When HBO debuted its miniseries version of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, the implication was clear: The alternate history story in which Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940 and brings a version of Nazi-friendly fascism to America may not have had present-day echoes at the time it was published… But now?
After all, the United States has indeed gone on and elected a president who uses the slogan “America First,” and has frequently cozied up to both the most evil foreign despots and the most noxious domestic racists, who have set off a wave of overt anti-Semitic violence not seen in decades. The show even gives the president a collaborationist Jewish adviser (John Turturro’s Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf) who gets married while serving the president, just like Stephen Miller did.
And of course, the real-life president announced a temporary ban on immigration to the country… at the very moment the finale of The Plot Against America was airing.
I appreciated that the show lays out all of its echoes of the present (and, well, the president) without getting too cute about it
The six-part series, which wrapped up last month, was written by The Wire’s David Simon and Ed Burns, and centered on the Levin family, a Newark clan based on Roth’s own family. Morgan Spector and Zoe Kazan are the parents, with Caleb Malis and Azhy Robertson their sons. Meanwhile, the boys’ aunt (Winona Ryder) marries Bengelsdorf, the rabbi who launders Lindbergh’s views.
The Levins view the events of not-quite history, as Lindbergh runs against Franklin Roosevelt on an isolationist platform in 1940, and gets elected president. The U.S. doesn’t enter World War II, makes peace with the Nazi regime, and anti-Semitism surges at home, in part through a program that forces urban Jews to resettle in the heartland.
The modern-day echoes of the show really hit me in the third episode, when the Levin family visits Washington, D.C. It reminded me a lot of when my own family went to D.C. two summers ago.
I always love going to D.C., regardless of who the president is, but there was something different that time, something a lot more sinister, that felt a lot like the scene on the show. We even saw such disgusting sights as people in MAGA shirts taking selfies at the Lincoln Memorial.
The Plot Against America show had many virtues. The vintage ’30s theme song, “The Road Is Open Again,” is fantastic, and I get it in my head every time I think of the show. The period detail, and costumes, are perfect, and I was blown away with the performances, especially by Kazan and Spector – a stage actor who’s been a bit player on shows like Homeland.
More than that, I appreciated that the show lays out all of its echoes of the present (and, well, the president) without getting too cute about it. Simon’s a better writer than that, after all, and he also had a fine late-period Philip Roth novel to work with. It’s an unapologetically and uncompromisingly Jewish show, tune to the sort of dinner table arguments that happen in Jewish households even to this day.
Sure, the final episode ended a bit abruptly and ambiguously. And I wasn’t aware that the First Lady had the Constitutional power to unilaterally declare a new presidential election two years early. That part reminded me of one of those Twitter threads from 2017 laying out a scenario in which Trump, Pence, and the rest of the presidential line of succession was all impeached, somehow leading Hillary Clinton to assume the presidency.
Even so, The Plot Against America, which is still available to stream on HBO’s platforms, is a superlative work, and one of the works of fiction that has best grappled with the Trump era.