Required reading for every citizen living under the Donald Trump presidency
I do not make a habit of commenting publically on the internal party politics of other nations (though with an Oxford University degree in PPE and as a former UK parliamentary candidate some might consider me qualified to do so). I do, though, set myself a personal target of reading and reviewing at least twelve serious books each year. And it is with this mind-set I came to Philip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America.’
Mr Roth needs no introduction. He stands in the hall of fame of the so-named ‘Great American Novelists.’ His stature beyond question. Yet somehow along the road I have missed him and this is the first of his books I have read.
In other circumstances I might comment on the flow of the prose, the credibility of the plot line, the characters that, courtesy of Mr Roth’s intensely detailed and personal pen pictures, I do or do not find I care about. This, plot, sub plot, story arc and much more is there in an unquestionably outstanding novel crafted by an expert.
But what makes this book different is the timing of my own reading. When I started it, it was a piece of never-happened alternative history – a fantasy, if you will (though that term has been genre-adopted to mean something rather different in our century) of what might have happened if Lindberg, a Nazi sympathiser had won the 1940 election in America.
What makes it uneasy reading is not the representation of Lindberg as a would-be tyrant, but its exploration of the pernicious, quiet creep of totalitarianism, as a tarantula across a night lit ceiling, in circumstances where it is not expected while the focus of decision makers is elsewhere.
What makes it terrifying is to watch the reactions of American friends and acquaintances to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Why terrifying? Because whether they are Hispanic, gay, female or wealthy Caucasian
they sense that something of enormous consequence, and utterly beyond their power to control and influence has happened. Such control as they have has been exercised in the vote and is unlikely to be repeated for another four years.
The possible unfolds in the mind (and one can only hope as fiction only, as in Mr Roth’s book) before it evidences in the world about us. And, in turn, why should this be terrifying? Because Philip Roth has already laid out the path to totalitarianism that MIGHT be taken in such circumstances as these, and the range of reactions -from comfortable ignorance to outright panic felt by minority groups potentially to be target by intolerance (in Mr Roth’s 1940, the Jews) – that we are seeing right now.
I do not accuse Donald Trump of latent totalitarianism and I do not accuse him of being a closet Nazi (though elsewhere he has already so been represented). I am quite certain his intentions as the best possible for fixing an America he sees as broken by over-regulation and the loss of jobs to citizens of other nations. He will, in his own terms, set down a path of putting these things right. And I have some sympathy with the near 50% of American voters who saw things his way. But as we are already finding in my own country, post Brexit, the pendulum never stops in the centre where, as reasoning people we would like it to be. It swings from one extreme to the other in crazed overreaction to what came before. And in a well intentioned sweeping away of that which is thought undesirable, it leaves the way open for the sick spirit of vindictiveness that is the hallmark of the bully who draws playground pleasure from the pain of persecuting those perceived as different. In so doing it paves a road to the domination of that which is truly evil.
America has cast its vote and I have nothing to say about the result per se. But, my American friends, whether you voted Democrat or Republican I put it to you that you do not want the America that Philip Roth has set out in his fictional memoir. It is an America of fear and hatred, an unconstitutional America, hijacked by despotism in steps so small that, when viewed sequentially, you do not see their harm. It is everything your founding fathers stood against. Philip Roth’s cathedral bells have already pealed clear and loud. And if you want to hear them pealing, if you want to stop the pendulum swinging irreparably far, READ PHILIP ROATH’S ‘ THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA.