Stranger in a strange land

Philip Roth's alternate history of a fascist United States is scary, because it's almost true

Katrina Wilber

When will we wake up?

“The Plot Against America” is akin to the middle of a nightmare. All you can do is pray you awaken and realize, thankfully, it was just a bad dream.

Written by acclaimed author Philip Roth, “The Plot Against America” is a fictional account of what happens to the world after aviation hero Charles Lindbergh defeats incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. The term of this 33rd leader of the United States is fraught with deception, deceit and terror, and those who suffered the most in Europe suffer the most in the United States.

The anti-Semitic President Lindbergh forms alliances with Japan and Hitler’s Nazi Germany, effectively cementing the United States’ place in the “Axis of Evil” and sending fear throughout the Jewish population in the United States.

Roth creates a world so detailed and so historically possible that one would swear it’s a work of nonfiction. The real-life characters involved, from Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia to Walter Winchell, add enough weight to the book to make it seem like the U.S. equivalent of Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” It’s another story of a child caught in the clutches of politics and war. Fictional politics, yes, but politics nevertheless.

The narrator, a 7-year-old boy who, perhaps coincidentally, is named Philip Roth, describes the events from June 1940 to October 1942 with alarming clarity. His childlike optimism is crushed by the disturbing events that no one, especially in the land of the free and the home of the brave, should be forced to witness or endure.

“The Plot Against America” is not merely a novel of what could have been. It’s a tale of the loss of democracy in the most famous democracy in the world. It’s a story of swastikas in the White House; it’s a story of pogroms in the Midwest instead of Eastern Europe. It seems outrageous to those of us who would say “It can’t happen here.” It seems preposterous that violent, deadly discrimination would happen in the open-armed United States, until you remember our sordid history of slavery, Jim Crow and persistent oppression of immigrants and minorities.

In the documented U.S. history, however, the Republicans actually nominated a lawyer named Wendell Wilkie to run against Roosevelt, but Roosevelt easily carried the election. Through a series of events even more outrageous than the election of Lindbergh as president in Roth’s account, Roosevelt ends up back in the White House, democracy is restored and the world is back to where we know it to be.

Roth has written a novel that brings home the violence of anti-Semitism. After a surprise move by Lindbergh, rioters in the Midwest and the South kill more than 100 Jews. That’s supposed to be the stuff of newspapers from overseas, not the headlines in The New York Times or the Washington Post.

“The Plot Against America” is a tale of democracy gone horribly, tragically wrong. The nightmarish events in the new, fascist-leaning United States show it really could happen here. Again.