Up 'til now, the classic fictionalized treatment of fascism in America was Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, which gave us the famous line, "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross." While Lewis' 1935 book is an enduring classic, it is now joined by Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which, published in 2004, is now showing up in remainder bins everywhere for six or seven bucks. If you haven't picked this one up yet, now is the time.
Roth fictionalizes his own childhood growing up in Newark, NJ to consider how his family history might have looked in a different sort of America. In Roth's alternate version, instead of FDR being re-elected for a third term in 1940, he is defeated by isolationist Charles Lindbergh, who blames the Jews for trying to drag America into World War Two. Roth isn't making that part up. Lindbergh was indeed a anti-semitic isolationist, as this speech, delivered in 1941 at an America First rally clearly attests. While Lindbergh did become active in politics and was encouraged to run for high office, his isolationism and pro-Nazi statements made him politically radioactive after Pearl Harbor settled the intervention question once and for all.
The back of the book contains a number of historic chronologies of main characters, as well as briefs on the more minor persons involved. Henry Ford, the father of the assembly line, had a soft spot for fascism as well, and his Dearborn Independent newspaper, to which Ford dealers were forced to subscribe, ran a regular column called The International Jew, The World's Problem. These were later published in a four-volume set in a book of the same title.
In Roth's book, the election of Lindbergh unleashes and legitimates an undercurrent of American anti-Semitism that leads to pogroms and culminates in an unsuccessful fascist putsch that features a near war with Canada, imposition of martial law, and the arrest of leading Jews and even Roosevelt himself.
While Roth has been criticized for slandering the dead, it seems to me that those such as Lindbergh who were unkindly fictionalized richly deserved their treatment. It's always interesting to consider the big historical What Ifs. In this case, there were clearly those in America who favored an isolationist course and admired fascism. America's non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War and treatment of those who fought in Spain as "premature anti-fascists" is evidence that things could have gone a different way.
The fact is, however, that America turned on the Lindberghs and Fords, and was disgusted by their pro-fascist and anti-semitic sentiments. Fascism is nothing if not opportunistic, and a fascism of today would look differently than that of the thirties and forties. While we now see many alarming signs, I still believe that any American leader who grabs for power in this manner will ultimately find himself disgraced, out of power, and reviled by history.
Rich Lang has called an emergency meeting at Trinity United Methodist Church, on Aug. 1 at 7 p.m. to discuss an appropriate response to the President's latest Executive Order. These are serious times. Be there if you can.