What Philip Roth can teach us about Donald Trump

Sameer Rahim in Prospect Magazine:

LindDespite his shaky poll ratings, Donald Trump’s brand of charismatic nastiness has plenty of appeal and could yet propel him to the American presidency. His recent attacks on Ghazala and Khizr Khan, the Muslim parents of an American soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, showed how low he is prepared to strike. (Though is it churlish to ask why it has taken so long to point out the outrageousness of his plans to ban Muslims from the “land of the free”?) Yet there are already conspiracy theories flying around about Khizr Khan being a Muslim Brotherhood plant; an article he wrote in 1988 about Islamic law has been dredged up to prove his un-Americanness. You can be sure these are the articles being shared by Trump supporters on social media—not the mainstream outrage from Democrats and some Republicans. We are witnessing the paranoid style in American politics, turbo-charged by the internet age. How did we get to this point? Is there anything new to say about Trump and his phenomenal rise? Amid the welter of opinion, it might be worth turning to fiction. In 2004, Philip Roth wrote a brilliant counter-factual novel, The Plot Against America, which imagined the US electing a celebrity far-right leader with bigoted views about minorities and a weakness for foreign strongmen. Reading the novel, you can’t help seeing striking parallels with the rise of Trump. Roth, writing about the past but of course also about the present, anticipates the rightward shift in post-9/11 US politics.

Beginning in 1940, The Plot Against America is set in a fictionalised version of Roth’s own Newark family. The narrator is a young Philip, looking back over the troubled times of his early life. The opening lines, with a couple of adjustments, could apply equally well today to a young Muslim in Florida or a Mexican in Nevada: “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.” Charles A Lindbergh was a real person. An ace pilot, in 1927, at the age of 25 he flew solo non-stop from New York to Paris. Overnight he became a hero across America. In 1932, his baby son was kidnapped and killed by an immigrant ex-convict, which brought him widespread sympathy. By 1936, Lindbergh was in Berlin for the Olympics, describing Adolf Hitler as “undoubtedly a great man… [who] I believe has done much for the German people.” In 1941 he spoke at America First rallies (the slogan resurrected by Trump), and was touted by many as the next president.

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