The Allure of Autocracy: Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”

“France has been defeated, and despite the propaganda and confusion of recent months, it is now obvious that England is losing the war. (Audience cheers loudly.) I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England regardless of how much assistance we send. That is why the America First Committee has been formed.”

That’s from a speech in Manhattan by American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh in 1940, arguing passionately against American intervention in World War II. Lindbergh’s staunch isolationism was hardly an aberration in American life at the time. Much of the country was torn about how to respond to Hitler’s German war machine that was devouring much of Europe, the massive oceans on either side of our continent making gauzy dreams of remaining above the fray more inviting than almost any other country could afford to be.

In his 2004 novel “The Plot Against America,” the late novelist Philip Roth ran with the elements of Lindbergh’s long campaign against entering the war and the ferocious opposition he met in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to create a terrifying alternate history.

Roth’s “What if?…” sketches a scenario in which Lindbergh challenges Roosevelt in the 1940 election with a campaign based on demagoguery and anti-semitic dog whistles. The upstart hero wins, and in the prescient way that great fiction sometimes exhibits, Roth presents eerie portents of the history that would begin unfolding just three presidential elections after the book’s publication.

That’s when Donald Trump was elected using similar divisive tactics, preaching a new isolationism, and, remarkably, establishing “America First” as a major theme of his administration.



America’s frontier heritage seems to have combined with an almost genetic predisposition for self-identification as a fiercely independent and upwardly mobile people, impervious to “socialist” communal group-think and willing to die for the cherished individual freedoms the Founders enshrined in our Constitution.

With his mature novelist’s grasp of human psychology and its self-delusions, Roth shreds that and all myths associated with it. His compulsively readable tale shows how shrewd, would-be autocrats prey on people’s natural survival fears and wariness of the “other,” and can thus be maneuvered like so many chess pieces into a corner where the only way out is through the strength and control of the leader.

Roth does so through the voice of his narrator, a young boy named Phil, loosely based on his own childhood and family in his native Newark. The family occupies a rented flat in a secure, settled Jewish working class neighborhood of merchants and salesmen, with stout housewives tending the home fires. Assimilation occupies the inside lane next to Judaism here, in an environment where “nobody…had a beard or dressed in the antiquated Old World style or wore a skullcap either outdoors or in the houses.”

Furthermore, “Israel didn’t yet exist, six million Jews hadn’t yet ceased to exist, and the local relevance of distant Palestine…was a mystery to me,” Phil tells us.

But with the war fully engaged in not-all-that-distant Europe and reports beginning to come across the Atlantic of Jews there suffering oppression and outright terror, assimilation would not be quite the bulwark American Jews figured it should be in the Land of the Free. Especially not when a crafty demagogue comes into power who well knows the atavistic fears that can bore deeply into the hearts of all creatures, humans very much included.

Those fears are ready for quick ignition when threats, real or not, resound through the air. The idea that humankind is impervious to such fear, and cannot have it stoked to inspire heretofore unimaginable brutality, is a story we tried to tell ourselves beginning with the Enlightenment, but which has since been demolished by history’s unrelenting atrocities, many of the most notable occurring in the 20th century.   

When Phil’s peace-loving father, in wholesale contradiction to “the pervasive, unwritten prohibition” among Jews “against settling disputes by force,” gives in to a furniture-shattering near fight-to-the-death with the nephew he helped raise but who has since turned into a bejeweled dandy flush with mob money, Phil’s world shatters as well.

With even their home no longer safe from the rage, fear and malevolence of streets heavily patrolled both by Lindbergh’s law enforcement minions and a Jewish vigilante force still trying to protect what is left of Jews’ diminishing freedoms, there seems to be no safe haven left, no path back to the world he had known.

“Before that night, I’d had no idea my father was so well suited for wreaking havoc or equipped to make that lightning-quick transformation from sanity to lunacy that is indispensable in enacting the unbridled rage to destroy.”

That capacity for “lightning-quick transformation” reveals the thin line that has always separated, however tenuously, our baseline instinct for survival from the subsequent cultivation of civility and the higher virtues of compassion, generosity and love. But with an encroaching autocracy that is rooted in fear, blames outside forces for bringing it on, and promises the masses security by eliminating or neutralizing those forces, it is oppression rather than compassion that rules the day, greed rather than generosity, fearful hate rather than love.

More than 20,000 American Nazis rented Madison Square Garden in the heart of cosmopolitan, multi-cultural New York City in 1939, there to offer each other Nazi salutes and to praise the distant but close-to-their-hearts führer from across the sea.

In the summer of 2017, a lesser number joined in a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, home to the storied university founded by Thomas Jefferson. They gathered to assert their First Amendment right to proclaim white supremacy and oppose the removal of statues celebrating the exploits of slaveowners in the American Confederacy barely 150 years ago.

They were also included, perhaps haplessly from a too-freely associating American president, among “good people on both sides” who were simply holding a different point of view than their counterparts across the way.

Such movements have always occupied a place in stunted human imaginations. The problem is that such imaginations have rarely shied away from seeking to grasp and assert their power.

Indeed, they often do so with far less trepidation and self-restraint than do those whose imaginations encompass a more rounded view of human foibles and the capacity for cruelty that always lies coiled like a snake at the base of human fear.

And always, it is fear that fuels the allure of autocracy and invites a self-styled, “only I can fix it” savior to offer himself up to the role.

Given the right economic-political-cultural moment, such a figure can rise up, accruing power by preying on people’s worst imaginings, their lesser angels, their longings to be delivered from the pains and pressures that cloud their every thought.

“I was still too much of a fledgling with people to understand that, in the long run, nobody is a picnic and I was no picnic myself,” Phil muses toward the end of his story as the innocent world he had known is now almost completely blown apart, travesty abides and an uncertain future awaits.

As a dark meditation on the underside of human progress and our vulnerability to the mendacious but perversely soothing invitations of a would-be oppressor, “The Plot Against America” stands as a chilling, exquisitely wrought warning shot against any complacency we would dare cling to.


Charlie Chaplin’s emphatic, desperate call to our better angels has few parallels in film or literary history…

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8 comments to The Allure of Autocracy: Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Oh, my goodness. There is so much to digest here that I must take leave, think about it, and return another time. Thank you, Drew, for once again providing such rich and thought-provoking writing. Lindbergh and Trump: I need to munch on that for awhile.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Take your time, Jay! Meanwhile, pick up some Roth and give it a browse!

  • Angela  says:

    As a child in the middle of the 20th century I completely absorbed the iconic nature of Charles Lindbergh as a through-and-through American hero: handsome and daring pilot, conqueror of transatlantic flights, tragically bereaved father. When I later learned he had a political side at all, let alone a dark streak of racism, I experienced this news as a real loss and with no small sadness. Flaws revealed, and another one bites the dust.

    That Lindbergh’s views actually embedded him further as a hero in many people’s eyes and added to his appeal is both a mystery to me and completely predictable. Roth made a brilliant choice in casting him in this novel, helping us to question our choice of heroes and how far we humans are willing to go in our evident need, our fervent desire to order the world in a certain way, to feel safe, to feel superior. When the hero becomes a leader they are of course responsible for their words and actions….and also are the bolder, more articulate mouthpiece of others striving to be heard. Not exactly a happy thought.

    No, not exactly happy thoughts but as citizens we MUST think, and act. Thanks for bringing Roth’s vision to our attention here, along with the mirror of 2019 it reveals.

  • Timothy Lauridsen  says:

    History forgotten returns to teach us once again lessons learned. Better to be loving than right.
    I prefered George Carlin over Charlie Chaplin as social comedians.
    An important bit of history. We are still creating a Utopia within the Divine Plan for man.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Unable to use my right-hand I’m afraid my response to your eye-opening thoughts will be less thorough than I would like. A few comments on Lindbergh. His anti-Semitic and pro-German comments were right on. His involvement in the isolationist America First Committee (along with Joseph Kennedy) criticized FDR’s pro-Britain lend lease act. He advocated a neutrality pact with Hitler to prevent Soviet aggression in Europe. Siding with Hitler hardly the best way to deal with Stalin! He was also extremely upset with U.S. following the media circus surrounding his son’s kidnapping and subsequently moved to Europe for several years. Additionally, he felt that the army didn’t give much credence to his opinion that its air corps was underfunded, especially in comparison to Hitler’s Luftwaffe, but he did fly 50 combat missions in the Pacific after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As a side note, his adultery produced six or seven children. Not mentioned in our high school history text either.

    Drew, I haven’t read Roth’s “Plot Against America.” I’ll put it on my reading list radar. Thanks. By the way, Chaplin’s “Great Dictator” speech a perfect way to end the blog.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Oh, how I do love these conversations; thanks, you people!

    Angela: Your reflections on heroes had me thinking that would be fertile material for a post of its own—until something in the deep recesses of memory told me maybe I had already broached the topic before. Sure enough, almost four years ago now, and I’m not sure I’d add much if anything to it:

    To be perfectly fair to Lindbergh, whose biography I have not read but whom I did do a fair amount of Internet research on in the wake of reading this book and writing about it: there is still controversy as to the extent of his anti-semitic views and whether he was essentially anti-American inasmuch as we have long been a melting pot and he seemed to hold views more consonant with Teutonic racial purity. But as Robert mentions as well, he did wind up training pilots in the Pacific and contributing in other ways to the war effort, though FDR never did trust him one whit after all the isolationist nonsense he had spewed. The fact that he was fully prepared and encouraging of letting our great ally Britain fall to Hitler stands as indictment enough of his bad judgment and flawed character, seems to me.

    Robert, big thanks for your one-handed but full-brained reflections, as always. Hope the other hand heals apace, but meanwhile I do appreciate you pecking as you can to make contributions here. I had thought about adding context for the Lindbergh portion of this post, but decided against for the cause of brevity. So I find it really helps, for those interested in more reading and reflection on the matter at hand, when commenters can fill in more of the picture, and I thank you and everyone else who does so to the betterment of most every post.

    Tim, thanks to you, too. “Better to be loving than right….” I’m gonna emblazon that somewhere or other, for ready access as needed when embroiled in one of those occasional “Oh jeez, how did we get here?” discussions with loved ones. As for the Divine Plan unfolding, I sure hope its director(s) get on with it soon—we seem to be teetering here!

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Genius and nearly superhuman performance such as that exhibited by Lindbergh, lamentably, are often accompanied by a single-mindedness that is rigid, stubborn, and close-minded. I suspect this was true of our aviation hero. Many who achieve the heroic let us down as we learn more about who they “really are.” American resonance with Teutonic racial purity, as you mention Drew, is currently flourishing and likely has influenced the release of films such as BlackKlansman, Green Book, Black Panther, etc. It was hard to dismiss the underlying rebuke of Trump and his supporters while viewing the Academy Awards telecast; indeed, the name “Trump” was not even uttered, though Spike Lee’s reference to supporting love over hate certainly caught The Donald’s attention. A book recommendation to fellow Traversing Bloggers: Arlie Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land” is a must in exploring why Tea Party/Trumpistas support political positions that work against their own self-interests; and much of it points directly to “otherness” of those who don’t look like or worship like their worldview of mainstream and what is right and meant to be.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Wonderful post coupled with most engaging responses from the “Traversing community” – Roth’s book is now on my list (never having read anything of his)… on this day of Cohen’s testimony it is all so pertinent. I haven’t read Jay’s suggested book by the Cal sociologist Arlie Hochschild, but heard her interviewed and was touched by the humanity of her research, taking the time to get up close and personal befriending these folks in the rural South without demonizing them, which in turn lead to real understanding. To me playing on fear is one of the common denominators here, and one that can easily be manipulated to the aggrandizement of the autocrat… also reminds me of the fine work on a psychology of evil by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo (of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment)
    He convincingly outlines how “good people” (e.g. most Trumpists) can be relatively easily conned into participating in bad stuff – at the extreme, the Holocaust. A key element is depersonalizing “the other” and creating a fear laden cover story to self-justify all manner of heinous behavior. We are all vulnerable to one degree or another based on our evolutionary heritage as humans, but it is through the grace of listening, doubting, checking for evidence, challenging assumptions, etc and dialogs like these that we might just be able to keep bending King’s long moral arc toward justice… these are indeed challenging times for our democracy, I am hopeful the ship of state may be beginning to right itself …

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