Life Imitating Art

 

Not long after Donald Trump started expressing admiration for political strongmen – Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Khadafy, Kim Jong-un, and others – we started to recognize that he doesn’t really understand how the American form of government actually works. Remember when he made a statement that suggested that he thought he could direct Supreme Court activities? Or when there was a Supreme Court decision he didn’t like and he said the court would never reach such a decision if he were president? That’s when people started using words like “fascism” and “totalitarianism” to describe what life in this country might be like if the American people were to lose their collective mind and elect him to the presidency.

While The Curmudgeon’s own fears are not quite so apocalyptic, observing this national nightmare sent his mind drifting back to a book he read a decade ago.

plotThe novel is The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. The basic premise is that Charles Lindbergh, who at the time was an American hero of epic proportions and also a pretty well-known anti-Semite who had expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler and all the good things he was doing in Germany, swoops down on a deadlocked Republican presidential convention in 1940 as an unannounced candidate, wins the nomination, and proceeds to defeat Franklin Roosevelt, who was seeking a third term, by a landslide. On the campaign trail Lindbergh travels alone, from destination to destination, in his own plane and making only one campaign pledge: if elected, he will keep the U.S. out of the war in Europe.

A little background here. Lindbergh was an isolationist: after he earned his fame by landing a plane on foreign soil he didn’t want his country to have anything else to do with anything that wasn’t on American soil. In both real life and in the novel he was a spokesman for an organization called America First – the name is pretty self-explanatory – and America First was strongly opposed to the war in Europe. Lindbergh was fascinated by Hitler and the Nazis and was even presented the country’s Service Cross of the Golden Eagle by Goering, on Hitler’s behalf. About his opposition to the war Lindbergh declared that

These wars in Europe are not wars in which our civilization is defending itself against some Asiatic intruder…This is not a question of banding together to defend the white race against foreign invasion…our civilization depends on a Western wall of race and arms which can hold back…the infiltration of inferior blood.

Hmmm: a white race and a wall to hold back the infiltration of inferior blood. Does this ring a bell?

Lindbergh also thought he knew who wanted war most.

The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration.

And he had some choice words for the Jewish.

Instead of agitating for war, Jews in this country should be opposing it in every way, for they will be the first to feel its consequences. Their greatest danger in this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.

Roth picked his bad guy well, didn’t he?

He went from American hero to American villain in just a few years.

He went from American hero to American villain in just a few years.

Getting back to the novel, Lindbergh wins in a landslide. Once in office, Lindbergh signs a treaty with Germany – at one point he holds a state dinner honoring its foreign minister – and another with Japan. Because the story is by Philip Roth there is, of course, a lot of Jewish stuff. Some Jews in the story flee to Canada, with good reason: Lindbergh wants to assimilate the Jewish culture right out of American Jews and creates a new department in the federal government, the Office of American Absorption, to do just that. One of the new office’s biggest programs, called “Just Folks,” sends Jewish teenagers living in predominantly Jewish communities to the midwest for the summer so they can lose some of their Jewishness. In the novel, Roth’s brother goes to Kentucky and comes back pronouncing certain words differently, is a fan of Lindbergh, and calls his parents and their friends “ghetto Jews.” The Lindbergh administration even enlists large companies to transfer their Jewish employees working in predominantly Jewish communities to places in the midwest – ostensibly to assimilate them as well but also to dilute opposition to the president and to put them in an environment where they will no longer be able to earn a decent living. In the novel, public violence against Jews, not quite of a pogrom level, is tolerated by the government, and at a crucial point in the story the city of Newark’s Jewish mob – yes, a Jewish mob –sends its thugs onto the street corners of Jewish neighborhoods to protect their own.

Needless to say, The Curmudgeon was not the only person to see Trump’s candidacy in Roth’s novel – or, if you prefer, to see Roth’s novel in Trump’s candidacy.

 A candidate galvanizes a weakened and divided Republican Party. He’s a celebrity, a charismatic outsider with no political experience, and his racist rhetoric does nothing to halt his momentum.

That’s how a July article in the magazine The Forward begins. The article also noted another similarity between the fictitious Lindbergh and the very real Trump: the Democrats didn’t take Lindbergh seriously.

Sound familiar?

And it continues:

Donald Trump, like Lindbergh, arrives at his position as an established personality rather than as a politician. Of course, while Roth’s 1940-era Lindbergh is a classic, rugged, Midwestern man of few words, Trump’s vulgarity is part of his appeal. On the campaign trail, Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism is implied: Trump does nothing to tamp down his rhetoric about Muslims and immigrants.

A look at Roth’s novel and other political fiction in the Washington Post offered a similar perspective:

Reading these works [note: the Roth novel and others] in this moment, it is impossible to miss the similarities between Trump and totalitarian figures in American literature – in rhetoric, in personal style and even substance.

Also from the Post,

Much as Trump’s claim that only he is tough enough to restore national glory, in “The Plot Against America” Lindbergh is hailed as a “man’s man who gets the impossible done by relying solely on himself.” Republican leaders despair over Lindy’s refusal to take any of their wise advice on how to run his campaign. Defenders believe that Lindbergh’s strength of personality will enable him to strike deals – great ones, the best ones – with the world’s bad guys. “Lindbergh can deal with Hitler, they said, Hitler respects him because he’s Lindbergh.

Again, sound familiar? Trump as the only one who can “make America great again,” ignoring the campaign advice of others, and the self-proclaimed ability to deal with Hitler, which echoes Trump’s insistence that he’ll be able to deal with Putin – and the Chinese and those dastardly Mexicans, too.

Writing about the Roth novel and another work of fiction, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, in which the political demagogue is a Democratic senator named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, the Post explains that

The dictators who Roth and Lewis conjure share the intolerance underlying Trump’s most controversial proposals – banning Muslims from entering the United States, building a wall straddling the U.S.-Mexico border, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants – but the fictional characters often go further and scarier. Lindbergh moves Jews from urban centers into the rural heartland through an ominous Office of American Absorption, leaving them vulnerable to anti-Semitic violence. Windrip creates concentration camps for dissidents; establishes a sham judiciary; and bars black Americans from voting, holding public office, practicing law or medicine, or teaching beyond grammar school.

And of course the demagogues have their defenders: just as it’s now Paul Ryan and John McCain and Orrin Hatch and Mike Pence and other establishment Republicans, in the Roth novel it’s a well-known Newark rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf, who himself hungers for power and fame and sells his soul to attach himself to the new president:

In The Plot Against America, a leading Jewish figure assures the nation that Lindbergh is not really anti-Semitic, even though the president hosts a high-ranking Nazi official at the White House. “Before his becoming president he at times made public statements grounded in anti-Semitic clichés,” Rabbi Bengelsdorf acknowledges. “But he spoke from ignorance then, and admits as much today. I am pleased to tell you that it took no more than two or three sessions alone with the president to get him to see his misconceptions.

Once again, sound familiar? How many times have we heard prominent national conservatives and Republicans who are clearly appalled by Trump twist themselves into knots trying to find a way to rationalize Trump’s irrationality: the most recent groundless accusation, the latest round of name-calling reminiscent of nothing but third-graders in the school yard, this week’s bald-faced lie, the thinly veiled racism and misogyny and xenophobia and just plain unending mean-spiritedness?

Unwilling to let us see that for ourselves, the Post – which, you should know, really, really has it in for Trump – spells it out for us:

Consider how Trump’s success has produced agony among longtime Republican foreign policy experts, to name one group, who wonder if they could live with themselves working in a Trump administration that threatens to target the families of terrorists and destroy trade deals. And top GOP elected officials, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, have made their bed, if not their peace. Principle vs. opportunity is their unending dilemma.

A few weeks ago the Los Angeles Review of Books made many of the same points:

Originally read (despite Roth’s protests) as a roman à clef of the George W. Bush administration, The Plot Against America is now impossible to see outside of the shadow of Donald Trump. Like Lindbergh, Trump has used his celebrity and wealth — and a private plane! — to triumph over a hopelessly fractured Republican party. Joining a boisterous field that swelled to 17, Trump entered the race at a time when no single candidate regularly polled over 15 percent; even as the immediate front-runner, Trump didn’t regularly draw more than a third of the GOP electorate until late November 2015. Politically, Trump and Lindbergh share an isolationist ethos that bleeds into ethno-nationalism. The fictional Lindbergh echoes his historical counterpart, whose anti-Semitism and admiration for Hitler was sold to the American public as a principled resistance to engagement in World War II. Lindbergh’s dialogue, much of which is adapted from the historical record of his speeches, reads like a taciturn adaptation of Trump’s meandering stump speeches, in which “Mexican immigrants” and “China” have been swapped out for “Jews” and “Great Britain.” Trump wants to make America great again, while Lindbergh wants to keep America out of the Jewish war; both see themselves as dealmakers that will achieve their goals through sheer force of personality. As Roth’s narrator, a Jewish nine-year-old from Weequahic, New Jersey, named Philip Roth, explains it after President Lindbergh signs a non-aggression pact with the Third Reich: “Americans everywhere went about declaiming, No war, no young men fighting and dying ever again! Lindbergh can deal with Hitler, they said, Hitler respects him because he’s Lindbergh.” Trump’s candidacy, of course, is predicated on his ability to make better deals — on trade and on funding the construction of imaginary walls.

The Los Angeles Review of Books article blames the press for how it has reported on Trump and his shenanigans, but it also has some choice words for us, the voting public:

Just as important as the press reaction to Trump, though, is the American public’s unwillingness to acknowledge that a major political party has nominated a racist, xenophobic zealot. Despite the explicit racism and nationalism that has always been the raison d’être of Trump’s campaign, many political pundits have been eager to ascribe his support to economic concerns or a sudden public interest in multilateral trade agreements. In Roth’s novel, it isn’t just the press that misunderstands the nature of Lindbergh’s appeal to the public; many of the Jews in Weequahic refuse to believe that virulent anti-Semitism has taken hold of the United States. Despite his own experiences with anti-Semitism, Philip’s father Herman has a false sense of security that Lindbergh’s victory can’t, won’t, and isn’t happening in the United States. Herman’s confidence endures even after Lindbergh is elected, inspired in part by the bravado of speeches by Walter Winchell, Dorothy Sinclair, and Roosevelt. As young Philip tells it, one of Roosevelt’s anti-Lindbergh speeches at a Democratic Party rally was,

[…] so stirring and dramatic that every human being in that crowd (and in our living room and in the living rooms up and down our street) was swept away by the joyous illusion that the nation’s redemption was at hand.

This false confidence leads to Herman’s major mistake: refusing to move his family to Canada before Jewish families in New Jersey are forcibly dispersed to rural areas and violent anti-Semitic riots erupt around the country.

Like the residents of Weequahic, contemporary Americans from across the political spectrum cherish a version of history in which the United States has moved steadily, if slowly, toward acceptance and equality, from the Emancipation Proclamation to Brown v. Board of Education to the Voting Rights Act, to Barack Obama’s election and a post-racial future. Although this narrative has always been a fantasy, Trump’s popularity on the heels of Obama’s reelection renders it incoherent — that is, unless Trump is bizarrely cast as an economic populist standing up for the little guy, an impulsive and uncouth corollary to Bernie Sanders. “Economic anxiety” has become a popular term for articulating Trump’s appeal; even when his campaigns explicit appeals to racism are acknowledged, we want to assume that this racism is caused by economics rather than by a resurgence of white nationalism that we’d rather believe remains buried in the past. Never mind that the median household income of Trump primary supporters was higher than the national average, as well as the average income of Clinton and Sanders voters. At times, even Trump seems confused about the nature of his appeal, as in early August, when he sympathized with residents of Ashburn, Virginia, about all of the factory closures they’d suffered through.

Thousands of local residents attended the rally, but not because of economic anxiety; Ashburn is in the wealthiest county in the nation, and the crowd reacted with confusion when Trump asked if any attendees had worked at the shuttered Smithfield Foods plant, which is three hours away. They did, however, enthusiastically heckle a group of silent Muslim protestors.

The Review notes that when Lindbergh takes office he knows how to deal with those who oppose him.

Unlike the Third Reich, Lindbergh doesn’t enact an American version of the Nuremberg Laws or instigate violence (the anti-Semitic riots in the novel increase after he mysteriously disappears). Rather, he clearly signals to the German American Bund and to other anti-Semitic groups that they no longer need to hide their prejudices. The Roths feel this stigma immediately after Lindbergh’s election in a sightseeing trip to Washington, DC, where they are refused service at their hotel and verbally accosted by fellow travelers. When Herman Roth is called a “loudmouth Jew” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he immediately blames Lindbergh.

This is vaguely reminiscent of the business about the Mexican-American judge whom Trump deems too Mexican and not American enough to have the right to sit in judgment of him, is it not?

And this:

Lindbergh’s election legitimizes and activates a powerful but latent strain of anti-Semitism that creates an increasingly hostile world for the Roths and other Jews.

Which is certainly happening today – not to Jews but to Mexicans and Muslims and, when you think about it, pretty much anyone with brown skin. Trump has validated the prejudices of many white Americans – those we now seem to be calling the “alt-right” – and it has suddenly become acceptable for many of them to articulate the kinds of racist nonsense that Archie Bunker shamed us into having the good sense to keep to ourselves more than 40 years ago.

Again, from the Review:

Trump’s signals to his supporters are equally clear: use violence if necessary to expel protestors from rallies; blame Muslims and Mexicans for all of the United States’s shortcomings; celebrate power and authority over consensus and negotiation. His name has been invoked as a taunt against minorities at high school sporting events, as an accompaniment to a swastika in the vandalism of a Northwestern University chapel, and in the assault of two students — one Muslim, the other Hispanic — at Wichita State University. Even if Trump is soundly defeated in November, his success has exposed a sizable bloc of American voters willing to embrace his unapologetic mix of ethno-nationalism, authoritarianism, and transparent egoism. The German American Bund existed quite apart from Lindbergh, and now that Trumpism has been revealed as such a powerful, lucrative, and politically viable force, it would be naïve to imagine that no one else will try to activate it once Trump himself fades away.

The ending of The Plot Against America is unsatisfying. When The Curmudgeon first read the book in 2005 he had to re-read the ending just to make sure he didn’t miss something (he is not always a careful enough reader of fiction). In the end, controversy and violence erupt after a candidate for president who is virulently anti-Lindbergh – strangely, the Jewish gossip columnist Walter Winchell – is assassinated. Lindbergh leaves the White House, flies by himself to Louisville where Winchell was murdered to quell the violence that has erupted – and then takes off to fly home and is never seen or heard from again.

So what happened to Lindbergh? Roth never says. Some say his plane crashed and he was never found; some say he was kidnapped by Jews; others suggest he returned to the Germans, who essentially owned him because it turned out that his kidnapped son hadn’t been killed after all but was just being held by the Germans, who then blackmailed Lindbergh into all of his damaging, downright un-American actions.

The Curmudgeon had another theory the first time he read the novel and the first time he re-read the ending and then again when he finished re-reading the book last week: that Lindbergh had no idea what to do when faced with a real and serious challenge and simply up and ran away. (Worth noting:   between the time Lindbergh disappears and Franklin Roosevelt wins an emergency election to return to the presidency, the Lindbergh apparatus clamps down on dissent hard and violently, in a manner reminiscent of fascism, which calls to mind Trump’s insistence that if elected he will “open up the libel laws” to make it more difficult for the press to be critical of him.)

Yes, he wants to get elected president, but do you really think he wants to BE president?

Yes, he wants to get elected president, but do you really think he wants to BE president?

This meshes neatly with The Curmudgeon’s perception of Donald Trump. In his eyes, Trump wants to be president because he wants even greater fame and glory than he already has and feeds off the adulation of his supporters. Trump may even be interested in doing a few things if he’s elected. The Curmudgeon finds it inconceivable, though, that Trump actually wants to be the everyday president of the United States. Does anyone seriously believe he wants to get involved in agriculture policy, in energy policy, in health care? Could he be even remotely interested in environmental issues, urban affairs, any country in the southern hemisphere, or housing that doesn’t cost seven figures? In the end, The Curmudgeon thinks he wouldn’t, that while he’d love being elected president he would actually hate being president and that at the first hint of adversity – and maybe even the first hint that being president doesn’t leave time, or the opportunity, to make more money, or that the presidency is hard work and that no matter how well he does in office tens of millions of Americans will always hate him – he will, like Roth’s fictitious president Charles Lindbergh, get into his private plane and fly off, never to be seen or heard from again.

The Curmudgeon, for one, hopes we never get to find out.

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