BY Ian Bourland in Reviews | 09 APR 20

Is ‘The Plot Against America’ a Warning about the 2020 US Election?

The new HBO series imagines a celebrity, Nazi-sympathizing president and election fraud in the 1940s 

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BY Ian Bourland in Reviews | 09 APR 20

David Simon and Ed Burns, The Plot Against America, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist and HBO; photograph: Michele K Short - © HBO

It’s difficult to overstate the appeal of Charles Lindbergh across the US during the 1930s. In 1927, the dashing aviator completed the first transatlantic solo flight, connecting New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis. Five years later, he garnered public sympathy when his son was abducted and murdered, a cause célèbre that dominated headlines during the Great Depression. Lindbergh lived in Europe from 1935–39 – where he was honoured with a medal by Adolf Hitler in 1938 – and it was later revealed that the US Republican Party had considered running him in 1940 as a presidential candidate against Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lindbergh would have proven a formidable competitor: a celebrity candidate generally allied with fascist interests, running on an isolationist ‘America First’ platform. He was also anti-Semitic in his outlook. Rather than turning the tides against the Third Reich, under Lindbergh America might have remained complicit in the atrocities overseas, a self-interested and decadent client state.

This vision is at the centre of the current HBO limited series, The Plot Against America, adapted from the 2004 novel by Phillip Roth. The book, like the series, tells the story of the years 1940–42 through Roth’s clear-eyed memories of his childhood in Newark’s Jewish community. In contrast to other works of speculative fiction – notably Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), in which the Axis powers have won the war – Roth does not concern himself with a broad historical sweep. Instead, he focuses on the life of a single family, through which a range of debates around nationalism, politics and immigrant identity are refracted in finely drawn characters. The Plot Against America presents not a lurid dystopia, but a more quotidian realism. After all, history only exists in abstract retrospect; what we have are the small moments and quiet choices in our private corners of the world.

David Simon and Ed Burns,, The Plot Against America, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist and HBO © HBO

The HBO series is part of an ongoing collaboration between the premium network and writer/producer David Simon of The Wire (2002–08), Treme (2010–13) and The Deuce (2017–2019), with his frequent co-writer Ed Burns. It is a good fit for Simon, a former journalist who has built a television career carefully detailing the lives of communities at the margins of the American dream – from the African American and working class enclaves of post-industrial Baltimore, to musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans, to sex workers in 1970s Hell’s Kitchen in New York – and the dysfunctional institutions that routinely fail them. Roth’s book is as much about the debates within the pre-Israel Jewish diaspora as it is about its counterfactual conceit. For Simon, these questions of assimilation and cultural identity – or who counts as authentically ‘American’ – offer avenues to elaborate his ongoing interrogation of the country’s promise as a pluralistic democracy.

In this sense, the adaptation of The Plot Against America is no mere translation from one format to another: it is a different undertaking altogether. For one, the US political landscape caromed dramatically in the ensuing 15 years. When the novel was released, publishers teased it as a ‘post-9/11’ allegory, and many critics interpreted it as such, especially in light of former president George W. Bush’s administration, which some pilloried as fascistic itself. But Roth distanced himself from such claims; his Lindbergh was a craven isolationist, not a neo-conservative interventionist. Fast-forward to 2020, and the show’s anti-immigrant ‘America First’ president, who accommodates authoritarians and fails to intercede in anti-Semitic rioting in Dixie – feels much less speculative. If anything, given President Donald Trump’s description, during a 2017 press conference, of violent neo-Nazi protestors at a rally in Charlottesville as ‘very fine people’, The Plot Against America offers a restrained view of the path America could take.

David Simon and Ed Burns, The Plot Against America, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist and HBO © HBO

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Simon’s cautionary tone is also reflected in a narrative shift, decentring Roth’s retrospective account and telling the screen version in media res. As a result, the book’s young protagonist Philip recedes into pre-adolescent naiveté and the story, instead, turns on the doings of his idealist father Herman, his streetwise-romantic cousin Alvin, and his opportunist aunt Evelyn. It is an exceedingly competent, if bloodless, production, disabused of the metre and strangeness of the original. As is typical of Simon’s work, understated performances abound, with the exception of its marquee ‘stars’: John Turturro playing broad as southern-fried Rabbi Bengelsdorf and Winona Ryder reprising her quavering Stranger Things (2006–ongoing) affect as Evelyn.

Where reading Roth offered a chilling take on what might have been, Simon’s project is anything but a thinly veiled analogy. It seems to be shouting from the rooftops: ‘This is happening here!’ The series is so timely, indeed, it is difficult to take in one sitting. The Plot Against America details the familiar: fraught daily moments in which white protestant supremacy inevitably surfaces but also the lickspittle complicity of those trying to curry favour with an ideological enemy in the White House. Witness Bengelsdorf gamely sending his congregants by train to be assimilated in middle America, or his wife proudly dancing with the Nazi foreign minister. Of course, the abnegation of bedrock principles with cult-of-personality expediency is legible now in ways that would have seemed outrageous in 2004. And, where the book neatly resolves with Roosevelt’s re-election in 1942, Simon’s version ends ominously, with ‘electoral irregularities’ muddying the result of the polls, as if in a stark warning about November 2020.

Azhy Robertson and Jacob Laval in The Plot Against America, 2020, photography. Courtesy: HBO; photograph: Michele K Short - © HBO

While Roth observed in his essay ‘Writing about Jews’ (1963) that simply ‘repeating “it can happen here” does little to prevent “it” from happening’, The Plot Against America reminds us that nothing in history is preordained, and none among us is exempt from its exigencies. It suggests the world is better when America resists the lures of isolationism and closed borders. But, while viewing the series under quarantine, amid another epoch-defining disaster, I detected a different leitmotif: that no nation is an island and that, even if we elect to turn away from the world, it usually has a way of finding us.

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. He is a contributing editor of frieze

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