A national celebrity who mounts a successful campaign to be President of the United States, running on a platform of strict isolationism and ‘America First’, stoking up religious and racial divisions, appealing to people’s worst nature with populist rhetoric, and slowly tearing the country apart, as it descends inexorably into a spiral of intolerance, hate crimes and killings.
It all sounds very much like a description of where America is presently at as a country. However, it also happens to be the basis of The Plot Against America, which is a six-part adaptation by HBO of Philip Roth’s novel of the same name. With the nation currently engaged in what appears to be a battle for its very soul, following the explosion of protests in the name of Black Lives Matter, and suspicions that the President isn’t acting in their best interests, it couldn’t be a more timely and relevant programme.
While the series was first announced back in November of 2018, the parallels with Trumpism are something which weren’t envisioned when the novel was first published back in 2004; at that point, the notion of a big name coming to hold the highest office in the land, then arguably seeming to subvert what the country’s ideals are couldn’t have been realistically envisioned. It just happens to have taken on a much greater significance in the last four years, capturing the zeitgeist unintentionally.
Roth’s The Plot Against America is set against a backdrop of a fictional – but quite plausible – alternative American history, covering the period from June 1940 to September 1942. In this timeline, the aviator Charles Lindbergh – a national hero ever since his famous non-stop crossing of the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927 – decides to run for President, as the Republican candidate against the Democratic incumbent, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was to vie for an unprecedented third term.
In our reality, Roosevelt defeated his challenger, Wendell Willkie, with 55% of the popular vote, plus a large margin of electoral college votes; in Roth’s tale, however, it was Roosevelt who was to lose, with Lindbergh becoming the Leader of the Free World. As Lindbergh campaigned on a policy of strict non-intervention in another World War, he comes to understandings with Germany and Japan to stay out of the conflict, resulting in the attack on Pearl Harbour not happening in December 1941.
Roth had managed to extrapolate this alternate history by using real events and facts, and then tweaking or nudging them gently, letting them play out to a logical conclusion. The real Lindbergh did indeed have a stance of strict non-involvement in what was to become World War II, joining a pressure group known as the America First Committee; he was also considered as a possible Presidential candidate for the isolationist America First Party in 1944.
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It was suspected that Lindbergh was a Nazi sympathiser, as some of his views on race and religion appeared to closely align with those of Hitler. Lindbergh would speak out about the Jewish community in America, claiming that they were seeking to drag the country into a global war, whilst at the same time proclaiming that he wasn’t anti-Semitic. He had made several trips over the years to Nazi Germany, and this led to further suspicion over his true loyalties.
In 1988, Roth’s The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography was published, following him from a young boy growing up in a Jewish family in New Jersey, right through to his career as a novelist. In his account, Roth recalled instances of violence towards other children in his neighbourhood being attacked just because they were Jewish. When he came to write The Plot Against America, Roth placed himself as the central character, writing an alternative autobiography which was based around 7 year old Philip and family members in this parallel world.
Roth uses young Philip and his various relations as a prism through which we get to view the increasingly hostile and un-American environment which builds up over the course of the two year period covered in the book. This is where there’s a very slight divergence between the print and TV versions, as on screen the family name is amended, going from Roth on the page to Levin. During the six instalments, Philip (Azhy Robertson) and his parents Bess (Zoe Kazan) and Herman (Morgan Spector) face becoming pariahs and outcasts in their homeland.
This is all due to Lindbergh’s policies and proclamations, yet he has very little of a direct role in the tale, and is confined mostly to the background; while he is a key figure in events, this isn’t his story, and we instead get to see all the horrors being borne out of his Presidency by the impact it has upon the Levins and their friends. It’s the dread that we get from seeing the slow creep towards people’s inhumanity coming to the fore, with racists and bigots feeling emboldened, in a way which sadly feels all-too familiar to us.
The closer examination of Lindbergh as a man, as opposed to the legend which has built up around him, has taken on a far greater resonance with our current moment, purely due to happenstance. With the recent tearing down of statues of historical figures, a conversation has begun about the exact nature of being a figurehead, and whether perceived heroic status means we carry on whitewashing their records, or we take an open and honest look at the sum total of who they were as people, taking into account the less agreeable and more unpleasant aspects of their characters.
Spread across around six hours of television in all, The Plot Against America is a slow burner, which feels only right as it gives us the chance to get to know the Levins intimately, making each gradual turn of the screw all the more awful and horrifying, as we see the growing impact on their lives, along with the sanctuary of their domesticity coming under increasing threat. It also means when there are incidents, these feel all the more shocking and pronounced, shaking us and the Levins in equal measure.
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The Plot Against America has been adapted for television by writing partners Ed Burns and David Simon, best known for shows like The Wire and Generation Kill. Having hailed from a Jewish family himself, Simon seems to know how to make the source material resonate with the audience, with the subject matter being rather uncomfortably close to his own heritage. Knowing the relevance of this to just where we are right now, Burns and Simon have managed to make this an essential part of this ongoing conversation relating to tolerance, and not giving in to fear or anger.
It helps there are such strong and compelling performances by the leads, backed up by notable turns from supporting cast members, including John Turturro and Winona Ryder, both of whom have significant parts to play in the events which unfold, through their characters’ involvement. The Plot Against America certainly deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible, with it delivering an essential and important parable on where our modern society could end up if we aren’t careful. Ultimately, love should always trump hate.
The Plot Against America comes to Sky Atlantic and NOW TV on 14th July, with all episodes available on Sky On-Demand.