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Phillip Roth, shit novelist, pornographer, brutal abuser of his wife, Claire Bloom hates Lindbergh with a passion; he wrote an entire speculative novel on the evil NAZI empire that would have arisen to persecute the poor jews, if Lindbergh had become president.
The Plot Against America” is a masterwork of counterfactual history, a what-if story in which Charles Lindbergh, the aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer, is elected President in 1940, leading to the widespread persecution of Jews in the United States. The novel is also a counterfactual masterwork of personal history. (Judith Thurman recently interviewed Roth about it in The New Yorker.) It’s not one of Roth’s Zuckerman novels or one of his Kepesh novels; it’s a Roth novel, composed as if it were an autobiographical tale, written by the adult Philip Roth about the child Philip Roth and his family—endowed with their real-life names, his parents, Herman and Bess, and his brother, Sandy—and set in Newark’s Weequahic neighborhood, where the novelist was, in fact, raised.
The Philip of the story is born, like the real-life novelist, in 1933. Soon after Lindbergh takes office, federal policies are implemented to disperse Jews from urban communities and into the American “heartland,” and, in turn, to move non-Jews into Jewish neighborhoods. Philip’s father, Herman, is a staunch opponent of Lindbergh who’s horrified by the country’s turn; Philip’s brother, Sandy, sent to rural Kentucky for the summer as part of a federal program, has become an enthusiast for farm life among Gentiles; his older cousin, Alvin, joins the Canadian Army to fight with the British in Europe; and Philip’s aunt, marrying a collaborationist rabbi, glories in her presence at Lindbergh’s state dinner in honor of the Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. As anti-Semitic pressure mounts, neighbors plan to emigrate to Canada, and Philip’s own parents consider doing the same. The leading journalistic critic of Lindbergh, the gossip columnist Walter Winchell (who was, in fact, Jewish), is assassinated, and American anti-Semites launch a wave of pogroms against American Jews that moves from the smashing of store windows and the burning of synagogues to murder.
Though the novel’s overarching drama is the national and international crisis that Roth imagines, its specifics are intimate. Roth revisits his Newark childhood in loving and meticulous detail, and shows how, unbeknownst to a child who has the good fortune to be raised in peace and freedom, so much of daily life depends invisibly but decisively on politics. Virtually all the day-to-day assumptions with which Philip had been raised, even through grim days of the Depression, were overturned by the effect of the Lindbergh Administration’s policies. Philip experiences anti-Semitic invective and discrimination on a family trip to Washington, D.C. He’s pressured by an F.B.I. agent to inform on his own family. His vigorous cousin Alvin returns home with a leg amputated. Political differences tear his family apart. His father’s livelihood is threatened. Above all, the nation’s political crisis destroys the very foundation of Philip’s psychological makeup—his proud certainty of his American identity.