The Plot Against America is pertinent to this era

John Turturro in The Plot Against America (HBO Canada photo)

Philip Roth’s acclaimed alternative-history novel about America under a pro-Nazi president during the Second World War, has been adapted into a six-part HBO series that premieres tonight on Crave.

The Plot Against America was published in 2004, long before Donald Trump became president, but 2½ years after the infamous Charlottesville march with its “Jews will not replace us” chants, it is very prophetic.

Comparisons with modern-day America are inevitable. Like Trump, the president of the United States in The Plot Against America is a popular celebrity; in this case Charles Lindbergh, famous for his non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927.

The series begins in June 1940, shortly after the fall of Paris to the Nazis. Lindbergh is running in the U.S. election against incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a campaign of America First, a nationalist program that vows to keep America out of the war. He is pro-fascist, and an admirer of the Nazi regime. Like Trump, he speaks in short soundbites. While Trump speaks in Tweets, Lindbergh delivers 41-word speeches, that repeat his main mantra that the election is a choice between “Lindbergh or war.”

The Plot Against America focuses on the effects of this political climate on a working class Jewish family in Newark, N.J., the Levins (changed from the book’s Roths); Herman and Elizabeth, their two boys and Elizabeth’s unmarried sister, Evelyn. The story, as one would expect, is very Jewish. Much of the family’s discussions and arguments take place over Shabbat dinner, and their conversations are peppered with Yiddishisms such as shaygetz, goyim, gonif, shlimazel and balabusta.

Bubbling beneath Lindbergh’s America First speeches is his blaming Jews for pressuring Roosevelt into joining the war. The Levins, like many other Jews, are aware of what’s happening in Europe (Herman, played by Morgan Spector, is an avid viewer of the newsreels) and are naturally anxious. Their youngest son Philip is haunted by nightmares.

Herman Levin at first is doubtful that Lindbergh will win. “Roosevelt is a professional politician, a leader. Lindbergh is an airline pilot with opinions,” he tells his neighbours. Yet, he worries about the anti-Semitism that is brewing around him. “If Lindbergh says it, every anti-Semite has permission.”

The series advances several months with each episode. Lindbergh wins the election. We see shots of cemeteries desecrated with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti. Halls are decorated with red, white and blue banners and giant portraits of George Washington in true fascist style.

As time progresses, anti-Semitism becomes more prevalent and Jews become persecuted. On a holiday trip to Washington, D.C., the Levins are kicked out of their room because they are Jewish, and the FBI is following them because of the sympathies of their nephew Alvin, who joins the Canadian Army. Herman’s wife, Elizabeth (Zoe Kazan) suggests to her husband that they move to Canada.

(l-r) Winona Ryder and Zoe Kazan in The Plot Against America (HBO Canada photo)

John Turturro is the star of this series, playing Lionel Bengelsdorf, a southern rabbi who is an apologist for Lindbergh. Evelyn (Winona Ryder) falls in love with Bengelsdorf, much to the Levins’ disdain. “He’s koshering Lindbergh,” Herman says. Evelyn and Bengelsdorf get invited to White House state dinners, including one for German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Bengelsdorf is the prime mover behind Just Folk, a program that sends Jewish children to America’s heartland to assimilate them. Evelyn convinces the Levins to send their oldest son there, and he returns a poster-boy recruiter for the program, calling his family “ghetto Jews.”

The Plot Against America, adapted by David Simon (Treme, The Wire) is a timely series, full of parallelisms to what’s going on in America and elsewhere. At six parts, it inevitably includes some digressions and unnecessary supporting characters, but for the most part stays faithful to the book. Fans of the novel would love this adaptation, but you don’t have to have read it to enjoy this.