One of the first routines of my little quarantine group (husband, son, niece) was to watch HBO’s "Plot Against America," an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel.
The book and the television series depicted an alternative past in which aviator, celebrity and Nazi medal-awardee Charles Lindbergh, who declared before WWII that "British and Jewish propaganda" could push the United States into another European war – beats the incumbent Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 to become the 33rd president of the United States. The six-part series, which aired on Monday nights, began in synchrony with our coronavirus sheltering-in-place.
On April 20, we watched the last episode, a cliff-hanger that left open how far the re-imagined United States would head down the path to fascism. As we mused about the ending, Trump’s latest tweet appeared. "In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens,” Trump thundered, "I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States."
For a chilling moment, I wasn’t sure what timeline I was living in. I had just read a Forward article explaining that "Invisible Enemy" has been used as code for Jew during the time of plagues and in the notorious anti-Semitic screed, Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I also knew that anti-Semitism and high unemployment led the United States to limit immigration in the 1930s, pushing the nation deeper into depression.
In "The Plot Against America," Lindbergh, the imagined candidate, runs his presidential campaign on the tenets of the real-life Lindbergh’s America First movement. The campaign’s slogan: "Vote for Lindbergh, or vote for war."
When Lindbergh wins, his administration implements isolationism, refusing aid to Great Britain in its battle with Germany and arresting Americans who violate the nation’s neutrality. The Lindbergh White House trumpets home-grown fascism, targeting Jews in particular for being outsiders to the American mainstream.
A strength of Roth’s novel and the HBO series is that it doesn’t plop German outrages onto an American landscape; instead, it shows fascism surely and steadily reshaping American life. Jewish children are sent to spend summers with non-Jewish families living far from the coasts to experience fresh air and farm work (to blow away their urban, cosmopolitan character) as well as the "real" America. The hope is that the children will reject first their Jewishness and then their parents.
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Jewish employees of large companies are re-located to branch offices in the mid-west and south where they will be the only Jews in the community – an imaginary evocation of real life Johns Hopkins President, advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt and overt anti-Semite Isaiah Bowman’s plan to "spread the Jews thin" to dissipate their power.
Roth wrote "The Plot Against America" way before Trump’s presidency could be imagined, let alone realized (which explains why mini-series creator, David Simon, departed from the novel’s ending.) If Roth could not imagine a Trump (in interviews before his 2018 death, the novelist insisted his president had been, at one point, a true hero, whereas Trump was, in his words, a "humanly impoverished con-man"), Trump could draw upon a Lindbergh.
Beginning with his campaign, Trump has summoned both the language and spirit of America First. He regularly deploys the term, including in his inaugural address. Whether Trump uses "America First" out of calculation, knowing full well its historical resonances, or out of base instinct, is beside the point.
By now, it’s certainly been pointed out to him that America First encompasses not only policies he has fully embraced – rejection of international agreements, opposition to immigration, support for extreme nationalism – but also the anti-Semitism with which until now, he has merely flirted. The same can be said of his use of the term "invisible enemy" to describe the virus now threatening us. He relishes an enemy to rail against, and he doesn’t mind evoking an anti-Semitic trope to do it.
Which is why it was so unsettling to have the alternative universe of "America First" and the real world of "Invisible Enemy" collide as I sat on my couch on a Monday evening. Soon I, and to a lesser extent the president (he suspended some, not all, immigration) came to our senses.
In 2020, the opposition in America is strong, as evidenced by the post-2016 election cycles and numerous polls. The press is robust, if under constant attack and too often misguided. (Airing campaign speeches barely disguised as COVID-19 briefings is the most recent, and galling, offense). Citizens are free to express themselves in private and in our new public squares, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. While some types of religion – evangelical Christianity and conservative Catholicism – are heralded, less favored faiths still worship as they please.
Jews face ugly and sometimes violent assaults, but so far Trump has not fostered or condoned these attacks directly. Instead, his response has been to refuse to denounce anyone who supports him, even when they traffic in anti-Semitic rhetoric and symbolism.
His support for protestors who stormed Michigan’s capitol building last week – calling them "good people" – is the latest in a long line that includes a habit of re-tweeting white nationalists, and his "very fine people, on both sides," comments about violent neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
The heartbreaking exception to the much bluster, little bite approach has been his policies toward immigrants, which have been cruel, relentless and all-too real.
The question now is whether the plague and the prospects of a second term transform bloviation into brutal action. The most terrifying part of Trump’s April 20 tweet was his assertion that the "need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens" requires an end to immigration. Using unemployment in this way not only generates public support for limiting immigration, it also creates hatred of the immigrant and anyone else who doesn’t (subjectively) fit the definition of being a GREAT American citizen.
That is what happened in 1930s America with devastating consequences. The demagogic use of joblessness fed anti-Semitism, blocked entry for many Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe, and most likely worsened the economic depression by limiting demand.
Trump has often raised the specter of immigrants stealing Americans’ jobs. But with the unemployment rate low during his first three years, the concerns were mostly about the lack of good jobs and a fear for the future. The future is now here and thanks to coronavirus, far worse than our worst fears.
Roth’s novel presented a possibility. Simon’s series issued a warning. Will this generation be the witnesses to the execution of the plot against America?
Laurel Leff is Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Associate Director of Jewish Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. Her most recent book is Well Worth Saving: American Universities' Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe (Yale University Press, December 2019)