I’d be hard pressed to name a favorite of the eight or so books by Philip Roth that I’ve read, but I wouldn’t hesitate at all to name the one that comes to mind most often: The Plot Against America. It affected me strongly when I first read it, and now it seems terrifyingly, but usefully, prescient.

Roth takes a few facts as his foundation and spins an all-too-possible alternative history from them. Those facts: Charles Lindbergh, son of a Minnesota Congressman, and a national hero for his solo transatlantic flight, ardently opposed a United States entry into the Second World War. He was a member of the anti-interventionist America First organization; unlike the organization, he was also anti-Semitic and a lifelong advocate of “racial purity.” His sense that Russia was a greater threat than Germany was not so much about fearing Communism more than fascism, but about his preferring the Nordic to the “semi-Asiatic”; he hoped that the U.S. and Germany would unite to oppose the “semi-Asiatic” Russia. He did support U.S. entry into the war after Pearl Harbor, as did many America-Firsters (the organization disbanded immediately after the attack), and fought bravely in the Pacific. But by then, he had set himself up as an opponent of the three forces he saw as agitating for war: the British, the Roosevelt Administration, and the Jews. He and Henry Ford were longtime friends, drawn together in part by their anti-Jewish paranoia. Lindbergh was also a candidate for the Republican nomination in the 1936 presidential election. The only scrap of this paragraph that I learned in school was that he was the first person to fly solo and nonstop across the Atlantic.

The Plot Against America proposes that Lindbergh wins the 1940 Republican nomination and goes on to defeat FDR. With the anti-interventionist in office, the U.S. stays out of the war; those who do want to fight the Nazis must flee to Canada and join the despised (by President Lindbergh) British forces. With a vocal anti-Semite as President, Henry Ford’s racial theories are given free rein and U.S. Jews have an increasingly uncertain and frightened existence, like immigrants and Muslims in 2018. Roth fills the novel with specific detail by focusing on the experiences of one family–“his” family–in Newark, New Jersey.

It’s a portrait of a nation gradually sinking beneath an internal sea of fascism. Last week, the president suggested that people who peacefully protest racial injustice should maybe just not be in our country; his administration pursued a policy of asking teachers to report students without documents and another of removing children from any undocumented adults; it was revealed that 20% of the children thus removed are either unaccounted for, or so terrified of the government that is supposed to be their guardian that they have gone into hiding; and the administration has repeatedly accused the investigators of foreign interference in a presidential election of employing “spies.”

In the middle of it, Philip Roth died, and for all his fear of death, was probably glad to shake the dust of Trump’s United States off his feet. But before he went, he weighed in on the nation’s tumble toward the dystopia he had so vividly envisioned. The parallels between Lindbergh and Trump were considerable, he said, but with this difference:

Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also . . . an authentic American hero . . . [a] courageous young pilot . . . . Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac. (New York Times, January 16, 2018)

Lindbergh’s fictional rise to power is more probable than that of a multiply-bankrupt self-promoter who only regained wealth and a household name by parodying himself on a game show about business, and you’d think that it would be easier to both see through Trump and get him out of office. But so far, that sea is still threatening to take the whole country under. If you’re looking for insight into how it happens and what we can do about it, in the marvelous prose of the writer who came up with that phrase “the evil sum of his deficiencies,” or you’re just looking for an excellent novel for your summer reading, check out The Plot Against America.

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