Culture

Philip Roth Admits He Never Imagined an American President as Grotesque as Trump

The acclaimed author opens up on "The Plot Against America," #MeToo and more.

Philip Roth
Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

Published in 2004, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America imagines an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh, the famed pilot and spokesman for the America First Committee, captures his party's nomination after making a dramatic entrance at the 1940 Republican National Convention. He later rides a surge of support in the South and the Midwest to the White House, defeating Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a stunning upset on a campaign of "Vote for Lindbergh, or Vote for War." As president, Lindbergh nominates industrialist and notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford as secretary of the interior, and the United States begins its slow descent into authoritarianism.

Sound familiar?

Roth's days as a prophet are likely finished—he officially announced his retirement from writing in 2012—but as a recent interview with the New York Times reveals, he "still has plenty to say" about his award-winning novel (which is currently being adapted by The Wire's David Simon), the #MeToo movement and our present political crisis. The conversation is worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few highlights.

On the parallels between The Plot Against America and the U.S. Today

"No one I know of has foreseen an America like the one we live in today. No one (except perhaps the acidic H. L. Mencken, who famously described American democracy as 'the worship of jackals by jackasses') could have imagined that the 21st-century catastrophe to befall the U.S.A., the most debasing of disasters, would appear not, say, in the terrifying guise of an Orwellian Big Brother but in the ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon. How naïve I was in 1960 to think that I was an American living in preposterous times! How quaint! But then what could I know in 1960 of 1963 or 1968 or 1974 or 2001 or 2016?"

On Donald Trump

"However prescient The Plot Against America might seem to you, there is surely one enormous difference between the political circumstances I invent there for the U.S. in 1940 and the political calamity that dismays us so today. It’s the difference in stature between a President Lindbergh and a President Trump. Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to fascism, but he was also — because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25—an authentic American hero 13 years before I have him winning the presidency. Lindbergh, historically, was the courageous young pilot who in 1927, for the first time, flew nonstop across the Atlantic, from Long Island to Paris. He did it in 33.5 hours in a single-seat, single-engine monoplane, thus making him a kind of 20th-century Leif Ericson, an aeronautical Magellan, one of the earliest beacons of the age of aviation. Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac."

On the #MeToo movement

"Men enveloped by sexual temptation is one of the aspects of men’s lives that I’ve written about in some of my books. Men responsive to the insistent call of sexual pleasure, beset by shameful desires and the undauntedness of obsessive lusts, beguiled even by the lure of the taboo — over the decades, I have imagined a small coterie of unsettled men possessed by just such inflammatory forces they must negotiate and contend with. I’ve tried to be uncompromising in depicting these men each as he is, each as he behaves, aroused, stimulated, hungry in the grip of carnal fervor and facing the array of psychological and ethical quandaries the exigencies of desire present. I haven’t shunned the hard facts in these fictions of why and how and when tumescent men do what they do, even when these have not been in harmony with the portrayal that a masculine public-relations campaign — if there were such a thing — might prefer. I’ve stepped not just inside the male head but into the reality of those urges whose obstinate pressure by its persistence can menace one’s rationality, urges sometimes so intense they may even be experienced as a form of lunacy. Consequently, none of the more extreme conduct I have been reading about in the newspapers lately has astonished me.

Read the full interview at the New York Times.

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Jacob Sugarman is the acting managing editor at Truthdig.