‘The Plot Against America’: A Dire Warning For Election Season

Having watched the series, agree:

The one problem with Philip Roth’s tour de force 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America,” is that it’s too feel-good.

I know this is a strange accusation to make about an alternative history about a fascist United States. In Roth’s version of the 1940 presidential election, Americans choose the Nazi-sympathizing aviator Charles Lindbergh, who goes on to institute insidious and then overt programs of authoritarianism and anti-Semitism. The nation is riven and people are killed.

But in the end, everything is set right. In 1942, Lindbergh goes missing while flying his airplane, a special election is called, and Franklin D. Roosevelt is re-elected against Lindbergh’s vice president, Burton K. Wheeler. The United States enters the war against the Axis, and history continues, more or less, on the track that we know.

It’s a sober, unsettling story, but it ends on a note of optimism in America’s ability to right itself — too easily, I would argue, given everything we saw before it.

Earlier this year, HBO aired “Plot” as a six-part series, adapted by David Simon, who is not known as one of TV’s great optimists. His best-known series, “The Wire,” was a five-season lament for American cities. His website is titled “The Audacity of Despair.”

Simon’s confident, chilling adaptation stuck largely to Roth’s story, with few changes. The biggest was to that ending, which he reimagined in ways that get more unsettling and relevant as our own election season goes on.

The final sequence begins on Election Day, 1942, which, because history has a sense of humor, was Nov. 3, just like this year’s. On the soundtrack, Frank Sinatra croons “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me).” Citizens line up in the Weequahic High School gym in Newark. They go into the booths and cast their ballots. The citizenry is turning out. America is showing its best side.

As Old Blue Eyes keeps singing (“A certain word / Democracy”), a few discordant notes begin to sound. A man with an F.D.R. pin is told he is “not on the list” at the precinct where he has voted for 20 years and is hustled out by police. More officers wheel away a voting machine, telling puzzled onlookers, “It’s broken.” In a country field, men open a car trunk, unload ballot boxes — marked with the number of an election district in which we just saw lines of Black voters — and burn the contents.

We cut to that evening, in the living room of the Levins, the Jewish family the story was told through. A host on the radio reports on the first returns from precincts on the East Coast. Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) — a mainstream F.D.R. supporter who believes the system is ultimately good and self-correcting — leans in toward the set. “We are seeing some conflicting results early on,” the announcer says.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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