The HBO miniseries The Plot Against America, which wraps up after six episodes next week, is timely and urgent—but these very qualities might work against it. Audiences in hard times are notorious for their love of light entertainment. There is a reason musical comedies flourished during the Great Depression and Tiger King is currently a hit for Netflix. Stress naturally breeds a desire for art that is diverting, whether it be sprightly or crass.
Based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name and adapted by David Simon and Ed Burns, the miniseries has many virtues, but it cannot honestly be described as escapist fare. In fact, the theme of the series is that escape is impossible.
An alternative history, the series is set in a world where Charles Lindbergh won the presidency on an isolationist platform in 1940. The aviator politician goes on to make an informal alliance with Nazi Germany while stirring up anti-Semitism at home. A major decision faced by the Jewish characters in the story is whether to stay in an increasingly hostile America or seek refuge in Canada. Over time, that choice becomes foreclosed as the borders are sealed. The series airs at a time when Donald Trump is trafficking in anti-Chinese sentiments and the border to Canada is closed for all but essential travel because of Covid-19.
A drama about an America that is rapidly unraveling under the misrule of a bigoted president who uses the slogan “America First” is not ideal relief for anyone hoping for a break from today’s news cycle.
Philip Roth’s novel appeared at the peak period of liberal angst about George W. Bush, and many reviewers took it as a direct political allegory. Roth adamantly rejected this interpretation, saying that the novel riffed off a passage that he found in the memoirs of the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., about the political push behind Lindbergh in 1940.
Roth used the scenario of a Lindbergh victory as a way to reinvigorate the autobiographical roots of his fiction, his memories of growing up Jewish in Newark, New Jersey. The novel is narrated by an alternative universe Philip Roth, who has the same family as the real Roth: the hectoring paterfamilias Herman, the doting mother Bess, the rebellious older brother Sandy. But these real, live people, familiar from not just Roth’s fiction but also autobiographical works like Patrimony (1991), are put into a fantastic situation, one that tests their family unity.
The scenario of a Lindbergh victory allows for a new twist on a time-tested Rothian theme: the tension between Jewish communal identity and American individualism. In earlier works, Roth had often taken the side of individual self-expression against claims of ethnic identity. Roth’s alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman robustly asserts his right to pen filthy novels even if they upset the rabbis and Jewish elders. Zuckerman, Roth’s novels asserts, is no less a Jew for being a rebel: He’s the very type of Jew that can flourish under American freedom.
But Roth was never ideologically programmatic, and in The Plot Against America he decided to test his own preferences against a scenario where Jewishness and Americanness are at odds. Much of the drama of Roth’s novel derives from the arguments among Jews about what to do in that situation.
I’ve often thought Philip Roth should have been named Philippic Wroth since his characters love bitter verbal jousting. The strongest aspect of the HBO series is that it has kept the ideological battles of the novel, which have only become more salient in the Trump era.
In The Plot Against America, the Roth family (renamed Levin in the series) starts coming apart under the stress of a crypto-fascist president. In the series more than in the novel, the tensions mirror the political divisions of our times. Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) is a kind of resistance liberal, dreaming of an FDR restoration and as much addicted to Walter Winchell’s dunking on Lindbergh as his 21st century counterparts enjoy anti-Trump jabs on MSNBC. Herman’s nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) is an antifa direct-action leftist, eager for street battles with Nazis. Alvin eventually joins the Canadian army to fight Hitler. Herman’s wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) shares his anti-Lindbergh feelings but is more pragmatic, believing that flight to Canada is the best solution. Other members of Herman’s family (his businessman brother Monty, his son Sandy, his sister-in-law Evelyn Frankel) are more accommodating of Lindbergh for a variety of reasons: He’s good for the stock market, he’s an attractive hero, he kept America out of war).
Perhaps the most interesting character in the series is Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (zestfully played by John Turturro), who becomes a court Jew in the Lindbergh administration. Oleaginous, ingratiating, and pompous, Bengelsdorf is a common type in the Trump era: the political climber who is willing to make excuses for an obviously unfit leader, someone willing to soil their reputation in order to gain the ear of the powerful. One of the most effective scenes in the miniseries features Bengelsdorf at a state dinner for Joachim von Ribbentrop, where the rabbi’s habitual chumminess crumbles in contact with unvarnished racism.
If Philip Roth’s novel had a major problem, it was that he was unwilling to fully commit to the alternative history he imagined. Unlike science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick, Roth didn’t want to grapple with a possible world where fascism wins a lasting victory. While Roth does give his characters permanent traumas (Alvin’s missing leg, Philip’s lifelong fear), he also contrived a too-elaborate plot that allows FDR to resume the presidency and the allies to win World War II. This ending negates much that came before, turning the book into an “it was all a dream” story. (This was a familiar tactic for the novelist. Roth had the same narrative cowardice in Operation Shylock, where the fantastical plot turns out to be a byproduct of medical delirium).
Roth’s unwillingness to imagine a lasting triumph for Lindbergh is an outgrowth of the optimism of his generation. In the notes to The Plot Against America, Roth cites the stalwart arbiters of mid-century history: Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Hofstadter, Henry Steele Commager. These were historians who spoke for the vital center. While they acknowledged that extremists like Lindbergh were important, they also saw the far right as being fundamentally outside the mainstream of American life, which was pragmatic and cautiously liberal.
Amid the wreckage of the Trump presidency, it’s hard to be so positive that the vital center can return. Fittingly, the David Simons and Ed Burns adaptation of the novel ends on a more ambiguous note than the novel. In the ending of his novel, Roth prefigured one of the worst features of resistance liberalism: its fantasy of a return to normality after a brief fascist interlude. The miniseries, to its credit, avoids this false consolation.