No novel is better than Philip Roth’s Plot against America at summoning up the Jews’ fear that, after 9/11, their enemies would find some way to drive a wedge between the majority of Americans and themselves. Roth’s great 2004 novel is a “parable for the post-Sept. 11 world.”
So at least Adam Kirsch argued in Tablet on Tuesday. And following his lead, readers have now written to ask why The Plot against America is not included in my list of 9/11 novels.
The answer is simple. It’s absurd to suggest that Roth’s Plot is any kind of “parable for the post-Sept. 11 world,” that’s why. The novel was an experiment in imagining what it would have been like, as Roth himself put it, for “America’s Jews to feel the pressure of a genuine anti-Semitic threat.” But if Jews are now under the threat of genuine anti-Semitism — and they are — the threat does not come from the quarter described in Roth’s Plot.
The book is about what might have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh had won the Republican nomination for president and defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. For unexplained reasons, Lindbergh’s election causes Philip’s mother to start crying at the sight of a leather-jacketed D.C. motorcycle policeman, leads Herman Roth to be called a “loudmouth Jew” in a restaurant, and gets the Roths kicked out of their hotel. (The leading characters in this nightmare vision are drawn from Roth’s own family.)
After President Lindbergh mysteriously disappears, his protofascist successor (Burton K. Wheeler, an antiwar Democratic senator from Montana who in historical reality cofounded the America First Committee along with Lindbergh) imposes martial law and accuses “warmongers,” by which everyone understands him to mean the Jews, of seeking to maneuver the U.S. into war against Germany. Anti-Semitic rioting kills 122.
On the literal level, the parallel between 9/11 and Roth’s Plot is hard to discern. It’s true that crackpots like the poet Amiri Baraka shrilled that “4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers” had been told “To stay home that day.” There is no popular audience for anti-Semitism in America, though. Baraka was booed when he read the poem at a poetry festival, and New Jersey officials eventually found a way to remove him as the state’s poet laureate.
It’s also true that some Democratic Party isolationists, who might perhaps be called latter-day Wheelers, argued against taking the war on terror to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But not even the most extreme of conservatives accused them of being fascists. And what is more, American Jews continued to vote for Democrats in numbers that suggested they did not associate the party with anti-Semitism.
The real fascists on 9/11 were the Islamist terrorists who brought down the towers. Shortly afterwards, Christopher Hitchens described the ideology behind the attacks as “fascism with an Islamic face,” and since then he has not flinched at the term Islamofascism. The fascists in Roth’s Plot, however, are native-born Americans. They are suspicious of the Jews as a foreign element in the American bloodstream. But the post-9/11 suspicion of a “foreign element” in this country, at least according to sources like the Center for American Progress and the novelist Kamila Shamsie, is directed toward Arab Muslims, “America’s persecuted minority of the moment,” as Heeb magazine called them. Yet Roth’s foreign element are warmongers, while American Muslims overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq.
The confusion is not merely the result of misreading The Plot against America as a parable, however. Much of the confusion belongs to the novel itself. As Ruth R. Wisse said in her masterful review in COMMENTARY, the genuine threat to American Jews, “aside from the real possibility of Islamic terrorism,” arises from a “kind of homegrown anti-Semitic coalition, combining elements of the isolationist Buchananite Right (Lindbergh’s direct heirs) with the much more energetic and influential forces of the anti-Israel and anti-American Left,” which increasingly find a welcome refuge on American university campuses. Such a threat could easily serve as the basis of a frightening dystopic novel, but as Wisse observed, that novel would not be entitled The Plot against America. Nor would Adam Kirsch be likely to praise it even if it were.