A celebrity novice politician takes the Washington establishment by storm, riding the dark strain of the American heart to an upset bid for the White House.
Philip Roth died this week. In 2004, he wrote a “what-if” alternative history imagining American aviation hero turned Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh runs for president in 1940 and unseats Franklin Roosevelt on an isolationist “American First” platform. Roth published The Plot Against America as a curious peak into an unfathomable parallel universe. But in the age of Donald Trump, Roth’s imagined political catastrophe has suddenly become eerily prescient.
Roth tells the tale of Lindbergh’s political rise from his own childhood perspective. (Be warned: This post is shot through with spoilers ahead.) Lindbergh captured the animal spirits of the Republican Party, winning its nomination for the presidency. Lindbergh is an open anti-Semite—an imminent threat to American Jews like Roth and his family.
Roth’s father, Herman, is a staunch believer in goodness and justice in America, refusing to believe that Lindbergh could come close to the White House. He counts on the guardrails of American democracy to protect Jews. “There was Roosevelt, there was the U.S. Constitution, there was the Bill of Rights, and there were the papers, America’s free press.” Ultimately, all of these guardrails would give way to Lindbergh’s ascent.
Lindbergh’s campaign was at first dismissed by the establishment as a “publicity gimmick,” as he flew himself in a solo plane from rally to rally across the country. Lindbergh was at once both a plainspoken common man with a flat, “decidedly un-Rooseveltian” affect, and a superhuman living legend. He played on nostalgia, reminding Americans of his heroic flight across the Atlantic, “and it was 1927 all over again.”
His message was simple: FDR and other elites were duping the American people into war. Lindbergh would keep America out of World War II. “Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war.”
Roosevelt, for his part, campaigned on a sense of inevitability—as too busy with the serious business of governing to be bothered by Lindbergh’s “carnival antics.” When told that Lindbergh had won the GOP nomination, Roosevelt remarked, “By the time this is over, the young man will be sorry not only that he entered politics but that he ever learned to fly.”
In the run-up to the election, polls showed Roosevelt running comfortably ahead. The polls were wrong. Republican party leaders left Lindbergh’s campaign for dead, frustrated by the novice candidate’s insulated campaign.
Lindbergh shocked the world by winning in a landslide. Republicans seized control of Congress, too. Pundits latched on to a series of comforting rationalizations to explain Lindbergh’s blowout win: The country had rejected FDR’s bid for a third term. Lindbergh’s aeronautic feats were what the country needed to venture into the future. Anything to explain away the appeal of Lindbergh’s openly fascist campaign.
Before even being inaugurated, president-elect Lindbergh met with Axis leaders to negotiate peace with the United States. The American public overwhelmingly supported Lindbergh’s efforts to keep U.S. troops out of the war. They praised Lindbergh’s deal-making skills, and the apparent respect he commanded from Hitler.
Within weeks of the election, brash public anti-Semitism begins seeping out of the American woodwork. Bigots emboldened by political fortune saw fit to flex their newfound muscle in American life.
Upon taking office, Lindbergh launches a new Office of American Absorption to “Americanize” Jewish city kids by enlisting them to work on farms in the Midwest as a sort of summer camp. Yet while America’s Jews lived in horror of the new administration, much of the rest of the country celebrated peace and prosperity. The stock market boomed, and world war remained someone else’s problem. Eventually, a numbness and sense of normalcy set in across most of the country.
But Lindbergh’s insidious rise changed the fabric of the country. He invited the Nazi Germany foreign minister to visit the United States, leading former president Franklin Roosevelt to emerge from the sidelines and speak out. Lindbergh’s Nazi-friendly stance created the social space for American Nazism to go mainstream. The true terror of the Lindbergh presidency was what it brought out in regular Americans. America became a meaner, more violent place.
Eventually, Lindbergh’s administration is engulfed in a shocking scandal of foreign influence. Chaos swirls, a political resistance emerges, conspiracy theories gain currency on both sides, accusations of fake news about “so-called Jewish riots” fly.
Roth’s counterfactual history has a tidy conclusion that folds the country back into its previously interrupted political order. By the close of The Plot Against America, the dark age of Lindbergh turns out to have only been a two-year interregnum in American history before the country returned to its senses.
Will our own political moment pass so cleanly? Many Americans that are rightly distraught over Trump hope for a deus ex machina from Robert Mueller or the 2020 election. Yet the political tectonics and simmering resentments that unleashed Trump will not soon fade; the most we can hope for is dormancy.
Plus, the retrospective of history has its own way of deluding us into faith that a comfortably reassuring logic and order prevails. “Turned the wrong way round,” Roth wrote, “the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”