black people? While all the historical examples of anti-Semitism Roth incorporates into his work, from the beliefs of Henry Ford to the lynching of Leo Frank, are real, they also existed alongside a centuries-old apparatus for oppressing African-Americans through both official law and vigilante violence. Every prominent conservative since Goldwater has relied on conjuring racist images such as the welfare queen or the super-predator. Donald Trump initially made clumsy attempts to reach out to African-Americans but based his re-election campaign substantially on a promise to impose “law and order” on Black Lives Matters protests.
A good amount of this absence can be attributed to Roth’s antipathy to identity politics that were not his own, as expressed in 1990s novels like American Pastoral and The Human Stain. Even in The Plot Against America, Roth relates his Jews to the white settlers “who first poured through the Appalachian barrier into the favorite hunting grounds of the Delaware and Algonquin tribes”, not the Indigenous people they slaughtered. Moreover, it would be difficult to imagine an anti-black (or anti-Indigenous, anti-Asian, anti-Hispanic) American presidency as a dystopian departure, a dark what-if narrative. The degree of governmental racial violence throughout American history has varied, but there is always a continuity, not a sharp eruption.
The policies that the Lindbergh administration employs against Jews in The Plot Against America — forced separation of communities, employment discrimination, and spontaneous vigilante violence — have been used against other racial groups, as well as sexual and other minorities, for centuries. The real alternate history question is not “What if America had an explicitly racist government” but “What if it didn’t?”
My intention here is not to berate these works for not including every type of oppression under the sun. I very much enjoyed Simon’s TV series, which at times (such as a scene where Herman and young Sandy drive through a town with a burning building and a hooded Klansman having a banal argument with a local woman) captures the terrifying and surreal moments in which the established moral order seems to be in total freefall. But I do think that narratives like The Plot Against America train us to expect the emergence of oppression as a sudden, apocalyptic moment, where the troops roll in and democracy is officially ended. Such moments have, in fact, occurred in many countries. But just as often, violence and oppression can take place without a dramatic moment of transition.
I don’t fully agree with his article’s analysis, but Alex Hochuli describes capably the way in which we hunger for political events, be they positive or negative, that are as spectacular as our entertainment:
At a basic level, then, we should wonder if our favored fascist dystopia is not an attempt to make good on the projections of the culture industry, the reality of the contemporary emergency having failed to live up to its hyperreal expectations. The radical aspects of the Trump presidency were his tweeting and his grating bravado; the rest, continuity — the same deportations, tax cuts, and wars as before. To adapt our political views to Hollywood schemas, we choose to imagine that the mundane degradation of politics is actually fascism, or that the real fascism, the real disaster, the real dystopia, will emerge next time around.
Those left-wing prophecies of doom — that Bush would institute martial law, that Trump would cancel the elections — always offer a future moment at which it would be time to take to the streets, when the final battle between good and evil could take place. This is the same apocalyptic fantasy that powers QAnon, although supported by much falser and more ludicrous evidence. We did have a moment like this, the occupation of Capitol Hill by Trump supporters, but it was a first-time-as-farce events, the would-be coupists ultimately accomplishing little more than photo-ops and finally getting their patron banned from Twitter. When the apocalyptic moment arrived, it turned out that the four horsemen were a couple hundred Facebook-addled boomers. The orderly transition of power happened after all — and the new president quickly affirmed that ICE would more or less continue doing what it wanted.
To limit America’s racism to dystopian scenarios is also to imagine that it can be vanished with a vote. In Roth’s book, Roosevelt is ultimately returned to power in a special election, and history return to its normal course, with Pearl Harbor happening weeks later. Simon’s adaptation leaves more ambiguity, with suggestion that the vote may have been rigged. (You may remember that, in the distant realms of five months ago, it was Democrats who were worried about election fraud.) But both ultimately present a change in administration as the resolution to an era of racial discrimination.
The dystopian narrative has its merits, and both versions of The Plot Against America are powerful for the family dynamics that drive the story, its examination of how members of minorities become complicit with oppressors, and the way it highlights historical anti-Semitism. But we also need to find ways to narrate the slow institutional slide of rights, and the ways that injustice can persist for generations. Such narratives may not provide the visceral satisfaction of dystopias, but they would be more revealing of our world.