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The Plot Against America’s Powerful Warning

The new HBO show, adapted from Philip Roth’s novel, imagines life under a fascist president.

Michele K. Short/HBO

The morning after Donald Trump’s election, I boarded the subway outside my home in Brooklyn, bound for a series of drunken commiserations with shell-shocked friends. The diverse faces on the R train were all united in fear and disbelief. I kept reviewing the same surreal facts in my head: Hillary Clinton conceding, Barack Obama congratulating Trump in the White House, and the certainty that the Republicans would soon hold every lever of power, all of which would be in the service of an openly racist and xenophobic demagogue. For weeks and months afterward, every time I saw a newspaper headline or a heavily armed NYPD officer or a public park where someone had spray-painted swastikas, I had the same feeling of vulnerability and dread. They controlled everything. There was nowhere to escape.

The starkness of those feelings would eventually subside, as the Trump administration demonstrated its incompetence, as people of all backgrounds organized and resisted, as the more sheltered among us absorbed that much of the daily horror wasn’t actually new under Trump, and as a kind of grotesque normalcy set in. But I can never forget what that initial period felt like—the sudden sense of living in a different, and far more hostile, country than many of us had previously imagined.

HBO’s new six-part miniseries The Plot Against America is based on the 2004 Philip Roth novel of the same name, but it carries conscious echoes of that late-2016 moment. This has been made explicit by showrunner David Simon, best known for The Wire, who began this project in 2018 with Roth’s blessing in the final months before his death. “This is all allegorical to this moment,” Simon told Variety recently. “It’s not Lindbergh now, it’s Donald Trump. And it’s not Jews who are the most vulnerable cohorts among recent immigrant groups, it’s people with black and brown skin, people who are Muslims.”

The novel and the series take place in an alternate timeline in which the Republicans nominate Charles Lindbergh, the widely beloved trans-Atlantic aviator who became an outspoken isolationist, to run for president against two-term incumbent Franklin Roosevelt in 1940—and Lindbergh wins, resulting in the United States staying out of World War II while anti-Semitic and fascist tendencies accelerate at home. The story, however, focuses not on Lindbergh but on the Levins, a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Newark very much resembling the family Roth grew up in. (In the book, they are simply the Roths—Herman and Bess and their sons, Sandy and Philip, all the same as in real life.) It’s through the Levins that we experience the subtle shifts in everyday life before and after Lindbergh’s victory. Like Trump’s America, Lindbergh’s America doesn’t become Nazi Germany overnight. At least at first, not much changes in any material sense. But the Levins and their community are seized with an existential anxiety as threats continue to mount.

“Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear,” is how the novel, which is written from the point of view of the fictionalized Philip Roth, begins. The story that follows is told in hindsight, many years after America has persevered through what turns out to be a two-year Lindbergh presidency, one that ends with the deus ex machina of Lindbergh’s mysterious disappearance and a special presidential election in November 1942 that restores Roosevelt to the White House. Shortly thereafter, Roth tells us, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, and then history unfolds more or less as it did (“Israel didn’t exist yet,” Roth recalls a few pages in, an early clue that Lindbergh’s election ultimately will not alter the course of history much).

Simon has wisely chosen to depart from the novel in this regard: His series has no narrator, and its final shot comes as the first state results in 1942 are about to be announced, following a montage that shows voter suppression efforts and burned ballots in Democratic precincts, thus leaving it ambiguous whether Roosevelt will return to office. While the adaptation is mostly faithful, this is a meaningful corrective to Roth, who used the Lindbergh presidency to cast his childhood anxieties about anti-Semitism in sharper relief while insisting, on some level, that his fonder memories of FDR’s America could be redeemed. Simon, who has spent years chronicling the failure of the American experiment and now writes with the clarity brought about by Trump, is less certain.

That said, following the example Roth set in his more mature novels like American Pastoral, the series is gloriously nostalgic. It takes place primarily in Roth’s much-mythologized childhood neighborhood of Weequahic, on a street of closely packed duplexes with front porches, where kids collect stamps and play in the street, where everyone is Jewish and knows everyone else, where families gather around the radio to listen to Walter Winchell or in movie theaters to watch the latest newsreels from Europe, and where the guy at the deli gives you free rugelach when there’s been a death in the family. Simon is a generation younger than Roth and grew up in the heavily Jewish Maryland suburbs of Washington (so did I, a generation after that), but his longing for Roth’s magical prewar New Jersey shtetl is palpable, in a way that might border on cloying if The Plot Against America didn’t proceed to mercilessly detail that world’s destruction.

As with Simon’s other recent HBO projects—Treme, Show Me a Hero, The Deuce—the whole cast is terrific. Whereas Roth kept the novel in the first-person perspective of his eponymous childhood self (a perspective the series sometimes recreates with low-angle shots, faintly overheard adult dialogue, and the terrified face of young Azhy Robertson, who plays Philip), Simon prefers to use ensembles to illustrate multiple facets of a historical moment. The decision to cast the lead and best-known actors, Winona Ryder and John Turturro, as the villains is a clever shift in focus from the novel. Ryder plays Philip’s Aunt Evelyn as a not particularly bright spinster desperate for social validation; Turturro plays her love interest, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, an emigré from South Carolina with a scene-chewing accent to match, who ends up serving as the Jewish community’s chief collaborator with the Lindbergh administration.

Most of the Jews of Newark are proud FDR Democrats who see themselves as fully American while preserving their neighborhood folkways, cheering on Britain’s war with Nazi Germany and loathing Lindbergh. But Bengelsdorf believes in America First; that is, in assimilation and isolation. He campaigns for Lindbergh (Ben Cole, who portrays the aviator as a nonentity); defends him from charges of anti-Semitism; and then serves as the White House’s court Jew, designing and implementing a New Deal–style agency called “Just Folks” that aims to relocate Jews from Eastern cities to rural heartland communities in Kentucky and Montana, where they can become more like “real Americans.” One of the more affecting plotlines involves this program’s sincere appeal to Philip’s older brother, Sandy (Caleb Malis), and the generational terror this strikes in his parents.

Ryder and Turturro deliciously capture an under-examined archetype of the Trump era: the frauds, mediocrities, and social climbers, including many American Jews on the right, who have embraced a president who flirts with anti-Semitism and who has emboldened far-right violence against Jewish communities. They represent different shades of collaborator: Ryder’s pathetic Evelyn is simply a dullard who wants to prove to her much smarter sister that she can make it, which turns out to mean waltzing with the Nazi foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, at a White House state dinner. Turturro’s Rabbi Bengelsdorf, meanwhile, is something darker: a pretentious, well-read gentleman who so thoroughly buys into the logic of respectability politics that it’s impossible to call him cynical. He really believes he’s helping his community, even though the only Jews who seem to be benefiting are himself and Evelyn, and even though their own positions within an administration that also includes Henry Ford are precarious.

Besides the Just Folks program, Lindbergh also makes good on his campaign pledge to keep America out of war. When Philip’s cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle) volunteers with the Canadian army “to kill Nazis” and comes back missing a leg, he is greeted not as a hero but as a pity case by his community and a potential subversive by the U.S. government. Meanwhile, across the country, anti-Semites—from rude hotel concierges to increasingly open Klansmen—grow bolder. Bess (a fantastic Zoe Kazan, who plays against the insufferable Jewish mother stereotype Roth promulgated in his earlier work and instead represents the family’s moral and intellectual bedrock) wants to flee to Canada, as many other Jewish families are already doing. But Herman (Morgan Spector), keeps refusing, even in the face of spreading violence and a kind of proto-McCarthyism. Herman has a tragic faith in America as a secure home for semi-assimilated Jews like the Levins. He rejects a vacation to Toronto in favor of dragging the family to Washington, D.C., where he has his sons read the Gettysburg Address on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial. “All men are created equal,” he recites. “It’s right there, plain as day.”

The title of Roth’s book has never quite sat right with me. On one level it refers to a convoluted penultimate-act conspiracy to take down Lindbergh (the series departs from the novel on the specifics in a subplot involving Alvin that is frankly muddled). However, the title’s deeper implication seems to be that “America” represents a set of liberal values and ideals and that an isolationist like Lindbergh could only win power by conspiring against those ideals with a hostile foreign government—an implication reinforced when Herman repeatedly describes Lindbergh as a “traitor” for his cordial relationship with Adolf Hitler.

But Lindbergh’s victory is no mere “plot”; it’s an expression of the popular will of millions of Americans (in the novel, Roth writes that it wasn’t even a close race), and an extension of prejudices and injustices that Roth knew predated 1940. The Plot Against America is a story that feels especially urgent in the context of the Trump administration, but it was written under a different president and it will remain relevant under presidents to come. This is, in fact, who we are.