What The Plot Against America Gets Wrong

Morgan Spector as Herman Levin in The Plot Against America. (Michele K. Short/HBO)
The new series by David Simon and Ed Burns is beautifully shot and acted, but its message of looming totalitarianism exposes the showrunners as blinkered ideologues.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE M ore than 15 years have passed since the late Philip Roth published his dystopian semi-autobiographical novel, The Plot Against America. Only now has Roth’s powerful speculative fiction of 1940s America under a Nazi-sympathetic Charles Lindbergh administration been adapted for the screen, in a recent HBO miniseries. The adaptation is at once overdue and unfortunate. The story’s imagery — of swastikas adorning flags at American state dinners, of FBI agents harassing children on the artfully reconstructed streets of working-class Newark — is among its most potent tools for evocative storytelling, and the book should have been adapted years ago. But, perhaps inevitably, it has been repurposed as agitprop against the lurking fascist in the Oval Office, saturated with allusions to our current time and place.

Indeed, rather than producing a timeless warning of how structural and cultural bulwarks can fail in the face of charismatic totalitarianism, David Simon and Ed Burns have rendered The Plot Against America another Resistance screech against the Republican Party. Their production is beautifully presented and acted with great depth (Zoe Kazan particularly shines), but it is marred by this intentional timing. Burns’s admission that “if Hillary would have won the election, we probably wouldn’t be doing Plot Against America” reveals the problem. Burns and Simon begin to look less like deft handlers of a great piece of literature, and more like blinkered ideologues who happen to be good at making TV shows.

The parlor drama follows the Levins, a secular Jewish family in Newark based roughly on the real-life Roths, through the tumult of anti-Semitic and illiberal convulsions that follow Lindbergh’s election. Herman Levin, an insurance agent with faith in America’s commitment to freedom, wants to stay and fight (with words) even as his country begins slipping away; his wife, Bess, (Kazan) is the rock of the family but would prefer to move to Canada to keep her sons safe. Pressure builds on the Jews of Lindbergh’s America and weighs on the Levins particularly as various members of the family find themselves in the middle of plans to relocate Jews to the heartland, an attempted assassination of Lindbergh, state-sanctioned pogroms, and a dance at a state dinner with the Nazi foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop.

The series admirably explores the depths of weighty questions about marriage, loyalty, patriotism, and America’s soul. But Burns and Simon relegate those burning questions to the back burner, instead directing the audience’s attention to the utterly predictable conclusions that Republicans are bad and that our current president is a fascist. Their conspiratorial commentary on current events and how they were presaged in the early years of World War II betrays the limited imagination of the American Left, which cannot conceive of historical parallels that implicate progressive heroes in the slide towards totalitarianism.

Is the chief problem one of timing? Conservatives might have been equally appalled had someone adapted Plot Against America during the second term of the George W. Bush administration. Such an adaptation would have surely been superfluous, though, since Bush was routinely derided as Hitler’s second coming, and such comparisons were certainly not lost on reviewers at the time of the book’s publication. J. M. Coetzee, writing in The New York Review of Books, for one, noted that “the similarities between the Lindbergh presidency and the presidency of George W. Bush are hard to brush over.” Roth himself in a New York Times essay about his book called President Bush “a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one.” Unfit, Simon now tells us in a podcast released concurrent with the HBO episodes, is a word worked into his script to send a particular message: It refers to President Trump, whose preeminent characteristic is that he does not know or care what repercussions his words and actions might yield.

Perhaps it would have been advisable to adapt The Plot Against America for screen during the Obama years. That nearly happened: “Somebody actually approached me about adapting it for a miniseries in 2013 . . . right after Obama’s second inaugural,” recalls Simon, but “I didn’t see the country as going in that direction, I didn’t see us being this vulnerable to demagoguery or xenophobia.” If the republic is so delicate as to be one election away from pogroms and martial law, perhaps the producers should have broadened their historical perspective of America’s totalitarian temptation.

Doing so might have led Simon and Burns to a conclusion they would find unsavory: that totalitarianism is a matter of means, not ends. The evil of the all-consuming state — all is within it, nothing is beyond it — is not dependent upon its substantive vision for rebuilding the national community. Left-wing progressives can be totalitarians too, and no historical fiction is necessary to revisit how quickly an expanding state and war-socialism mentality can erode our republican norms.

In the podcast about the series, Simon decries the limitations of legal remedies to stop violations of fundamental rights. Commenting on a scene in which Herman tries to fight his employer’s decision to disperse some Jewish employees’ families as part of a forced-assimilation program (under heavy pressure from Lindbergh’s bureaucratic Camelot, including the Jew-hater Henry Ford and the token lackey Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf), Simon laments: “The courts don’t work . . . you can’t rely on them, they’ve been politicized.” Putting a finer point on the observation, Simon adds that in America what “make us special are the individualized rights that are guaranteed regardless of what the majority feel. There is no tyranny of the majority when it comes to certain rights, if the republic is functioning.” He is, perhaps unwittingly, exactly right, and his comments are extraordinarily telling.

Someone ought to inform him, first off, who politicized the courts. Was it a Republican who grew so irate at the Supreme Court’s pattern of upholding various individual rights — such as the right to not have one’s property taken without just compensation — that he threatened to pack the Court with cronies?  Whose administration bullied businesses into rigid compliance with executive diktats? No. Was it a Republican who sent uniformed officers of a hugely powerful administrative agency into the streets to enforce a planned economy and rile up hatred against noncompliant businesses? Of course not. It was the great hero FDR and his National Recovery Administration, birthed in an unconstitutional mixing of legislative and executive powers and engaged in a collectivist project to crush those very individual rights Simon prizes. If, in The Plot Against America’s counterfactual universe, Lindbergh took America to hell in 1940, FDR spent eight years paving the road.

Yet FDR is the last person Simon and Burns would consider totalitarian. His election (to an unprecedented and now-unconstitutional third term) is the Levins’ coveted resolution to the isolationist nightmare. In real life, of course, FDR campaigned on the promise that American “boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars,” and his domestic reign resembled a benevolent dictatorship, replete with collectivist rights-squashing and arrogation of powers. One top FDR aide summed up the president’s attitude toward government power when he told a group of sympathetic activists that FDR’s lawyers “will declare anything you want to do legal.” Don’t hold your breath for Simon and Burns or their colleagues to write the dystopian story of life under “benevolent” totalitarianism. When they lament the degradation of constitutionally guaranteed rights, of the “precious orchid” of democracy that “we haven’t attended to,” they are really worried about who has snatched those rights away and whether they will use the state’s coercive power to achieve desirable ends.

Then again, in their zeal to connect the dots straight from Lindbergh’s dinner party with von Ribbentrop to today’s Republican project of “fear of the other,” Simon and Burns reveal that they actually know quite little of the complex history of party politics, debates over foreign intervention, and progressive ideology. Take their treatment of the phrase “America first.” Simon explains: “That phrase, ‘America first’ actually has its origins in the 1940s with isolationist politics,” which “included large tracts of the Republican Party.” The small irony here is that isolationism was widespread among both parties. The interventionists were mostly white Dixiecrats, known as the most hawkish bloc during both World Wars. They are likely not the company Simon and Burns were looking for. Moreover, isolationism itself is no more proof of moral vacuity than interventionism is proof of moral sophistication. (Presumably the producers would admit as much regarding later American intervention in Vietnam and the Middle East.)

The whopper, though, is the butchered history behind the phrase. “America first” does not, in fact, have its origins in the 1940s, with Lindbergh, conservatives, or Republicans. It was President Woodrow Wilson, icon of the progressive movement, Democrat, and author of the modern administrative state who brought the phrase into the political mainstream a decade before Lindbergh even began flying planes, announcing that “our whole duty” as Americans “is summed up in the motto: ‘America first.’” Wilson was campaigning to keep America out of war, when he wasn’t too busy disparaging the Constitution as outdated or putting German-Americans in camps. (FDR didn’t come up with the idea of detaining members of disfavored ethnic groups ex nihilo.) All things considered, if Simon and Burns wanted to provide a warning of nascent totalitarianism in our midst, of “othering” certain groups and the demolition of republican norms, they probably would have been better off writing a vivid retrospective on the Wilson administration. Is there any defense for Wilson’s actual historical legacy that makes the fictionalized Lindbergh a more apt precursor to our own day?

Burns even steps on a Wilson-shaped rake in his rantings about our alleged descent into a failed state. “The Republicans are talking about not funding the U.S. Postal Service,” he rails, invoking a political squabble so minute it will surely have been forgotten by the time this goes to print. “If you don’t have a postal service,” he adds, “you can’t do mail.” A fine observation (though not quite true, as FedEx and UPS would be quick to point out) that leads us right back to Woodrow Wilson. Under Wilson’s 1918 Sedition Act the U.S. Postmaster General was given free rein to deny mailing privileges to any publication accused of “uttering, printing, writing, or publishing any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the United States government or the military.” Dozens of publications critical of the government were singled out for their dissent and crushed.

But Simon and Burns would prefer to traffic in conspiracies about the continuity between the Republicans of the 1940s and the Republicans of today. “Since the 1930s, when Roosevelt began the New Deal, a group started to form that expanded and expanded and expanded, and now basically is one of the most powerful forces in this country. That’s the Christian nationalists,” Burns explains. “They’ve now joined with the neoliberals in an effort to take us into a fascist state, or as they call it, a biblically centered state. And Trump has been one of the vehicles that they use to do everything they’ve wanted to do.”

This feverish interpretation of American history makes no sense, even on its own terms — why would neoliberals want a “biblically centered state”? If it’s the euphemism used by nefarious right-wingers to hide their fascism, why does a Google search for “biblically centered state” return only scholarship on Calvinists in Geneva? — but it is notable beyond its madness for trying to draw a direct lineage from FDR’s opponents to Trump. In reality the history is far more complex and the similarities mostly superficial. Fascism is actually rather complicated; no one is quite sure how much of it is particular to Benito Mussolini’s Fascisti and how much is generalizable to normal democratic politics. What makes Lindbergh’s America so frightening for the Levins is that it is totalitarian. The state has invaded every private space, making ad hoc rules about who may act freely — such as thugs undermining an opposition rally — and who should bear the brunt of expansive concentrated power, such as Jews targeted for strategic relocation.

On this point, The Plot Against America falters by suggesting a narrow solution to the problem of totalitarianism, one that bespeaks a severe misunderstanding of the rule of law. This is on full display when Simon explains his parting message, on how Americans should respond to ascendant totalitarianism. “You have to vote,” he lectures, “and you have to vote not just for your own self-interests.” Voting is good, to be sure. But as even Simon acknowledges, majorities can quickly become tyrannical or begin slipping down a slope of violating rights prized by other factions. Voting is at best a very limited bulwark against the kind of rule that would horrify The Plot Against America’s creators — especially if they believe, as they seem to, that America is overrun by “Christian nationalists” and Midwestern bigots ready to dust off their Klan robes at the sound of a dog whistle.

Structural limitations on state power, on the other hand, under which the sphere of the individual is presumed to be expansive and the bar for legitimate state action high, are a far greater obstacle to a tyrannical state. But progressives have tended to prefer the opposite framework, under which government action is always presumed justifiable for advancing the interests of the collective. Government, on this view, “is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together,” and those who detest the state’s choice — be it a benign tyranny such as forcing Americans to buy products they do not want or a malign version that leaves half a million black Americans unemployed — have little recourse.

Progressives are often attuned to majoritarian tyranny when it comes to certain marginalized groups. Where they often suffer from a blind spot is in failing to recognize that any kind of minority is liable to be “othered.” Religious groups, certain professions, even residents of certain geographic regions are capable of suffering too. Liquidating the kulaks or forcing religious believers to act against their religious convictions is not a small step from tyrannizing Jews in Newark. It is the same step. The rule of a fixed, general, and clear set of laws inherently suspicious of collectivism and with an expansive view of the realm of the individual prevents all these evils far more reliably than voting for the good guys.

Unfortunately, the fetishized act of voting and the narrow view of history rule the day in The Plot Against America. The final scenes, which if true to the novel would have restored FDR to the Oval Office (hardly my preferred outcome but at least less cloying than what we are treated to), show Herman making his pilgrimage to the ballot box, a mission marred by Republicans rigging the game by burning ballots. Undeterred, Herman waits hopefully by his radio as we fade to black.

“I wanted the audience to walk into an election year in America. Maybe the most important election year in quite some time,” Simon explains. “I wanted them to remember this miniseries when they go into the voting booth” in 2020. Once again, the richness of Roth’s story has been drained of its vitality and flattened into a simplified message of fleeting pertinence. It is a blessing in disguise that The Plot Against America was nothing more than a miniseries; this version is a show not for all seasons but for one, eschewing timelessness for heavy-handed political activism. Perhaps future filmmakers will manage to present Roth’s story without retreating into irritable mental gestures of resistance.

Then again, they might want to write a different story altogether. Maybe something more original that manages to acknowledge that totalitarianism’s evil does not depend on whether the dictator has “good” aims in mind or “bad,” and certainly not whether he has a “D” or an “R” after his name. Its lessons could be that subordinating the rights of individuals to the will of the collective is bad whether the outcome is price-fixing schemes or “suggested” relocation, and that the structural defense afforded by serious constitutionalism is more important than any election.

In a sense, though, Burns and Simon are right. You should certainly be careful whom you vote for. One misstep and the president might start putting American citizens in camps.

Tal Fortgang is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

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