US author Philip Roth certainly could never have imagined Donald Trump’s presidency when he wrote “The Plot Against America.”
But a new TV adaptation of his bleak 2004 novel, which envisions an alternate history of a fascist United States, certainly suggests a link between fantasy and the current political reality.
David Simon, creator of the acclaimed drug-crime saga “The Wire,” got the blessing of Roth — who died in 2018 — before launching into the six-episode HBO series.
“If you read the novel, it’s startling how allegorical it is to our political moment,” Simon said in an interview with NPR.
“In some respects, using the past and trying to reference the past as allegory is your best shot for explaining what has happened to the American body politic right now.”
The show, which began airing late Monday, offers a giant “what if” — what if aviator hero (and known fascist sympathizer) Charles Lindbergh had defeated Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1940 US presidential election?
Alternate history has become a bit of a genre in the era of peak TV — other examples include the dystopian saga “The Man in the High Castle” and HBO’s hit series “Watchmen.”
But unlike many other examples, “The Plot Against America” draws uncomfortably close parallels to real-life events.
While Lindbergh was never a Republican White House hopeful, he was a national icon and the face of the America First Committee, an influential isolationist movement that had as many as 800,000 members advocating that the US stay out of World War II.
The series even rehashes the most famous speech of the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic, in which he condemned Nazi aggression but accused Jews of wanting to drag America into the war.
Little by little, the series depicts the tilt of American society towards fear, racism and violence.
‘Dry run at fascism’
Simon — who co-wrote the series with “Wire” collaborator Ed Burns — sets the tale, as Roth did, in the author’s hometown of Newark, New Jersey, in the home of an ordinary Jewish family.
By limiting the number of characters, the series stays on point and allows viewers to delve deeper into their motivations and personalities.
“Roth’s book is at its most powerful when it’s examining what the members of this Jewish-American family… do when confronted by a dry run at fascism in their country,” Simon told NPR.
“Every one of them struggles with that question of, you know, where do you stand in an America that is transforming itself into something less than a republic?”
“And that’s kind of where we’re at” in present-day America, added Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who has also worked on “Treme” and “The Deuce” for HBO.
In 2013, Simon was approached to work on “Plot,” but he said he declined at the time because he didn’t think the country was “going that way.”
“How wrong I was,” he said.
Simon gathered an all-star cast to tell the story, including Winona Ryder as a woman engaged to a rabbi (John Turturro) who ends up working for Lindbergh and mistakenly believes he can use his influence to curb his anti-Semitic policies.
“I think I’m fairly convinced not only that it can happen here, but that we are right now on a road where it will happen here,” Simon said of the path towards demagoguery, slamming what he called Trump’s “misrule.”
He added that it could happen “unless there is a sufficient level of awareness of how vulnerable we are and how fragile democracy actually is.”