Philip Roth’s Warning About US Fascism

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Cover of Roth's "The Plot Against America"

Slightly more than a decade ago, Philip Roth warned how fascism would come to America – legally, of course, since we’re a nation of laws, and attached to a hero, a legend, a star: the aviator ex machina himself, Charles Lindbergh, since Roth was writing about the U.S. in the late 30’s and early 40s, the years when Lucky Lindy’s popularity peaked.
Roth cautioned about all this in his 2004 novel, The Plot Against America — an almost plausible schematic of a Nazi takeover of the United States. We foolishly paid no heed to Roth’s prophecy because we’re supposedly too smart, too wedded to democracy, too cynical of salesmen pitching quickie panaceas, and too… well, too gosh darn decent to let that Nazi stuff sully our certainty that we’re a beacon for the world, a gleaming city on a hill. No way, we crowed, thumping our chests in pride: it can’t happen here.
But if a “beautiful wall” is built along the Rio Grande, and Muslims are barred from coming here, and white supremacists set up camp in the Oval Office, and libel laws make it criminal to criticize the government, and female dignity is dialed back decades, and journalists and minorities are roughed up daily, then it can happen here. At that point, our homeland, as one of Roth’s characters says, “will be nothing more than our birthplace” – our sweet land not of liberty, but of fear and dread and constant, around the clock, never-ending apprehension. There’ll be no pursuit of happiness. Only a pursuit for the hills so we can get away from the madness ignited, as another character laments, by a “goyische idiot.”
Roth’s capacious imagination conjured up a nation enamored with a hero/messiah, and eager to swat away at Jews who were allegedly conspiring to get America into another world war. President Lindbergh’s administration chipped away at the Constitution, clause by clause, amendment by amendment, until rights become privileges and privileges become history.  Political rallies barred journalists, pogroms killed Jews, Jews armed themselves, the Klan burned hysterical women in their cars. The one reporter brave enough to crusade against the Nazis-on-the-Potomac is assassinated days after telling a New York crowd, “The Hitlerites can take away my radio microphone… They can take away my newspaper column… Storm troopers can lock me away in a concentration camp to shut me up… What our homegrown Hitlerites cannot take away is my love for America and yours. My love for democracy and yours. What they cannot take away… is the power of the ballot box. The plot against America must be stopped—and stopped by you! By the voting power of the freedom-loving people of this great city…”
Winchell was stopped, but the resurgence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the common sense of Mrs. Lindbergh and the ballot box itself saved democracy from the derangement gripping the nation.
All this may sound like nonsense fired up by a novelist’s overheated imagination. But compare the current GOP front runner’s hate and demagoguery with Roth’s Lindbergh (who in real life truly did traffic with Nazis and with Hitler himself), and substitute “Trump” for “Lindbergh” and “Muslim” or “Hispanic” for “Jew” in this first paragraph of Roth’s book and you’ll see what scum we have on our hands.
As the narrator in The Plot Against America tells us, “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.”
We now balance at the juncture between fear and sanity, dread and comity. We can choose to let boys grow up frightened, and for  the nation to descend into domestic terror, and for the rest of the world to back away with alarm and confusion. The air is haunted, pregnant with the madness that squelches hopes and dreams. The road we take and the air we breathe, Mr. and Mrs. America (to borrow Walter Winchell’s signature catchphrase), will convey us to stupidity or to deliverance. The choice is ours, but at least we’ve been forewarned by a prescient writer whose novel is tinctured with a vision of the dark places where we should not go yet who still somehow divined the happy and truly democratic ending that all of us should desire for our fragile and tortured nation.

Arthur J. Magida’s last book is “The Nazi Séance: The True Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle.” He is writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore