What would the world be like if Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator and Hitler admirer, had become president in 1940?
This is the premise on which Roth’s The Plot Against America lies and the book creates an interesting counterfactual tale of Jewish persecution in the U.S. that never reached the crescendo of that in Germany but reveals that if the circumstances were just a little different, might have.
Could the U.S. tip over into such destructive hate? Can a majority of people be whipped up to persecute a minority group? History reveals that the answer is yes, of course, and there are countless examples, including some in the U.S. So postulating that pogroms or genocide could happen in the U.S. today isn’t that difficult.
And this is where I found Roth’s book most interesting. The narrator is the young Philip Roth, who at nine, loses his childhood and his innocence when he realizes that the things he assumed were solid and could be counted on, could not. That every institution and every governmental assurance could disappear in the few seconds it took to move one individual out of the White House and another in.
And it’s a lesson we are learning today. During the period between the election and the inauguration, I had countless people tell me not to worry. They argued that Trump couldn’t really “do” anything because of that whole idea of “checks-and-balances” and the Supreme Court and Congress. I patiently explained to them that, in fact, all these artificial stops could be repealed, replaced, or eliminated by someone with a mind to do so.
And certainly in the last sixty days, Trump has given it a good go. But miraculously to date, these very institutions have been the bulwark holding Trump and his agenda back. The court system is fighting. The ACLU is fighting. The people have risen and are fighting. They are fighting to save each other and a very flawed system, but a system on which we all believe in and believe can be improved upon.
And ultimately, this is what Roth’s novel reveals. Though he uses some slight of hand to bring down Lindbergh and even offers a possible justification for his actions against the Jews, it is ultimately the systems and institutions that have developed over time to preserve and increase democracy that save it—in Roth’s fictional world and in our world today.
If there is a lesson to be taken from The Plot Against America, it is that we must strengthen the systems we often condemn. We must lend money and time to make them better and stronger. They are the thing that keep democracy floating. So volunteer. Serve on someone’s campaign, knocking on doors and getting people out to vote. Give money to the ACLU and to Planned Parenthood. Fight for organizations that fight for the people. If you want to make America great, dedicate your time to maintaining the organizations that protect us all.