The Plot Against America: David Simon’s new HBO series sounds warning bells over global resurgence of fascism
Without ever getting preachy, The Plot Against America suggests you cannot preserve an unconditional stand of politically neutrality.
With each new HBO series, David Simon dives a little further, a little deeper, into the American identity — through Baltimore's war on drugs in The Wire, the invasion of Iraq in Generation Kill, the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina in Treme, the 1980s fight for affordable housing in Show Me a Hero, and the porn industry in 1970s New York in The Deuce.
In his six-part miniseries The Plot Against America, he adapts Philip Roth’s alt-history tale which imagines a past with strong parallels to the present.
What if a demagogic Republican interloper with no experience in politics or foreign affairs won the US presidency by spouting divisive rhetoric, vilifying the media, and always promising to put "America first"? The Plot Against America envisions such a scenario where celebrated aviator and American hero Charles Lindberg glides into the Oval Office after winning the 1940 elections. Of course, we could very well be talking about US President Donald Trump even if he is no national hero.
What Philip K Dick presents as the central premise in his novel The Man in the High Castle (also an Amazon Prime Video series), is nothing more than a threat in The Plot Against America. Dick's 'What if Nazis ruled America' scenario is a domino effect from the assassination of then President-elect Franklin D Roosevelt in 1933. In 'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,' the alt-history novel within Dick's novel, FDR survives the assassination attempt, relinquishes the White House in 1940, and the Allies win World War II. But it is Lindbergh's victory over FDR that becomes the point of divergence between Dick's novel and Roth's.
Interestingly, Simon makes an important change to separate the series from the book: he shifts the point of view from Roth (himself as a seven-year-old boy in 1940) to an extended Jewish family in Newark. The Levins live in the kind of middle-class suburban idyll, where the neighbours come together for a beer, a smoke, and a chat in the evening. The chat can get politically heated if you let dad Herman (Morgan Spector) do most of the talking. Herman worries about the fate befalling European Jews, and hopes the US government intervenes before it is too late. As Lindberg's stand grows from isolationism to brazen anti-semitism, he cannot help but voice his concerns. His wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) is less vocal but quietly worries about the threats her family might face amid growing anti-Jewish sentiment. The children, Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Philip (Azhy Robertson), are split between their genuine admiration for Lindbergh and their dad's condemnation, unaware of what his presidency may mean for their own futures. Herman's delinquent nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) takes matter into his own hands, beating up some Nazi sympathisers; meanwhile, their aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder), struggling to find love, catches the eye of a rabbi sympathetic to Lindbergh. Tension and conflict are sure to erupt in the Levin household.
In The Man in the High Castle, there is a clear sociopolitical contrast between the US as it is and the US as it could have been. However, it is impossible not to recognise the parallels between the worlds of The Plot Against America and our own, when you see the present through Roth's version of the past. But Simon does not force these obvious parallels with repeated winks to our current reality, but lets Roth's story play itself out independently from it.
It is important to remember Roth wrote the novel during the Bush administration, long before Trump took over the White House. The post-WWII foreign policy of the US mirrors the opening scene, where kids draw a chalk outline and "declare war" on different countries. But if Lindberg was isolationist and George W Bush an interventionist, Trump is a “selectionist” who picks and chooses where the US will be active, as a senior US diplomat recently said. But all three still share anti-democratic values which will find support and bring together large sections of the general public.
Though the series is set eight decades earlier, America suffers from a similar crisis of national identity like it did before entering World War II. The Plot Against America shows a country does not just go from nationalism to National Socialism (aka Nazism) overnight. It begins with the majority slowly tolerating, even normalising, what was once intolerable and abnormal.
Soon, the anti-Jewish sentiments of German immigrants and white supremacists find a larger audience among the isolationist crowds. Before you know it, the extremists grow in numbers and begin burning down synagogues.
Though we rarely see Lindbergh, we thus feel his haunting presence in the fear and respect he commands. So Simon takes a granular look at how a politician sympathetic to the Nazi ideology affects the everyday lives of Jewish Americans, from the children playing in the streets to neighbours getting together on weekends. Without ever getting preachy, he suggests you cannot preserve an unconditional stand of politically neutrality — or pick and choose your battles — when your country faces a moral crisis; not in these testing times when democracies have become so fragile; not when the forces which could cause our countries to sink into fascism have far from disappeared, and only grow stronger.
The Plot Against America is now streaming on Hotstar+ Disney.
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