HBO's 'Plot Against America' has a warning that (almost) makes you forget about coronavirus

“The Plot Against America” is chilling because of what it shows us about fascism in America. It's also chilling, though, because of what, and who, it leaves out.
Image: John Turturro in "The Plot Against America."
John Turturro in "The Plot Against America."Michele K. Short / HBO
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Noah Berlatsky

Philip Roth's 2004 novel “The Plot Against America,” about a fascist United States, has been one of the most referred to literary works since President Donald Trump's election in 2016. David Simon, the creator of a new six-episode HBO miniseries based on the book, is aware of the parallels between the the novel’s bleak vision and our current reality. The series, though, also has some blind spots of its own. What it gets right about our vulnerability to fascism tells us a good deal. But what it misses may tell us even more.

David Simon, the creator of a new six-episode HBO miniseries based on the book, is aware of the parallels between the the novel’s bleak vision and our current reality.

The miniseries, like the novel, is set in an alternate timeline, in which the real aviation hero and fascist sympathizer Charles Lindbergh defeats Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. The story focuses on the Levin family of Newark, New Jersey, and how they react to the growing climate of fear and anti-Semitism under Lindbergh's presidency. Herman (Morgan Spector), the father, is enraged at the violation of his rights and the corruption of his country. His wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan), is quietly terrified by the threat to her family. The older son, Sandy (Caleb Malis), is attracted by Nazi propaganda, which promises him an opportunity to escape New Jersey's Jewish community for a (supposedly) broader, healthier American rural lifestyle.

Roth's novel was at its best in depicting how fascism leads to a quiet corrosion of morals and liberty. The miniseries, with contemporary models to learn from, is even better. The worst people in society are empowered to express their bigotry through bullying, slurs and violence. "These a-------. They've always been here but now it's like they have permission to crawl out from under their rocks," as one character puts it. Lindbergh's political platform is anti-war; he portrays opposition to Hitler, more or less subtly, as a Jewish plot. HIs followers on the ground then pick up on the hints, attacking Jewish crowds, defacing Jewish cemeteries and attacking Jewish synagogues. Lindbergh never issues a direct order, but they’re clearing using his rhetoric as inspiration.

But the actions of those who aren't the worst are even more disturbing. Businessmen — even Jewish ones — look the other way at Lindbergh's bigotry because the economy is good. When the government pressures one store owner to fire a supposedly leftist employee, he acquiesces, because he doesn't want the hassle. An influential rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro in a bravura performance), becomes a chief adviser to Lindbergh. Bengelsdorf wants to push Jewish people to assimilate and prioritize American identity. He also likes the prestige that comes from being a presidential adviser. So he helps apologize for, and even helps advance, anti-Semitic policies, to the horror of Bess, whose sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), is Bengelsdorf's fiancé.

“The Plot Against America,” then, convincingly shows how a fascist president targets, divides and terrorizes the American Jewish community. It's less convincing, though, in its assumption that an American fascism would target Jews first and exclusively. The series barely mentions the effect of Lindbergh's presidency on black people.

Black people do show up around the edges of “The Plot Against America,” mostly as analogues to the Jewish experience. The Levins visit the Lincoln Memorial, for example, and apply the words of the Emancipation Proclamation to their own situation as they are tossed out of hotels and subjected to anti-Semitic slurs in the nation's capital. Henry Ford uses the N-word while insulting Evelyn and Bengelsdorf. Bengelsdorf mentions that his father sided with the Confederacy, and Herman mocks him: "Once we were slaves in Egypt. But your father fought with the Pharaoh."

These gestures toward Jewish/black solidarity, though, just underline the extent to which black characters, and black stories, are not part of the alternate world of the series. There is little acknowledgement that black people, in the real world, were living under an actual fascist Jim Crow regime in FDR's America. Nor is there any effort to imagine how the actual anti-black violence of the time — segregation, lynchings, racist riots — might expand or worsen under Lindbergh. The series portrays anti-Jewish murders by the Ku Klux Klan. Are we to believe that there is no parallel rise in assaults on black people and other people of color in this alternate Lindbergh timeline? Or are we just not supposed to care?

These gestures toward Jewish/black solidarity, though, just underline the extent to which black characters, and black stories, are not part of the alternate world of the series.

It's true that you can't cover everything at once in every show. And anti-Semitism in America has been, and remains, a problem. When leaders like Lindbergh, or like Trump, use anti-Semitic language or dog whistles, it puts Jewish people at risk, just as “The Plot Against America” says it does.

But if you're talking about fascism in America, leaving out anti-black racism is a pretty big omission. The United States certainly has an ugly tradition of anti-Semitism. But black people have been targeted far more by our government.

The U.S. has trouble recognizing the dangers of such domestic racist authoritarianism in part because it does not see its own anti-black racism as part of the history of fascism. But the Confederacy, Jim Crow and mass incarceration are all arguably fascist systems. Notably, the white supremacist who committed the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history attacked a synagogue in Pittsburgh because of its congregant's advocacy for immigrants.

Roth and Simon try to show us what a fascist America would look like by focusing on the fate of white Jewish people. But a fascist America that ignores black people and people of color is at best a fantasy. At worst, it's a Begelsdorfian apology. It's certainly not an adequate warning. “The Plot Against America” is chilling because of what it shows us about fascism in America. It's also chilling, though, because of what, and who, it leaves out.