It Happened Here

The recent TV adaptation of The Plot Against America rejects Philip Roth’s vision of American exceptionalism.

Alisa Solomon
July 1, 2020
Photo: Michele K. Short, courtesy of HBO.

IN FEBRUARY 1939, the pro-Hitler German American Bund drew more than 20,000 supporters to Madison Square Garden for a rally celebrating “Americanism” in general and George Washington’s birthday in particular. There, standing before a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the founding father, amid billowing swastika flags, Bund leader Fritz Kuhn denounced “Franklin D. Rosenfeld” for imposing a “Jew Deal” on the country and urged the audience—“You, Aryan, Nordic and Christians”—to “wake up” and “demand our government be returned to the people who founded it.” Revving up the crowd before Kuhn’s featured speech, Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, the Bund’s publicity director, extolled Jim Crow laws and the Chinese Exclusion Act. “It has always been very much American to protect the Aryan character of this nation,” he said.

That chilling spectacle provides the visual model for an early scene in the HBO miniseries The Plot Against America, but with a crucial difference that makes the fictitious version even more ominous: Here the crowd is cheering not for Hitler but for a Republican presidential candidate. The Plot Against America—Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, as well as David Simon and Ed Burns’s recent television adaptation—imagines what might have transpired if the fascist tendency in the United States had gained power. Roth fictionalized his own Newark Jewish family and followed them through an alternate version of the early 1940s, a time when polls showed that only 39% of Americans thought Jews in the US “should be treated in all ways exactly as any other Americans,” eight in ten Americans opposed entering the war, and one in six thought Hitler was “doing the right thing.” Roth spins out his tale from the fact that Republicans considered drafting the heroic—and antisemitic—aviator Charles A. Lindbergh to run for president on an isolationist platform against FDR. In Plot, Lindbergh runs—and wins. What happens next is a disaster for American Jews. The president makes Jew-hater Henry Ford his Secretary of the Interior. He hatches a scheme to break up Jewish communities (and hence voting blocs) by dispersing Jews from urban enclaves to “authentic” American hinterlands. He signs “peaceful relations” pacts with Nazi Germany and Japan, and hosts the Third Reich’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at a state dinner. By the end of the book, pogroms have broken out across the country.

When Roth’s novel came out 16 years ago, commentators couldn’t help drawing parallels with their current moment. The post-9/11 Patriot Act had curtailed civil liberties, especially among Muslim Americans; the US was officially committing torture; President George W. Bush, in a Lindbergh-like flight suit, had alighted upon an aircraft carrier to deliver an address about combat operations in Iraq under a banner proclaiming, “Mission Accomplished.” Yet Roth rejected such comparisons, taking to the pages of The New York Times to assert, “Some readers are going to want to take this book as a roman a clef to the present moment in America. That would be a mistake.” Even as he characterized Bush as “a man unfit to run a hardware store,” he insisted, “I set out to do exactly what I’ve done: reconstruct the years 1940-42 . . . I am not pretending to be interested in those two years—I am interested in those two years.” 

Burns and Simon, on the other hand, are interested in 2020. Simon has noted that he turned down a chance to adapt Plot in 2013, shrugging it off as an interesting “artifact.” Just a few years later, however, he found the book’s allegorical power impossible to ignore: It captured the barbed and deep-seated dread of a Trump-era America in which democratic institutions are shredded, racist violence thrives openly, and every outrage is quickly outstripped by another. Simon, generally more interested in systems than psyches, is known for shows like The Wire and The Deuce that reveal the workings of institutions, and his version of Plot, likewise, is about the way fascism as a system takes hold.

The HBO miniseries stays faithful to the book’s basic plotlines, but not, thankfully, to its sensibility. Like the novel, it traces the nation’s descent through the experience of a New Jersey Jewish family: insurance salesman Herman Levin (Morgan Spector), his wife Bess (a standout Zoe Kazan), and their sons Sandy and Philip. (In the book, the family’s last name is Roth.) The Levins, New Deal liberals, are flanked by relatives at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Evelyn, Bess’s sister—an emotionally teetering Winona Ryder—revels in her proximity to power through her marriage to Lionel Bengelsdorf, an acquiescent court Jew of a rabbi played by a perfectly smarmy John Turturro. Meanwhile, Herman’s nephew Alvin, portrayed by a tightly coiled Anthony Boyle, is a bristling low-level hoodlum turned militant; he joins the Canadian army to fight Hitler in Europe, then returns to Newark, more alienated than ever, after losing a leg in action.

But where Roth frames events through the eyes of schoolboy Philip, shaping the novel as a coming-of-age story, Simon and Burns depict the swift and confident ascent of America Firsters from a number of perspectives; for them, the sprouting of local fascism is not the backdrop to the dramatic action, but its essence. The sepia wash with which Roth sentimentally paints the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark becomes sinister on TV; the picture literally becomes darker as the series progresses. Its meticulously designed early-’40s scenes—apartments with printed wallpapers, oval Esso signs in their plump font, bakery boxes fastened with string—seem to have the color drained out of them as antisemitism escalates from restrictions at hotels and epithets spewed by strangers to population transfers, fatal Klan attacks, and store burnings. 

These shifts are related to the process of adapting fiction, with its focus on internal experience, to the more external medium of TV—but the changes are also political. By letting us experience different characters’ varying responses to the upheaval, Simon and Burns invite us to test—and test ourselves against—each approach. In the novel, Herman’s belief in America’s core goodness, seen through the misty memory of his child, seems unassailable. But in the series, it becomes one of several standpoints held out for scrutiny at a critical distance. 

This is the adaptation’s most significant shift. Like his protagonist, Roth seemed to see the fascist eruption he conjured as a bad blip, an aberration from the reliable workings of democracy. Herman is his mouthpiece in The Plot Against America, righteously railing against Lindberghism just as the heroes of the earlier novels he called his “American Trilogy” ranted about McCarthyism’s blacklist (I Married a Communist), Weather Underground-like violence (American Pastoral), and so-called “political correctness” (The Human Stain). In Roth’s worldview, these phenomena are all, despite their differences, unwelcome affronts to liberal values—the best, if necessarily imperfect, values we have. In his Times essay on The Plot Against America, he makes explicit his conclusion to his thought experiment about fascism: “The American triumph is . . . that it didn’t happen here.” 

But of course, “it” did happen here—just not to Jews. Invested as it is in a portrait of American innocence briefly betrayed, Roth’s novel barely glances at the existence of Black people, or any other racialized others besides Jews. This parochialism—as in much of his work—makes for an impressive but narcissistic enterprise. For Herman, and for Roth, white Ashkenazi Jews are the quintessential Americans, veritable Pilgrims who escaped religious persecution and remade themselves in the Land of the Free, their bootstrap success an object lesson in the core national myth. An early scene in the the series, taken directly from the book, drives home the point that this family is just as American as anybody else—indeed even more American because of their difference, which seasons the great melting pot: The Levin family, sitting down to Shabbos dinner, discusses Joe DiMaggio as they make motzi. Herman constantly asserts his belonging when anyone—a belligerent fellow customer at a cafeteria; Lindbergh on the radio—suggests otherwise. “We’re American, you fascist sonofabitch,” he shouts at the radio, an object that is practically a character in the series, the camera fixing on it as it delivers more and more ominous news. 

Though Herman doesn’t change in the series, our relationship to him does. “Every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America?” he gripes in one of many similar outbursts. “How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.” The sentiment, of course, is eerily familiar; Donald Trump provokes such exclamations constantly. It is discomfiting, then, to watch Herman articulate them as fascists upend the tolerant, comfortable pieties that govern his worldview. His incredulity at the failure of liberalism and the corrosion of the American project is inextricably tethered to an ideological assertion: “We’re better than this.” Simon and Burns prod the viewer to consider, self-critically, that such abiding faith in American exceptionalism is endemic today even among many who believe themselves to have unlearned it. 

In the series, the Levins’ insular world remains the locus of the story, but scenes of wider Newark, and beyond, show a multiracial populace that includes the Black and brown people who are most subject to brutal regulation. Meanwhile, by fleshing out characters thinly drawn by Roth, Simon and Burns dramatize dynamics of complicity that go largely unexplored in the novel. The series zeroes in on the arc of Bengelsdorf and Evelyn’s collaboration with the fascist regime, their Jared Kushner-like giddiness at being adjacent to power eclipsing the rank white nationalism in its halls. The show captures Bengelsdorf’s detached self-importance and Evelyn’s desperation for security and success; in one unnerving scene, for instance, they are snubbed by Lindbergh and insulted by Ford at the White House dinner in honor of von Ribbentrop, but she still scores a waltz with the Nazi emissary, the camera closing in on her ecstatic expression as they dance. The consequences of the conniving couple’s actions become harrowingly clear by the end of the series, when Evelyn’s machinations lead to the death of the Levins’ neighbor, an innocent woman with a young son. Elsewhere, Bess accuses Herman of putting their family in harm’s way by refusing to flee the country; Alvin, meanwhile, indicts him for insufficient militancy. In the final episode, the two come to blows. “I lost my leg for the Jews,” Alvin cries. “Did you get off your ass and fight or just sit on your ass next to the radio? . . . When the fuck do you people ever act?”

That’s the question that lingers as America returns to the polls in 1942. Roth ends the novel by setting history back on its rails: FDR is reelected, Pearl Harbor is bombed, and the US joins the war. (Conveniently, the book stops there, before the real forced relocation of Americans occurs: with Japanese internment camps.) The series, however—in its biggest and most welcome departure from the book’s action—denies this rushed and tidy resolution and instead ends with the outcome of the election too close to call. Over images of aggressive voter suppression—voters, some of them Black, being turned away from polls as (presumably) Lindbergh’s thugs steal and destroy ballots, the soundtrack ironically swells with Frank Sinatra singing “That House I Live In (America to Me).” In the days after the last episode aired, images of Wisconsin voters risking infection to cast ballots and of signs like “Arbeit Macht Frei” and “The Vaccine is in the Boxcar” at protests over shelter-in-place orders fused in my nightmares with scenes from the show. 

There’s no organized left in Plot—not in the book or in the show. In this world, it’s up to individuals to find their means of appeasement or complacency, resistance or antifascist action—the latter of which leaves militants broken and powerless to shape a future. As I watched the show under quasi-quarantine in April, that vision seemed dishearteningly bleak. Simon and Burns seem to understand, as Roth did not, that white supremacy sits cozily at the national core—but they do not go so far as to point toward a different future, and thus the story they tell in some sense has nowhere to go. The current uprising now offers a rousing rejoinder. As activists topple monuments to racism, they not only reject the American exceptionalism that immobilizes Plot’s Herman, but imagine something new.

Alisa Solomon is the author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, and of Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender and a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism.