U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Plot Against America and the Terror of the Unforeseen: Part Three

What follows completes my series on Roth’s Plot Against America. See parts one and two.

 

Fascism and the Rural Imaginary, Or, “John Rockefeller Would Give a Cool Million to Have a Stomach Like Yours”

American history appears ambivalently in the The Plot Against America. It both saves the day and provides the basic outline for the fascists’ designs. With a foreign power influencing domestic events, Lindbergh and his coterie of anti-Semites draw upon a history of white nationalism to formulate policy. They summon up homespun variations on Nazi themes. Whether the Orwellian terror of the “Just Folks” assimilation initiative, or “Homestead 42,” the program which begins the relocation of American Jews and the destruction of Jewish-American enclaves—a rural imaginary—Southernisms, Westernisms or the conquest of the trans-Mississippi West in the previous century provide a language for American fascism. Lindbergh’s policies of assimilation, then removal merely wait, one suspects, for extermination, echoing U.S. policies with respect to indigenous peoples. It all sounds a little too close. It’s a fascism from the family record, scratched out along familiar American lines.

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This use of a rural imaginary to pursue fascist aims also recalls Nathanael West’s biting satire of the Horatio Alger myth, A Cool Million (1934), written some seventy years before Roth’s novel. In that story, an American fascist party emerges during the Great Depression under a former president named Shagpoke Whipple who reemerges from retirement, touting the genius of the self-help myth. Shagpoke is all self-making without any moral scruples. He raises himself up from fame/infamy, all the while screwing everyone over in his midst as he builds his National Revolutionary Party. (His name implies a double screwing: shagging and poking.)

As he explains to the hapless, Candide-like hero of the book, Lemuel Pitkin, “The time for a new party with the old American principles was, I realized, overripe. [Shag’s infelicity with language is wonderfully comical. It’s overripe all right.] I decided to form it; and so the National Revolutionary Party, popularly known as the “Leather Shirts,” was born. The uniform of our “Storm Troops” is a coonskin cap like the one I am wearing, a deerskin shirt and a pair of moccasins. Our weapon is the squirrel rifle” (110).

Addressing a large crowd from a soapbox Shagpoke rails:

“I’m a simple man,” he said with great simplicity, “and I want to talk to you about simple things. You’ll get no highfalutin talk from me.”

“First of all, you people want jobs. Isn’t that so?”…

“Well, that’s the only and prime purpose of the National Revolutionary Party—to get jobs for everyone. There was enough work to go around in 1927, why isn’t there enough now? I’ll tell you; because of the Jewish international bankers and Bolshevik labor unions, that’s why. It was those two agents that did the most to hinder American business and destroy its glorious expansion. The former because of their hatred of America and love for Europe and the latter because of their greed for higher and still higher wages…

“If America is ever again to be great, it can only be through the triumph of the revolutionary middle class.

“We must drive the Jewish international bankers out of Wall Street! We must destroy all Bolshevik labor unions! We must purge our country of all alien elements and ideas that now infest her!

“America for Americans! Back to the principles of Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln!”    (111-12)

The grade school use of the adverb there is just too much: “‘I’m a simple man,’ he said with great simplicity.” West just misses the Trumpian syntax: “If America is ever again to be great.” This would be even more terrifying for contemporary ears, but West takes no prisoners. He leaves no offensive stereotype unmined. The satire goes all the way down. It’s very much a product of its times.

Alternate History, the Law, and Contingency

For whatever reason, I’ve not yet reached the point where I can find even West’s brilliant satire all that emotionally satisfying. I don’t yet have the stomach for it. I still need The Plot Against America, despite its evident flaws. Roth is great when he describes the lead-up to what becomes open violence by the end of the novel. The slow build, the terrible feeling of foreboding that the he plays with such subtlety over its first three quarters or so works magnificently. Once the pace picks up though, the end of the tune comes out a little too pat.

A hero of the book is Walter Winchell, loud, obnoxious, unfailing in his sense of justice and fair play, unerringly convinced that the Nazis have undertaken a nefarious plot, thereby setting up an American puppet state. When his denunciations grow in volume, corporate interests line up behind the administration, and the journalist is sacked. Refusing to be silenced, Winchell makes a hopeless bid for the presidency, embarking upon campaign stops across the East, Midwest, and South. Riots ensue as white nationalists disrupt his speeches. After narrowly escaping with his life on one such occasion, he is then murdered by a sniper at a stop in Louisville, Kentucky.

Winchell’s martyrdom assured and parts of the country erupting in violent pogroms, Lindbergh leaves the scene (like Amelia Earhart, he flies off in his airplane never to be seen again). His underlings, particularly Vice President Burton Wheeler, are eventually exposed by first lady Anne Lindbergh as they attempt to put in place outright authoritarian measures. The missing president’s wife then engineers a special election under auspices of the Presidential Succession Act of 1886. FDR sweeps back into office in November 1942, and Congress and the Senate go Democratic; the United States enters the war and defeats Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. (To be fair, this summary is tidier than the events of the novel, but not by that much.)

Presumably the Soviets still turned the tide in Europe despite experiencing even greater losses. Roth solves the problem of Great Britain’s holdout with some sleight of hand. The full details of the Nazi plot against American remain shrouded in misinformation and competing conspiracy theories. One version of the story though has it that part of the German secret agreement with the Lindbergh administration entailed that the Nazis delay invasion of the British Isles. Instead, with Lindbergh’s help, regime change from within would effect their sinister designs. That never happens, so worldwide fascism is narrowly averted. The alternate history then departs, muddled in emergent myths and wild tales.

The narrator Philip thus speaks from memories having repercussions far more personal than national from what we can tell. The rupture depicted in the novel doesn’t necessarily change the historical path after the war with which the reader is already familiar. Roth pulls his punches some. His autobiographical affection for a Newark boyhood works against larger political implications or objectives. It’s suggestive rather than decisive.

One lesson seems to be that Roth paterfamilias Herman’s faith in the American institutions is naïve, that it’s best to fear the worst lest it come to pass. In an especially nightmarish sequence at the very end of the novel, Herman and his eldest son Sandy rush down to Kentucky in the aftermath of Winchell’s assassination to retrieve their former neighbors’ son Seldon Wishnow, whose mother has been murdered by the Klan following a relocation under Homestead 42. Fearing for his life and that of his son, Herman travels at a relentless pace. After Sandy makes the mistake of drawing the portrait of a young girl in West Virginia, Herman remembers the infamous murder of Mary Phagan and the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1913, “To be sure, Frank’s case was only a part of the history that fed my father’s sense of danger in rural West Virginia on the afternoon of October 15, 1942. It all goes back further than that” (361).

Anti-Semitism runs deeper than faith in institutions. It’s easy to extol the virtues of the American Constitution and its offices from the confines of one’s enclave. Depending upon where one is on the map, deep-seated hatreds can quickly emerge from their hiding places. Herman decides to move to Canada when they return. But events turn in such a way that the Roths never have to do that.

The structure of the narrative appears to undermine the point at first. The same institutions that Herman comes to doubt ultimately prevail. The fascists are driven out of office by legal means. FDR returns, and the United States comes out on the winning side in the war. Well, sort of. Roth’s solution to the problem of how to get FDR back in as president is a glaring narrative ploy murky in both emplotment and constitutionality, akin to the series of conspiracies that fly around in the aftermath of the Lindbergh administration. (Talk about legal reach and confused precedent—the Presidential Succession Act of 1886?)[i]

Maybe this flaw in the novel conceals deeper lessons. Laws and institutions lack the depth one too often assumes they ought to have. They hang precariously upon loose threads of historical contingency rather than unambiguous legal precedent. Anti-Semitism is more dependable; its lines “go further back than that.” It has a deeper, more abiding history. Owing to historical contingencies, however concocted, laws and institutions might save the country for a while, but the victims of hate will never be the same.

[i] I looked into whether or not the 1886 Act provides for a special election. It seems clear that a previous act from 1792, from what can be gathered, did provide for one. Yet, the 1886 Act is unclear. According to Charles S. Hamlin, “The Presidential Succession Act of 1886” Harvard Law Review 18(3) (January 1905), “The Act of 1886…leaves the question of constitutionality and expediency of a special election absolutely unsettled” (191).

One Thought on this Post

  1. Thanks Pete. I’m still following this series! The question of the law’s limits and abilities, and fragility, is one I’m pondering daily—in my fog of consciousness that feels like historical fiction, or creative nonfiction. – TL

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