The afterglow is soon wiped off their faces as Roth's father is labeled--like Winchell--a "loudmouth Jew" for sounding off against President Lindbergh and learns, as does the entire brood, that Lincoln's breadth of spirit no longer blesses the land, which is turning to quicksand beneath them. Institutions that seemed so solid and permanent--the Congress, the Supreme Court, a free press--depend on the willingness of men and women to honor the Constitution and the laws of the land. Once those ideals are no longer honored, once checks and balances are swept off the table with a swing of the arm, nothing stands between citizens and the state. The Kafka machinery in motion, American Jews have their liberties amputated bit by bit, forcibly assimilated by the Office of American Absorption as children are wrested from their parents and dispersed into the heartland, where they can learn how to milk elk. One unfortunate packed off to the boonies is Phil's schoolmate Seldon, the novel's designated schnook upon whom every misfortune befalls. Seldon's father is terminally ill, his death rattle reverberating through the house: "[He] coughed so frequently and with so much force that there seemed to be not one father but four, five, six fathers in there coughing themselves to death." After his father dies and Seldon is shipped off to Kentucky, his mother meets her own tragic end while the unsuspecting kid yammers over the phone about Fig Newtons and chess and having no friends to invite to his birthday party. Nudged across the page with tender exasperation, Seldon is everything a typical Roth character isn't--guileless, slow on the uptake, trusting; a kick-me patsy who is memorialized in the final paragraph as the orphan victim "shattered by the malicious indignities of Lindbergh's America."
It's the phrase "malicious indignities" that arrows to the heart of our heartless time, flash-forwards to the string of shabby degradations that affront us daily, when Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland can be mocked for the loss of his limbs, Christopher Reeve disparaged in death for championing stem-cell research, hostage Kenneth Bigley criticized by conservatives for the "ignoble and unmanly" pleas that his life be spared, 9/11 widows maligned as publicity junkies, George Soros slandered by the editorial-page editor of the Washington Times as "a Jew who figured out a way to survive the Holocaust" and Michelle Malkin given generous airtime to defend the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and propose new camps for suspicious Muslims--it just never stops. Apart from a funny-rueful exchange that finds Phil wondering aloud, What about the Democrats, can't they do something?, to which his father replies, "Son, don't ask me about the Democrats. I'm angry enough as it is," Roth doesn't make overexplicit the parallels between America's fall to fascism under Lindbergh and Bush's fear-based presidency. He doesn't need to. The parallels are so richly implicit, they vibrate like harp strings, dissolving the distance between then and now, fact and fiction.
Some reject the parallels. Bill Kauffman in The American Conservative condemns Roth for dragging Lindbergh and the case for isolationism through the muck, calling The Plot Against America "the sort of novel a bootlicking author might write to curry favor with a totalitarian government." Benjamin Anastas in Bookforum more temperately chastises Roth for not recognizing the real plot against America, "one with targets and objectives we know all too well," hatched by terrorists abroad, not fascists within. And Stanley Crouch diagnoses Roth on Salon as afflicted with historical Alzheimer's for deliberately ignoring the racism against black Americans during the 1940s. "How could this book pass everyone at Roth's publisher without the unmentioned smell of burning flesh filling room after room until someone raised a question about the stench for which the novel had cut off its nose in order to avoid acknowledging?" Philip Roth, he gives, and gives, and gives, writing himself to the bone, and this is the thanks he gets--aggravation! He doesn't even get nominated for a National Book Award! But the ravenous sales of The Plot Against America (rare for a work of literary fiction) may signal that an inflection point in the political mood has been reached, a desire to face the fear of the past four years without flinching. "Fear is an instructor of great sagacity and the herald of all revolutions," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. "One thing he teaches, that there is rottenness where he appears. He is a carrion crow, and though you see not well what he hovers for, there is death somewhere. That obscene bird is not there for nothing. He indicates great wrongs which must be revised." And malicious indignities which must be redressed.