Roth’s Hope after Trump’s Insurrection
By: Micah Benson
The chaotic coup in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America disturbingly predicts Wednesday’s mob attack on the Congress. Yet, as some of President Trump’s most loyal allies forsake him, there are signs that the curious snap back to normalcy that concludes Roth’s novel may also be prophetic.
Last semester at Washington University in Saint Louis, I took Matthew Shipe’s seminar “Power and Protest in Contemporary American Fiction,” where my classmates and I discussed the implications of novels on America’s most urgent political questions. We read The Plot Against America and examined some of its parallels to Trump’s rise. Today, as I process the shocking invasion of the US Congress by a pro-Trump mob, I see further parallels to Roth’s novel.
When Trump instigated his supporters to attack Congress in what has widely been denounced as an insurrection, he proved definitively that his presidency has been a plot against America, a plot against our sacred principles of Democracy and Justice. Before Wednesday, I would have said that such an assertion was too radical. No longer. The arc of his presidency is now unmistakable to me. Trump remarked that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the clashes between white nationalists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, he emboldened the Proud Boys by telling them to “stand back and stand by” in a presidential debate, and he begged Georgia officials to overturn the election in his favor; all of these events foreshadowed Wednesday’s violence.
The clarity I feel now on Trump’s presidency reminds me of the ending of Roth’s novel, when the monster of anti-Semitism rears its head as America devolves into chaos. Throughout the novel, President Lindbergh quietly attacks America’s Jews by praising the “inheritance of European blood” (14), by creating the Office of American Absorption to “encourage” the Jews to “become further incorporated into larger society” (85), and by failing to condemn violence against Jews in the wake of Walter Winchell’s murder, prompting the cries, “where is Lindbergh?” (305). He is careful to avoid explicit hate towards the Jewish people, so at first none of these events directly point to the mob violence against Jews at the end of the novel, but once that violence breaks out, it becomes clear that his provocations were its cause. Trump’s subtle support for the alt-right mirrors Lindbergh’s strategy, as he avoided direct calls for hate while still emboldening his most dangerous supporters.
The lies of the Lindbergh administration also predict those of Trump. Roth imagines a downfall of American democracy fueled by misinformation, as Lindbergh’s disappearance is blamed on a “Jewish plot against America” (316). The government’s language here is ironic because the true plot against America is the administration’s move towards authoritarianism, a plot against the Jews rather than by the Jews. Trump’s baseless conspiracies of a stolen election mirror this irony, as he asserts the election was stolen by a liberal plot against America, while in reality the true attempt to steal the election, and the true plot against America, is his own.
Yet, Roth offers hope for our current crisis in the curious snap back to the true WWII timeline that chronologically concludes his novel. When Vice President Wheeler declares martial law, Mrs. Lindbergh breaks his spell over the nation by calling for democracy to be restored and informing Americans that “there is not a shred of evidence” her husband was taken by Jews (318). She breaks the conspiracy with truth. Over the past days, some of Trump's most loyal allies, including Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence, have denounced his lies and told the American people the truth, that there is not a shred of evidence the election was stolen. Members of Trump’s administration are resigning. And in Georgia, voters have delivered a shocking defeat to Republicans in what was partly a referendum on Trump's claims of fraud. Of course, many Republicans will still stand with the president, including over a hundred house members who voted to disqualify Biden's electoral votes, and it is too early to know the consequences of Wednesday’s events. But if the Republican party rejects Trump in the wake of his assault on America, then the prophetic nature of Roth's novel will be even more astounding.
Reviewers have puzzled at Roth’s conclusion, arguing that it is unrealistic and too optimistic. His novel follows real history with “the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allies” and American democracy restored (327). But in the hope his ending gives me today, I understand Roth’s argument. Although he shows for most of his novel that American democracy is more fragile than we know, in his conclusion he argues that it is nevertheless resilient. Roth does not believe a single man can destroy our ideals. He insists that America is stronger than that, and in crisis will find its identity anew. We will soon see whether Roth was right. But the incredible relevancy of his novel today shows that he has a remarkable understanding of the heart of America. I pray that like the rest of his novel, his conclusion is clairvoyant.
Micah Benson is a first-year student at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is originally from Lexington, Massachusetts.