When Philip Roth published The Plot Against America in 2004 — an alternate history where pilot Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940 on an antiwar and barely veiled anti-Semitic platform — George W. Bush was nearing re-election and NBC was debuting the second season of The Apprentice, a game show judged by the cartoonish New York real estate mogul Donald Trump. With the country at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, this wasn’t a happy time for the U.S., but Roth’s story read more like a path thankfully avoided (the real Lindbergh was an isolationist and anti-Semite, but never ran for office) than as an ominous prophecy.
With HBO’s six-part miniseries adaptation from The Wire creators Ed Burns and David Simon, what was once fanciful now feels agonizingly prescient. Like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (albeit more compact), the show is chilling in the ways that life has begun to imitate its source material’s art. But it’s yet another example of how Simon and his collaborators manage to craft riveting entertainment out of incisive commentary on the way we live now.
We experience this wrinkle in time through the eyes of a fictionalized version of Roth’s family (here renamed the Levins) in Newark, New Jersey, led by insurance salesman Herman (Morgan Spector) and housewife Bess (Zoe Kazan). Older son Sandy (Caleb Malis) is an artist who idolizes Lindbergh (Ben Cole), while young Philip (Azhy Robertson) just wants to enjoy his stamp collection and dinners with his aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder) and cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle).
Lindbergh’s political rise plays out much like Trump’s. First, he’s satirized in ways his critics believe will sink him but that he proves immune to. Herman dismisses him as “an airplane pilot with opinions,” in the same way Trump’s reality-show fame was initially treated as a disqualifier. Then, Lindbergh is viewed as a useful idiot by his party. “This is how it starts: everyone thinking they can work with the guy,” laments Herman. “Like Hitler: Everyone believes he doesn’t mean what he says.”
With the help of Evelyn’s rabbi boyfriend Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) — a Southern-raised Jew who speaks fondly of the Confederacy and serves as a religious adviser — Lindy is able to win election. (A disgusted Alvin suggests Bengelsdorf is “koshering Lindbergh” for the non-Jews, so they’ll feel comfortable voting for a man they know is a bigot.) Soon, Bengelsdorf is parroting talking points about who is and isn’t a “real American,” and how the Jews can be better “absorbed” into the allegedly more authentic rural vision of the country. Meanwhile, Lindbergh’s ascendance gives tacit approval to everyone who shares his ugly views to take violent action. “The hate was there,” Herman realizes. “It’s like dry leaves waiting on a spark.”
The Lindbergh-Trump parallels feel more blatant than some of the political points Simon and Burns have made in their careers (like how The Wire’s third season was an Iraq War allegory). But Trump is a figure for whom subtlety and nuance have always seemed irrelevant. The specific dynamics of the Levins — Herman’s stubborn belief in America’s better nature, Evelyn’s hunger for recognition, Bess’ fear for her kids — and the lavish period details provide some separation from our current mess. The performances, too, are strong, particularly Kazan’s as the one member of the family who clearly sees what’s happening at each stage of this slow-motion nightmare.
Roth is also far from the only author whose story of a demagogue’s rise now seems to be playing out on cable news. In one scene taken straight from the book, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia quotes Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, then admits, “It is happening here.” Because of those clear links between Roth’s parallel past and our very real present, The Plot Against America can be as difficult to watch as the toughest moments of The Wire, Tremé, or The Deuce. By the end, Simon and Burns make their story even darker than the novel’s, but in a way that feels sadly true to today.
The Plot Against America premieres March 16th on HBO. I’ve seen all six episodes.