Philip Roth, who died Tuesday at 85, was a literary hero to a generation of readers and writers, myself among them.
I can remember reading “Goodbye, Columbus,” and, in particular, “Portnoy’s Complaint” in a kind of fever — astonished that a perfect stranger could articulate with such ruthless and tender precision the depraved contents of my mind.
Roth was known chiefly as a bard of the modern libido, distinctly masculine and most often Jewish.
But to me, the most important and haunting of his many works was one of his last, the 2004 novel “The Plot Against America.”
The story is simple enough: after eight years with a liberal democrat in office, the Republicans nominate at their 1940 convention a celebrity candidate who unexpectedly ascends to the presidency preaching a program of isolationism and barely veiled bigotry.
Lindbergh’s election astonishes most Americans, including our hero’s family, and they respond by repeatedly telling themselves that it won’t be that bad.
Once in office, the candidate — Charles Lindbergh — begins to impose anti-Semitic policies that feed on the fear and loathing that has always bubbled beneath the surface of America’s multi-cultural melting pot.
Roth eerily captures the partisan rancor that presages Lindbergh’s rise. His 7-year-old protagonist watches a newsreel of Franklin Delano Roosevelt giving a speech then observes that, “a good half of the movie audience booed and hissed while the rest, including my father, clapped as loudly as they could, and I wondered if a war might not break out right there on Broad Street in the middle of the day and if, when we left the darkened theater, we’d find downtown Newark a rubble heap of smoking ruins and fires burning everywhere.”
Lindbergh’s election astonishes most Americans, including our hero’s family, and they respond by repeatedly telling themselves that it won’t be that bad. This wishful complacency allows Lindbergh and his party to engineer a descent into our own worst national impulses. Before long, there is anti-Semitic rioting in the streets and Jews are being forcibly dispersed to rural areas.
What Roth intuited, back in 2004, was that a significant segment of our population, if sufficiently stoked by demagogues, would choose a politics of ethnic resentment over one of economic uplift. He can hardly have been shocked to witness the victory of a GOP candidate who has, to date, slandered Mexicans, incited violence at his rallies, trumpeted a travel ban on Muslims, and blithely signed executive orders that have torn immigrant families apart.
Like all great works of literature, “The Plot Against America” has become more and more prescient as the years pass — and ever more terrifying to read.
It is especially disturbing for those of us who were naïve enough to believe that the election of a moderate bi-racial man to the presidency signaled the end of American hate as an electoral strategy.
One need only gaze upon the White Supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, carrying torches and chanting Nazi slogans, or listen to the president’s stark refusal to condemn the chanters, to see much violent racism has been emboldened in our democracy.
We now have a sitting president who attacks our rule of law, our judicial system, and our free press on a daily basis, and gushes over authoritarian leaders.
The Plot Against America is happening right now. We are its central engineers.
The central lesson Philip Roth sought to impart in his last great novel is that the death of democracy as we know it will not come in some unforeseen ambush executed by terrorists, or a rogue nuclear power.
The Plot Against America is happening right now. We are its central engineers. It is our moral cowardice and complacency, or inability to recognize the historic peril of our moment, that leaves us vulnerable to the will of reckless men.
Roth tried to warn us more than a decade ago.
“As Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything,” he wrote. “Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”