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The Plot Against America

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HBO’s six-part adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America concluded its run earlier this week. I haven’t read the original novel, for various reasons but mainly because its premise—an alternate history in which Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940, keeps the US out of WWII, and unleashes a wave of anti-Jewish legislative measures and government programs that also galvanize anti-semitic violence—seemed a bit too real. That was in 2004, mind you, so it’s anyone’s guess why I sat down to watch an adaptation of the novel in 2020. As Jeet Heer has written, HBO’s Plot—adapted by David Simon and Ed Burns—is both elevated and hampered by its timeliness. Who, especially right now when we’re all swimming in coronavirus-related anxiety and looking for comforting distractions on our TV screen—would want to watch this story unfold?

As a work of television, The Plot is good but not exceptional, remarkable more for its parts than its whole. A lot of attention will no doubt be paid to Winona Ryder as anti-heroine Evelyn Finkel, who is seduced by fame and wealth into supporting Lindbergh and using her ties in the Jewish community of New Jersey to promote his plans to resettle Jewish families in the American heartland. Or John Turturro as the Southern-fried Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, a passionate Lindbergh supporter whom Evelyn falls for and marries. But Zoe Kazan gives a career-best performance as Evelyn’s sister, the quietly compassionate and deceptively steely Bess Levin, and Morgan Spector, probably best-known until now for being married to Rebecca Hall, will hopefully vault to stardom with his performance as Bess’s husband Herman. Passionate but also quietly observant, full of a profound love for his country but also a deep rage at what it becomes, Herman is the heart of the show, a self-professed “loud-mouthed Jew” who can’t stop himself from speaking out aginst Lindbergh and his programs, even when his wife and neighbors beg him to shut up and run.

It’s also a show that features, as my mother observed after watching the first few episodes, “hardcore Jewishness”. In a TV landscape that tends to sum Jewishness up by positioning a menorah in the background during the Christmas episode, Plot‘s unabashed enthusiasm for the trappings and tropes of its mid-century, East coast Jewish community is delightful. I can’t remember the last time I heard Yiddish on TV, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard a cantor sing Aleinu LeShabeach or Lekha Dodi in an American TV show. Even for someone like me, who grew up with a different flavor of Jewishness, and more than a generation removed from my family’s roots in a community like the Levins’, there was something enticing about seeing it brought to life on screen. (It was also nice to see so many of the show’s Jewish characters played by Jewish actors, in an industry that tends to treat that ethnicity as interchangeable with whiteness.)

But of course the thing that most people will want to talk about when talking about Plot will be its timeliness, its depiction of an America that elects an openly racist agitator because he speaks to its dark id, and gives it permission to unleash it. I don’t know how much Simon and Burns changed from the original novel, but there are moments in the series that feel like direct references to the last four years: Herman incredulously dismissing Lindbergh’s electoral chances, exclaiming that “everyone sees what he is!” only for his wife and neighbors to remind him that to most of America, he is still a hero and a celebrity; his nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) explaining that when Rabbi Bengelsdorf speaks at a pro-Lindbergh rally, he isn’t trying to recruit Jewish voters, but to reassure non-Jewish Lindbergh supporters that they are not being anti-semitic by voting for him; an anti-Lindbergh rally (led by Walter Winchell, of all people) broken up by the Bund while the police stand idly by and allow the violence to escalate; the purging of government agencies of those not sympathetic to Lindbergh and his cabinet’s stance; the moment, near the end of the series, when Herman, searching for a word harsh enough to sum up Lindbergh’s failures as a president, finally lands on “unfit“.

One aspect of the novel that the miniseries does change is its ending. Even without reading the book, I was aware that many readers find its ending—in which the US wakes from its fever dream of fascism and votes Lindbergh out—unsatisfying. Simon and Burns are, deliberately, more equivocal. The series ends on election night, after scenes in which we witness flagrant attempts at tampering—stealing ballot boxes and voting machines, striking people off the rolls. But the screen cuts to black before we hear the result. It’s the right choice, not only for the story the show is telling, but for the moment at which it is airing, when the question of whether the US’s real-life flirtation with fascism will be defeated in the polling place is still very much up in the air.

On the other hand, I also have reservations about how Plot handles its premise. In particular, its understanding of what fascism is, and how it might express itself in an American context, at times feels hopelessly muddled. We never learn, for example, why Rabbi Bengelsdorf is such a fervent Lindbergh supporter. One might assume that he is merely a starfucker, or that his anti-war stance outweighs all other considerations. But Bengelsdorf not only lends his voice to support Lindbergh, he is also the architect of some of his administration’s most subtle and pernicious assaults on the Jewish community. He comes up with the Just Folks program, in which young Jewish boys, like older Levin son Sandy (Caleb Malis) spend a summer with rural, non-Jewish families to get a sense of what “real” America is like. And he follows that up with the Homestead Initiative, in which Jewish families are relocated to the heartland—allegedly voluntarily, though as we eventually learn, the government puts pressure on their employers to transfer them.

The mind boggles at the thought of a rabbi, of all people, not intuitively grasping what a danger such a program poses to the cohesiveness and continuity of Jewish communities (Bess, when she learns that her family is to be relocated to a small town in Kentucky: “is there a synagogue?” Herman: “A synagogue?! Bess, I doubt there’s a minyan”). It’s obvious why an administration trying to eradicate Jewish identity would want to separate communities and brainwash children (the latter works extremely well on Sandy, who remains a Lindbergh admirer until late in the series), but it’s never made clear why Bengelsdorf dreams up these schemes, which creates the impression of fascism as a sort of free-floating force, not a comprehensible worldview rooted in concrete goals.

The Homestead Initiative, in fact, leads to what feels like the show’s biggest blind spot. Plot is cognizant of racism, but not particularly interested in it. Herman occasionally brings up the mistreatment of black people, and some of the show’s choices of imagery create an impression of solidarity between Jews and black people (without, however, actually fielding any named or speaking non-white characters). That’s OK in itself—a story about anti-semitism doesn’t have to about anything other than anti-semitism—except that the basic argument Plot makes is that in the “bad” alternate history it imagines, in which the United States fell under the sway of fascism, the flagship program of the fascist regime was to more-or-less voluntarily resettle families from a certain ethnic group away from their communities. What viewer can watch this without remembering that in the “good”, anti-fascist actual history, a different ethnic group was forcefully removed from their homes, disposessed of its generational wealth, and interned in camps for years? There’s an obvious line to be drawn between the fictional, soft ethnic cleansing attempted by the Lindbergh administration and the outright one carried out by the Nazis, but the effectiveness of this rhetorical trick depends on one’s willingness to ingore the fact that Homestead is significantly less horrifying and dehumanizing than what the real American government actually did.

The miniseries seems aware of this, because in its final episode, Homestead gives way to open violence—against the Jews who have been resettled, and against established Jewish communities like the Levins’ in New Jersey. Again, it’s hard not to draw present-day connections, to the way that Trump’s election seems to have galvanized neo-Nazi groups and spurred violence against minorities, Jews very much included. And the result are some of the series’s most intense and harrowing scenes—Bess, on the phone, frantically trying to calm a friend’s child in Kentucky whose mother hasn’t come home, while gunshots ring out around her house; Herman driving through a group of Klansmen who have been rampaging through a small town. But once again, you have to ask yourself: how is this pogrom different from the real ones?

Racism and fascism have a lot in common, obviously, and they tend to fan one another’s flames. But they are not the same thing. The US has been a racist country for its entire existence, but for most of that time it hasn’t been fascist. The Plot Against America misses the opportunity to depict what a fascist US looks like, and instead plumps for the familiar forms of racism, except directed at people who probably wouldn’t have been there to be lynched if it weren’t for Lindbergh and Bengelsdorf. When Sandy Levin, who had previously accused his father of being a “ghetto Jew” who “hates everything he doesn’t know”, witnesses the Klan terrorizing everything they don’t know, it’s framed less as a refutation of Lindbergh, and more as a validation of his parents’ decision not to step out of their New Jersey bubble. The prevailing mood isn’t “look what’s been done to America” so much as “look how they hate us out there”.

To be fair, this is a tough needle to thread, as every one of us who has despaired of what the US has become in recent years knows. How do you decry a country losing its way when its baseline was already so flawed, so abusive to so many people? A more generous approach to what The Plot Against America is attempting is to look less at its failure to imagine a fascist America, and more at how its characters, and especially Herman Levin, respond to it. Throughout the series, Herman is repeatedly called out for his belief in America. His wife and friends try to get him to emigrate. His nephew decries him as a talker and goes off to fight (with extremely mixed results). His son falls under the sway of liars who hopelessly muddle the meaning of good and evil. But Herman refuses to give up. He attends rallies and writes letters and speaks up when he probably shouldn’t. The show admires him for this without entirely buying into his belief that America can be saved, or that voting Lindbergh out is the way to do it. That’s what its ambiguous ending is saying, and why its emphasis on election tampering feels a little beside the point. The question isn’t, whether enough ballot boxes will be stolen or enough voters disenfranchised. It’s whether people will choose to turn away from hatred and towards democracy. The answer, as the series’s final fade to black reminds us, is still unclear.

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