In 'Plot Against America,' David Simon Finds Present Day In An Imagined Past | WYPR

In 'Plot Against America,' David Simon Finds Present Day In An Imagined Past

Mar 13, 2020
Originally published on March 13, 2020 11:37 am

David Simon's new TV series, The Plot Against America, imagines an alternative American history, one in which an aviation legend and Nazi sympathizer is elected president.

Simon adapted the series from a 2004 novel by Philip Roth: Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin Delano Roosevelt and becomes the 33rd U.S. president. It follows the story of a working-class Jewish family living in New Jersey in 1940 as Lindbergh unexpectedly ascends to power.

David Simon, creator of The Wire and co-creator of Treme and The Deuce, appears at the Television Critics Association Press Tour on Jan. 15, 2020, in Pasadena, Calif.
Jeff Kravitz / Getty Images for WarnerMedia

Lindbergh's presidency ushers in a wave of anti-Semitism that forces Jewish Americans to choose: who to be and how to act in the face of intolerance.

"Every one of the characters struggles with that question of: Where do you stand in an America that is transforming itself into something less than a republic? And that's kind of where we're at," he tells NPR.


Interview Highlights

On creating a world that blends seamlessly with reality

[Roth] is seizing on a moment that is politically accurate, which is that Roosevelt running for an unprecedented third term, feared Charles A. Lindbergh, the aviator, as a Republican nominee more than anyone. He was an outsider to politics, he had great boyish charm and fundamentally he was the greatest American hero of his generation. But Lindbergh was also fundamentally a demagogue and an anti-Semite and a proto-fascist, and he very much admired Adolf Hitler.

On how the book resonates now, in this political moment

If you read the novel it's startling how allegorical it is to our current political moment. He wrote it obviously without Trump in mind. This was published in 2004. It wasn't allegorical when he wrote it, but believe me, I met the man for about an hour and a half when we optioned the book — he saw that he had perversely written an allegory for events that had not yet happened. He did not imagine a Donald Trump.

I think the "othering" of the Jewish Americans in plot in the novel is just simply and almost perfectly allegorical to the othering of people with black and brown skin and Muslims and immigrants that have propelled this administration to power — whether people see it or not, I think it's just empirical.

On how families are divided — in the book and in present-day America

I think we live in very divisive times, and that's the 1940 that Roth portrayed. I remember somebody wanted me to make it into a miniseries in 2013, in the middle of the Obama years, and I had my doubts but I reread the book – it sounded like a possible project — and I called the guy and I had to say, "I don't think the country is going that way anymore. We feel more inclusive, we feel less susceptible to demagoguery, I don't think somebody coming up and 'othering' a minority group and playing into America's worst impulses towards fears is a natural scenario for something right now." How wrong I was. Three years later, I was walking the thing into HBO.

On what he's learned about America after working on the miniseries

I think I'm fairly convinced not only that it can happen here, but that we are right now on a road that it will happen here, that unless there's a sufficient level of awareness of how vulnerable we are and how fragile democracy actually is.

Churchill – no great liberal – said that democracy was the worst form of government until you considered all the alternatives. And he's not far off. It involves quotidian struggle; every day you gotta kill snakes, every day you have to get a little bit closer to your ideals and the job is never done. That's democracy. But it can be lost.

And if you look just even at what's happening now with coronavirus and the inability of our government to speak with one coherent voice on something as basic as a health issue, and you watch this level of misrule, I think you have to worry for the republic.

Danny Hajek and Arezou Rezvani produced and edited this story for broadcast. Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A new TV series imagines an alternative American history, one where an actual aviation legend and Nazi sympathizer, Charles Lindbergh, is elected president.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The 33rd president of the United States - Charles Augustus Lindbergh.

BEN COLE: (As Charles Lindbergh) Thank you for this campaign. Tonight we have taken back America.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

GREENE: "The Plot Against America" follows the story of a working-class Jewish family living in New Jersey in 1940 as Charles Lindbergh unexpectedly ascends to power. His presidency ushers in a wave of anti-Semitism that forces American Jews to choose who to be and how to act in the face of intolerance.

David Simon, the mind behind shows like "The Wire" and "The Deuce," created this new show based on a 2004 novel by the writer Philip Roth.

The world you've created here in this show, could this actually have been the story of America?

DAVID SIMON: Well, I got a credit Roth with really creating it.

GREENE: It's his book, yeah.

SIMON: Yeah. Ours is a facsimile. He's seizing on a moment that is politically accurate, which is that Roosevelt running for an unprecedented third term feared Charles A. Lindbergh, the aviator, as a Republican nominee more than anyone. He was an outsider to politics. He had great boyish charm. And fundamentally, he was the greatest American hero of his generation. But Lindbergh was also fundamentally a demagogue and an anti-Semite and proto-fascist, and he very much admired Adolf Hitler.

GREENE: And so it is under President Lindbergh that Jewish American families face these impossible decisions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Thinking about leaving.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Leaving?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Canada.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I'm not letting them run me off. This is my country. Jew-haters want a country, they've got plenty to choose from. This one, they're not getting.

SIMON: If you read the novel, it's startling how allegorical it is to our current political moment. I say that knowing that to write about our current political moment is almost too formidable a task to try to write a narrative. In some respects, using the past and trying to reference the past as allegory is your best shot for explaining what has happened to the American body politic right now.

GREENE: I mean, you see it that way. I mean, I don't have to tell you this - there are probably a lot of people in this country who would watch a show like this and probably not see any sort of comparison or at least largely not see what you're seeing.

SIMON: Then they'll just watch the show and see what they see. I mean, if you're looking at a novel that Roth wrote - and he wrote it, obviously, without Trump in mind; this was published in 2004.

GREENE: He said he wasn't even going for even a comment on modern-day America when he wrote it then. I mean, that it's...

SIMON: Right. But believe me - you know, I met the man for about an hour-and-a-half when we optioned the book - he saw (laughter) - he saw that he had perversely written an allegory for events that had not yet happened. He did not imagine a Donald Trump. I think the othering of the Jewish Americans in plot in the novel is just simply an almost perfectly allegorical to the othering of people with black and brown skin and Muslims and immigrants that have propelled this administration to power. I don't think there's - you know, whether or not people see it or not, I think it's just empirical.

GREENE: Some of the types of policies you're bringing up - I mean, there are obviously different reactions in our country today to those policies. And you actually raised that in the show. I mean, no group is a monolith. There's diversity within minority groups, sometimes unexpectedly, in how they react to a leader like a Lindbergh or, as you would say, a Trump.

SIMON: Absolutely. Roth's book is that it's most powerful when it's examining what the members of this Jewish American family in Newark, N.J. - in a Jewish section of Newark - what they do when confronted by a dry run at fascism in their country and where they stand and the question of whether to accede or resist, whether to open your mouth and dissent or whether to fall silent. So every one of them struggles with that question of, you know, where do you stand in an America that is transforming itself into something less than a republic?

And that's kind of where we're at. That - I think every one of us has looked at either the claim - if you don't want to believe it - that we are taking a hard turn towards totalitarianism or the actual evidence of such and had to make the decision. Is this - do I stand against this? Do I dissent? Or do you look at it and say, I don't buy it and, you know, Trump's fine and this is business as usual and I don't have to do anything?

GREENE: Families are divided in this story. And that's another thing that feels like speaks to something that families are going through in today's political climate.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, I think we live in very divisive times. And that's the 1940 that Roth portrayed. I remember somebody wanted me to make it into a miniseries in 2013 in the middle of the Obama years. And I had my doubts, but I reread the book - sounded like a possible project.

And I read it. I had to call the guy back and say, I don't think the country's going that way anymore. We feel more inclusive. We feel less susceptible to demagoguery. I don't think, you know, somebody coming up and othering a minority group and playing into America's worst impulses towards fears is a natural scenario for something right now. How wrong I was.

GREENE: Is there one thing you could say that you feel like you have learned, either about yourself or our country, by diving in so deeply to this project?

SIMON: I think I'm fairly convinced not only that it can happen here, but that we were - we are right now on a road where it will happen here - that unless there is a sufficient level of awareness of how vulnerable we are and how fragile democracy actually is - you know, Churchill - no great liberal - said that democracy was the worst form of government until he considered all the alternatives. And he's not far off. It requires quotidian struggle. Every day, you got to kill snakes (laughter). Every day, you have to get a little bit closer to your ideals. And it never - the job is never done. That's democracy.

But it can be lost. And if you look just even at what's happening now with coronavirus and the inability of our government to speak with one coherent voice on something as basic as a health issue and you watch this level of misrule, I think you have to worry for the republic.

GREENE: David Simon, thanks as always. And thanks for being here, and thanks for keeping us attached to our screens for so many hours at a time. We really appreciate it.

SIMON: Well, thank you for your interest.

GREENE: David Simon is the creator of HBO's new series "The Plot Against America."

(SOUNDBITE OF HANS ZIMMER'S "MEN AT WAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.