Or could it? This is the question posed in Philip Roth’s 2004 novel “The Plot Against America” and further explored in the 2020 HBO limited series (six episodes) by the same name.
Roth imagines an alternate history when American aviator and suspected Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. The result is a turn toward fascism in the United States—and trouble for the Jews.
The novel centers itself around one Jewish family from Newark: Herman and Bess Roth, and their two boys, Sandy (15) and Philip (12). Herman and Bess grow increasingly alarmed as antisemitic roots take hold in the country. Lindbergh signs a neutrality and friendship pact with Hitler, America stays out of World War II, and the innocent/sinister anti-Jewish programs begin on the home front.
The novel is narrated by young Philip, looking back from a distance, but very much still in the moment, and we see the fear and confusion from the young boy’s perspective. Philip’s older brother, Sandy, happens to be enamored with Lindbergh, and at the urging of his Aunt Evelyn participates in a program called Just Folks, which sends city Jewish kids to live for a summer with rural families. The program’s purpose is supposedly to better assimilate Jews into the fabric of America. Sandy clashes with his parents, who are fearful of all things Lindbergh, and instead aligns with his Aunt Evelyn, who has taken up with a rabbi who defends Lindbergh and insists Lindbergh has nothing against Jews.
The conflicts within the family, and the growing dread in the Jewish neighborhood, are handled perfectly. A side plot, bigger in the series than the novel, involves Alvin, a nephew to the Roths who joins the Canadian army so he can fight Nazis, but comes back missing a leg.
Another assimilation program, called the Homestead Act, enlists all the biggest corporations of the day to transfer some of their Jewish employees to small towns in other states. When Herman hears the life insurance company he works for is transferring him to Kentucky, he quits his job rather than relocate from his Jewish neighborhood into the American Christian heartland. The novel has its own Kristallnacht—“Night of Broken Glass”—in cities across the U.S., mirroring the beatings of Jews and burning of their property in Nazi Germany when their rights were officially taken away.
“And how long will the American people stand for this treachery perpetrated by their elected president? How long will Americans remain asleep while their cherished Constitution is torn to shreds by the fascist fifth column of the Republican right marching under the sign of the cross and the flag?”Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
Philip Roth has written some of my favorite novels (“American Pastoral” (my review), “The Human Stain,” “Portnoy’s Complaint,” “Goodbye Columbus”), and “The Plot Against America” is right up there with them. His imagination soars in this book. It’s full of complex, compelling characters and the situation is disturbingly plausible. Given the state of our country today and the hard-right authoritarianism that is gaining a foothold, somehow a historical reimagining almost feels prescient.
The series is equally compelling and a beautifully-shot period piece. All of the acting is entirely convincing, especially the interplay between Zoe Kazan and Morgan Spector as Bess and Herman. Winona Ryder plays Bess’s sister, Evelyn, an opportunist who gets caught up with the rabbi (John Turturro) in Lindbergh’s web.
As a writer type of person, I love reading a book and then watching its screen adaptation. What gets preserved? What changes? What part of the story did they mess up? What works better? And with a limited series, you can go much deeper into a story than what a two-hour feature film would allow. I recommend reading the novel, then watching the series. You will see similarities and differences. You will be captivated and entertained. And you will wonder: Could it happen here?