The terrifying possibility of a Trump victory tomorrow is mitigated only by a certain perverse amusement at the sheer narcissism and witless buffoonery of this vainglorious mountebank. And there is one voice in particular that should now be raised in scathing denunciation: that of Philip Roth, the magesterial chronicler of American mores, society and politics of the last century, whose counterfactual book The Plot Against America describes (through the eyes of a young New York Jewish boy), the events following the victory of the Nazi sympathising celebrity Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 presidential election.
Of course, in reality Frankin Roosevelt won, and Lindberg wasn’t even on the ballot (the Republican candidate was the businessman Wendell Willkie), but he was the leader of the hugely popular ‘America First’ isolationist anti-war movement, and the idea of him winning the Republican nomination and then the presidency itself, is not ridiculously far-fetched. Indeed, with the rise of Trump, Roth’s alternative history looks far less outlandish than it did when the book was first published in 2004.
It should also be noted that on the evidence of his infamous Des Moines speech of September 11th 1941, Lindbergh appears to have been a less egotistical, more thoughtful and probably more personally honest individual than Trump:
So why have we heard nothing from Roth in the course of the present tragicomic presidential contest? Surely, Trump is perfect Roth material – and Clinton also worthy of his forensic scorn?
The sad answer may be found in Roth’s 2007 Exit Ghost, which opens on the eve of the 2004 US election and contains a description of the protagonist Nathan Zuckerman’s withdrawal from political involvement – and, indeed, from much of contemporary life. Roth has never made any secret of the fact that Zuckerman is an alter ego for himself. The following gives us a taste of what we’re missing, and the reason why that is so:
I had been an avid voter all my life, one who’d never pulled a Republican lever for any office on any ballot. I had campaigned for Stevenson as a college student and had my juvenile expectations dismantled when Eisenhower trounced him, first in ’52 and then again in ’56; and I could not believe what I saw when a creature so rooted in his ruthless pathology, so transparently fraudulent and malicious as Nixon, defeated Humphrey in ’68, and when, in the eighties, a self assured knucklehead whose unsurpassable hollowness and hackneyed sentiments and absolute blindness to every historical complexity became the object of national worship and, esteemed as a “great communicator” no less, won each of two terms in a landslide. And was there ever an election like Gore versus Bush, resolved in treacherous ways that it was, so perfectly calculated to quash the last shameful vestige of a law-abiding citizen’s naiveté? I’d hardly held myself aloof from the antagonisms of partisan politics, but now, having lived enthralled by America for nearly three-quarters of a century, I had decided no longer to be overtaken every four years by the emotions of a child — the emotions of a child and the pain of an adult. At least not so long as I holed up in my cabin, where I could manage to remain in America without America’s ever again being absorbed in me. Aside from writing books and studying once again, for a final go-round, the first great writers I read, all the rest that once mattered most no longer mattered at all, and I dispelled a good half, if not more, of a lifetime’s allegiances and pursuits. After 9/11 I pulled the plug on the contradictions. Otherwise, I told myself, you’ll become the exemplary letter-to-the editor madman, the village grouch, manifesting the syndrome in all its seething ridiculousness: ranting and raving while you read the paper, and at night, on the phone with friends, roaring indignantly about the pernicious profitability for which a wounded nation’s authentic patriotism was about to be exploited by an imbecilic king, and in a republic, a king in a free country with all the slogans with which American children are raised. The despising without remission that constitutes. The despising without remission that constitutes being a conscientious citizen in the reign of George W. Bush was not for one who had developed a strong interest in surviving as reasonably serene — and so I began to annihilate the abiding wish to find out. I cancelled magazine subscriptions, stopped reading the Times, even stopped picking up the occasional copy of the Boston Globe when I went down to the general store. The only paper I saw regularly was the Berkshire Eagle, a local weekly. I used TV to watch baseball, the radio to listen to music, and that was it.