Something Has Gone Wrong Now: David Simon on The Plot Against America

In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate history novel, a face familiar to most Americans uses xenophobia and racism to stir up rage in a large portion of the American electorate. His hatred emboldens others, a cyclone that feeds itself continuously, growing more and more forceful and destructive with each speech given or law passed. The familiar face is Charles Lindbergh’s and the election takes place in 1940, but it shouldn’t be hard to see why HBO and David Simon might choose this particular moment to dramatize Roth’s novel for the screen.

“I think it would be disingenuous to say that it was getting remade because we needed to relitigate or reconsider Lindbergh, or 1940, or Roosevelt, or intervention, or America First, or isolationism,” Simon told in an interview in early March. “The verdict on that is in, and it should be. Hitler is quite bad. Fascism is bad. World War II was inevitable and necessary, and the fact that America sided early with Britain in terms of lend-lease, and was not perfectly neutral, and did not stay isolated from Europe is one of the great outcomes of history. There's no point doing a miniseries to argue all that. If you're doing that, you're wasting six hours of television.”

Instead, Simon, in his first literary adaptation, uses Roth’s oddly prescient alternate history to examine our current political moment. The result is a blisteringly effective miniseries, as pointed in its dissection of the rise of fascism in a Lindbergh-led America as “The Wire” was of the still-failing “War on Drugs.” But like “The Wire”—like all Simon’s series have been—“The Plot Against America” is neither purely polemic nor didactic, but is above all breathtakingly human, unafraid to condemn hatred and brutality but unwilling to leave such things unexplored. It is vital, and right on time. Simon spoke with about his first experience adapting fiction, what Roth specifically asked of him prior to the novelist’s death, and what he hopes the public takes from the series and into the voting booth.

This interview contains plot details from both Roth’s novel and the series and has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What was your priority when you sat down to adapt this story? What was the thing that was most essential to its telling?

The reason that the Roth book stands out is its vision of American dystopia is so strangely precise to our current political moment. On every page, you have to consider what we've already lived through in the last few years, and what was asserting itself in our political dynamic.

When you come to a program like Homestead 42 [a plot point in the book, inspired by the Homestead Act of 1862], and this idea of diminishing Jewish voting blocks, and scattering them to the winds, you have to look at the sphere of the current immigrant groups, and the idea that voting blocs will be overwhelmed by newcomers who might have different politics than your own. You have to look at the racialist fears that are currently put in play. When you look at something like the Winchell riots [Walter Winchell, a voice of protest in the novel], or Lindbergh's response to [a certain character’s assasination], you have to think of Charlottesville and the presidential response to that. The challenge, and it wasn't much of a challenge because the book was so prescient, is just making sure that you're aware what our political moment is, and making sure that you're not too polemic about that, but you're also not too delicate because that's the reason to do the work.

Did you find yourself using different muscles in adapting something from fiction rather than nonfiction?

I found myself with a different level of nausea. I’ve adapted three books—one my own, and two by other journalists—and I'd stay very true to the material because we were using real names, real events that were described in these works of journalism. I felt there had to be some conscience when it came to writing a scene: what really happened, who were these people, who was there at the time. These were all questions we had to ask ourselves in the previous miniseries. Here, it's open-ended. It did not happen.   

It is true that Lindbergh was solicited to run for the Republican nomination in 1940. It's true that Roosevelt was actually quite frightened he would, that he was the one candidate Roosevelt feared, but he didn't accept the nomination, and eventually, Pearl Harbor, and then ultimately the discovery of the Nazi barbarities in full confined [Lindbergh] to the ash heap in terms of his political stature. That's what really happened. Beyond that, Roth is basically telling a story of plausible fiction, of an alternate history. If we can still stay plausible, we do have the ability to play around with it a little more—or maybe a little less? No one's going to hold us to account the way a historian would, or the way a journalist would if we were treating non-fiction material. On the other hand, yes, the opportunity to mess around and to try things and to consider a wider universe is there. On the other hand, the nausea comes from the fact that it's Philip Roth. It's a writer who was waiting around for a Nobel. It didn't come, but that was all he was doing at the end of his remarkable career. And here I am, a television hack, and I'm playing around with his book.

When we made a change—and sometimes we needed to make a change structurally for the piece to work as a miniseries, or for it to be to make it more relevant to current political moment—when we did play around with something, we did we did so with one eye over our shoulder. That was unnerving. Obviously, by the time we finished the scripts, he had passed away. I don't have his stamp of approval and I didn't have to suffer his disapproval. I'll never know.

You toldThe New York Times that Mr. Roth essentially said, specifically of the ending, that you should go ahead and figure it out on your own.

He didn't say that. He just said, "It's your problem now." That was the quote. Meaning, if you change it, God help you, and if you don't change it, God help you. I'm not helping. I'm not responsible for this. That's your job. That was what he gave me.

Was there anything, any specific element of the story, that he mentioned as being particularly important to him in the adaptation?

He had three or four things that he explicitly asked for. One was to change the name of the family from Roth and give them another surname, which we did. I think he felt that once it ceased to be the book and became a miniseries, once other writers were dabbling with, that it should be attenuated from his own family of origin. I think he wanted a little more distance, and rightly so. We did that. He wanted us to know that Evelyn's ranting at the end [of the book]—the [Rabbi] Bengelsdorf conspiracy theories about Lindbergh still being alive, the kidnapped child still being alive as a hostage in Germany, all of that stuff—that was intended fully as nonsense. It's [the kind of] conspiracy theory that abides when somebody disappears. He wanted us to know that he never intended it as anything that anybody should believe. He was shocked that there were some literary critics that misapprehended it as being the explanation for what had occurred historically. He was astonished they'd gotten that wrong, so he didn't want us to get it wrong. I was aware of that before he said it, but I was glad to hear him affirm it because … obviously I wasn't going to play it any other way.

He was very conscious of the fact that we should not mistake Lindbergh for Trump as an individual. He understood that while the allegory of a demagogue using the othering of immigrant groups, or of outside cohorts to "normative American life" was the same. He understood the political machinations that we witnessed in 2016 did indeed approximate what he had created for the 1940 election. He understood what did apply, but he wanted to make sure we understood that Lindbergh really was a hero. He really did fly that little plane, he really was incredibly brave. He was a brilliant aviator. He was boyish and charming, and he had a cowlick, and he had that Midwesterner self-effacing demeanor, and he was much loved. When he gave himself over to his fascist sympathies and anti-semitism, he was among America's greatest Americans, and that's how it felt.

It felt that way if you were a Jewish kid. I knew this implicitly. My father grew up in Jersey City. One of his earliest memories was of his father, my grandfather, taking him on the train under the river to lower Manhattan to see the ticker-tape parade. He was on his father’s shoulders to see Lindbergh come down Broadway, that's what my dad always remembers. [Lindbergh went from] being an absolute hero on my dad's eyes to being the devil himself 13 years later. By the time my dad was a college student, Lindbergh was a violent confirmed anti-semite in the minds of everybody in my family and in my community.

But honestly, Roth felt that it was more astonishing that in our current time we were so susceptible to the demagoguery of somebody who was not wrapped in the gauze of heroism, who was a real estate magnate and a sale casino operator who was in no way self-effacing and did not display the same boyish charms as the Lindbergh of memory. He was astonished that Donald Trump had traveled as far as he had and had consolidated so much power without the personal magnetism that he imagined necessary in the book.

That was three, was there a fourth?

There was one other one. Oh, yes: He wanted to make sure that we understood this is a generation of assimilating Jews. They were mostly secular, they didn't spend a lot of time going to synagogue … They were losing the old world ways rapidly, could no longer speak Yiddish conversationally, knew a phrase here and there, but that was it. They were no longer the immigrant generation, but the generation that was becoming Americanized so fast that it made your head spin. That's important because it puts the lie to everything that Bengelsdorf and Lindbergh [were] suggesting.

If you just let these people alone … they will become Americans. Then the language barriers will not matter, and the different religion will not matter, and the fact that the food they're cooking, the smells coming from the kitchen are different will not matter, and the fact that they choose to live together for a while in communities where they understand themselves and their neighbors and feel some level of comfort that will not matter. They'll eventually assimilate in their own way, in their own time. It puts the lie to all the fears that demagogues can metastasize when it comes to immigrants. They always find a way to make you worried that they're not going to be as American as we are, that their loyalties are divided and they're never going to be quite as we want them to be. It's always a lie. [Roth] wanted to make sure that we didn't portray the Levins as being deeply orthodox or completely resistant to dealing with other people or in any way Old World in their views. He wanted to see a family that was becoming Americanized and was already effectively Americanized by the time you get to the second generation.

That’s communicated in the earliest moments of the series.

It was important, I think in the first moment where you see a little bit of residual Jewish ritual, which is to say they're doing a Hamotzi blessing over the bread on Friday night. Philip starts to give the blessing, and even as he does, they’re discussing the Yankee ball score. Rather than it being a reverent moment of Old World religious fervor, it becomes a moment in which quotidian American life enters. That was purposeful.

There have been quite a few adaptations of alternate histories and dystopias on film and television over the last several years. “Watchmen,” “The Handmaid's Tale,” “The Man In The High Castle,” some others. Why do you think that we're drawn to stories like these as a culture?

Because something has gone wrong now in American democracy, something fundamental. And we don't quite know how it ends, and so these dystopian tales now have a relevance that is regrettable but real. It's fair right now to look at our democracy and also at democratic nations throughout the world and see what nationalism and inherent racism and organized campaigns of disinformation have wrought. Two things are necessary for democracy, which happens to be a very, very complicated—let me say it with a quote from, not even a liberal, but from Winston Churchill. Churchill said democracy was the worst form of government until you considered all the alternatives. He's not far from wrong. Democracy is quotidian. It's a struggle … It's never perfected, it's never finished, but the day you quit the fight [for democracy], that's the day you really start to lose it. There's no point at which everyone gets all of the freedom and all of the dignity that they deserve. There's never a day where the popular will is heard in the perfect fashion. There's never a day where some form of corruption or influence does not, in some way, betray a utilitarian goal on some level, but you fight so that the day goes better than it does, and then you fight the next day and the next.

That's about as well as you can hope for in the realm of self-governance. To do that, to do something as exhausting as that and as risky as that, you need two things. You need to know what the truth is—you need to not be subjected to constant disinformation—and you need to have an educated electorate that understands the difference between being lied to and being told the truth. Both those things are in open question right now, with the failure of our media culture and the arrival of social media forms that have no barriers to disinformation and to agitprop. There's questions about how much of our electorate is educated enough to be discerning, and how susceptible they are to the most base feuds. In some ways, Roth's version of how America takes a dry run at fascism is I think very realistic. I think the other one that probably deserves an airing is Sinclair Lewis' It Can Happen Here. I think those two books are the most direct about how we could lose the republic. And I think that's a legitimate discussion to be having, given the current state of our political climate.

Do you find that engaging with those ideas in a fictional sense, does that ease your anxiety? Or do you find yourself more distressed?

It doesn't help one way or the other. I will say that I think it's easier, in some respects, to stare at a moment in history and use it as allegory rather than stare at the immediate moment and try to use the immediacy of the current moment as a wrought narrative. For one thing, we're still writing the first draft of what we're seeing right now journalistically. I don't think we have the whole story yet of what's going on in America right now. I think we're acquiring it rapidly. In five or six years, we'll have a better handle of how this happened and we'll be able to write it with some greater degree of nuance ...

You're trying to express a greater sense of what's at stake by using a historical moment that everybody understands, or should understand. To me, in some ways, it's a more careful tool to examine the current political moment than merely diving in. I can tell you that there's another HBO project, a Capitol Hill show, we've been trying to write for several years now. We even had a pilot order from HBO, which I wouldn't spend the money to shoot. We've re-written that pilot script three times. We wrote it once originally before the 2016 election, anticipating either a normative republican victory or a normative democratic victory and a stagnated, purchased, and vulnerable legislature. That was the premise. Unfortunately, neither a normative democratic or a normative republican took the White House. Then we began rewriting it, thinking, "Okay, we still have the sense of stagnation, and it doesn't seem that this outsider to politics is going to actually be able to marshal much of a mandate." We watched what happened at the airports in the immediate aftermath of the inauguration and thought, "My God, these guys can't figure out how to govern. They're going to be a farce."

Then Mitch McConnell passed that tax bill. We threw out the second [version], because obviously, they could figure out how to address their agenda, even with this guy [in office]. Then we went to impeachment. I guess what I'm saying is, four years later, we're now waiting for the next election cycle so we can figure out how to write this thing, so we can know what the governing dynamic is, so we can address the current moment. Obviously, we don't have that kind of problem when you look back at 1940.

What would you say to anyone at a loss for how to process the current moment from within that moment, particularly with regard to the democratic primary and the frustrating discourse that surrounds it?

I'd say the same thing that I've been saying for four years: Voting is not a love affair. It's not an emotional roller coaster ride. It's a calculation. I am 59 years old, and I have not, to this moment, voted for anyone in a general election who has reflected all of my views. I don't expect I ever will. There have always been candidates who I could largely support, or could certainly support over the alternative, who nonetheless disappointed me on any number of issues. I live to the left of most of the Democratic party, probably. Not exclusively, and not on all issues, but by and large. And I've never had that moment, never had that sensation of voting for somebody who I agreed with unequivocally, and I don't expect to ever have it, but I've always gone to the voting booth knowing that the vote matters.

The first rule of politics is “it can always get worse.” The premise for a lot of people, maybe some people who are new to politics, maybe some people who engaged for the first time in 2016, seems to be, "No, no, no, bad is bad. Either it's all or nothing. We're in a time of great challenge, either these problems are dealt with immediately and on a scale that I can trust or it just doesn't matter."

It's an incredibly privileged way of looking at your vote and at your responsibility as a citizen. It's a disaster. First of all, there are people more vulnerable than you who are going to be hurt earlier. It can always get worse. The first rule of American politics, it can always get worse. Sometimes you vote in the most prophylactic way to prevent more harm, or more harm from happening faster to more people, but you do vote. I have no tolerance or patience for people who feel as if their vote is an act of civic purity. If we were a parliamentary system, and we weren’t down to two parties, and you could more easily reflect on Tuesday your perfect version of governance, maybe then you can have that argument with me, but come Tuesday, it's still going to be a binary choice. I would say, if anybody has any memories of this miniseries in November, I hope they take them into the voting booth, and they vote against totalitarian impulses and the fascist impulses that are now latent in our country.

Allison Shoemaker

Allison Shoemaker is a freelance film and television critic based in Chicago. 

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