Political zealots had a field day during the recent presidential election. Right-wingers painted Obama as a Kenyan communist. Leftists painted Romney as a plutocrat who would steal bread from babies.
A new low? Not really. Fear-mongering has a long, nasty history in American politics, and Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America has never seemed more relevant. The novel explores this unfortunate American tradition through the eyes of a nerdy Jewish boy in Newark, N.J. named Philip Roth. The novel asks: What if aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, who became a prominent—and anti-Semitic voice—of American isolationism in the 1930s, had won the 1940 presidency?
You might have guessed: It turns out badly for the Jews. Anti-Semitism sweeps the country. The Roth family disintegrates. The Jewish neighborhood is decimated. The novel climaxes with a conspiracy that invokes Amelia Earhart, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, all at once. In a 2009 TV interview, Roth said he never intended The Plot Against America as a cautionary tale, but acknowledged it struck a nerve among many Americans. “The atmosphere of fear…touches something that’s alive in their experience,” Roth said. And as November’s election illustrated, the same seems true today.