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Mr. Roth, Mr. Melville, & Mr. Trump

Philip Roth

1,318 words

We hadn’t thought about Philip Roth in some years, so it was with some delight, and a few misgivings, that we ran into him recently in the pages of The New Yorker (Jan. 30 issue). Actually it was just a Philip Roth e-mail, or portions of e-mails, extracted for a Talk of the Town “casual” by Judith Thurman. 

Thurman had sent a note to the 83-year-old Roth because she wanted to pick his brains on the only subject anyone wants to talk about these days, Our New President. Some years back Roth wrote a darkly satirical fantasy, The Plot against America, in which Charles Lindbergh gets into the White House and commences a pro-Nazi regime, complete with Nuremberg-style laws restricting the Jews. (The whole concept sounds like a lurid exercise in Jewish paranoia, but Roth mostly got around that by telling it as faux-autobiography, thereby making such paranoia the implicit theme of the book.)

The big question the interviewer posed here was, approximately: Do you see a parallel here between the fictional President Lindbergh and Donald Trump, who seemed to echo Lindbergh with his calls for “America First” in his Inaugural address?

Roth’s answer was scathing on the subject of Trump. He said he much preferred Lindbergh, who – quoting Roth’s reply here – “despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed great physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance . . . Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel – Melville’s last – that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’”

There is so much shallow glibness in this reply that it’s probably easiest to begin by pointing out a couple of factual errors. Like a bumptious, conceited grad student, Roth cites an obscure Melville novel and suggests it’s a prophetic allegory about Donald Trump. The problem here is, Roth almost certainly never read The Confidence-Man past its title, because it is actually not the tale of a flim-flam artist who seduces a gullible public, as Roth apparently imagines. It’s an experimental, absurdist, rather self-indulgent exercise, with only a scant semblance of a plot. Set on a Mississippi steamboat, it describes a vast array of passengers, depicting a cross-section of American “types” of the 1850s. Some of them are snake-oil salesmen or charity-hucksters, others are eager investors looking looking for get-rich-quick schemes. Moving among them is a nameless character who changes his disguise from chapter to chapter.

The full title of the novel is The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, and the title character’s shape-shifting is the real point of the story, inasmuch as it has one. Whatever else one thinks of Donald Trump, he is the diametrical opposite of a mysterious shape-shifter. One of the oddest and most striking things about Trump, in fact, is how little his persona has changed in forty years of public life. You have to figure Roth just found the name, “The Confidence-Man,” too good to resist. If it wasn’t a book about a Trump-like character, then it should be. Few people would be the wiser.

Roth’s other blunder was calling the book Melville’s last novel, which is not quite true, unless you leave out the far better known and posthumously published Billy Budd.

Roth’s snooty, false erudition in the field of American literature is much of a piece with his cartoony ideas about President Trump. He levels at Trump every tiresome insult, every dismissive characterization that Washington Post columnists and cable-news commentators have been reciting since Trump first entered the political arena. As in his comparison of Trump with Lindbergh, Roth tries hard to appear fair and judicious by mentioning other Republican presidents he didn’t like but weren’t nearly as bad as Trump:

I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.

He follows this with a dire warning that the Trump Administration may lead to “a genuine assault upon [writers’] rights” in “a country drowning in Trump’s river of lies.”

Roth’s philippic against President Trump has nothing new or insightful in it. It would read like the ravings of a senile madman if we hadn’t already seen this sort of thing, time after time, in a hundred other places. What’s noteworthy here is that Roth is a not a political columnist, or someone with unique insight into Donald Trump, yet he’s eager to recite the main talking-points of the extreme anti-Trump factions, as well as to embellish them with whatever random insults come to mind. Trump is ignorant; he knows no art or history or philosophy; he is indecent, threatens freedom of speech, and lies unceasingly. In all likelihood no one’s ever quizzed Mr. Trump on his knowledge of art or history or philosophy. These are just rote denunciations, decoupled from any need for factual basis, and considered beyond challenge. Mere ritualistic signaling that one belongs to Anti-Trump Party. 

There is a paradox here. In his long literary career (c. 1959-2009) Roth’s persona was that of a cranky controversialist who wouldn’t follow the herd and never feared to offend. At the start of his career, his closely-observed stories of middle-class Jews were thought to be too revealing, bad PR for the Jewish people. Effectively “anti-Semitic,” in fact: an accusation that dogged Roth for decades. His most successful novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), set the bar for bestselling raunch, combining an obscene sex satire with a manic, breathless, interminable parody of a Jewish stand-up-comic act.

The Jews in The Plot against America (2004) are transgressive in yet another way. Based on his family and neighbors in Newark, New Jersey circa 1940, they are flawed, weak, full of denial, and hoping to find a way to accommodate themselves to the new Nazi-sympathizing government of President Lindbergh. There’s even a conservative rabbi who attaches himself to the Lindbergh regime, cajoling his fellow Jews to put their fears at ease. In his e-mails to The New Yorker’s Thurman, Roth explained that he didn’t conceive the book as a “warning,” rather he was just trying to imagine realistically how his family and those around him might have behaved in such a situation. “I wanted to imagine how we would have fared, which meant I had first to invent an ominous American government that threatened us.”  

As it happens, the invented political history is mostly claptrap, full of unlikely plot twists that scarcely work even within the context of a fantasy. Charles Lindbergh might conceivably have become a GOP nominee and even President one day, but not in 1940. (He didn’t even enter the public arena as spokesman for the America First Committee until 1941.) Moreover, even Roth could see that the notion of Lindbergh as a full-on Nazi sympathizer was a bit much. Accordingly, the author  “lampshaded” his way out of that problem by offering the harebrained explanation that Lindbergh was being blackmailed all along. The Nazis had kidnapped his infant son, it seems, and they were holding the boy hostage in order to force Lucky Lindy to implement a Final Solution in America.

Historical-political imagination is not Roth’s long suit. This comes out clearly at the end of the e-mail interview, when Thurman asks him “how Trump threatens us.” Having given that rich litany of anti-Trump clichés earlier, Roth now comes up almost blank. He offers the feeblest, most shopworn worry in the book: “What is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”

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  1. Peter
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    According to the opinion of every Jew that I’ve heard express an opinion on the subject, anyone that didn’t want a war against Germany was a “NAZI sympathizer” and we’re told Nazi sympathizers are evil. These same Jews gave full support to the murderous Jewish Bolshevik regime of the USSR, said to be between 80 to 85% Jewish by President Vladimir Putin.

    If people thought Germans had a valid claim on Danzig, Memel and the Sudetenland that were awarded to other countries with their unwilling populations, such sympathizing was evil according to Roth and other Jews. This attitude shows, with everything else we know they were up to, including Lindbergh’s and others claims that Jews were pushing the world into war, that in fact these people were right.

    The evidence is overwhelming that Jews wanted a war with Germany and did everything they could, with the considerable power they had to make that happen and the Jews don’t like that. They want to be seen as innocent and powerless, attacked for now reason at all, while ignoring that they dominated the murderous USSR that Hitler rightly considered a threat to Germany and the rest of Europe.

  2. Director
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    They know that Trump knows too much.

  3. James O'Meara
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Melville’s Confidence Man has, among other targets, the positive thinking of Emerson (who is explicitly burlesqued), Thoreau and others. Since Trump has been decisively influenced by positive thinking in its later incarnations of Peale and others (as I have written about here and elsewhere), then Melville would be satirizing Trump as a VICTIM of the Con Man, not a con man himself. Either Roth is ignorant or is engaging in typically Judaic projection.

    • AE
      Posted February 4, 2017 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

      To associate Emerson with ‘positive thinking’ is a stretch, I think. His thought was really quite distinct from Thoreau and the other Transcendentalists, and while he shared the voluntarism of New Thought he’d undoubtedly have found its methods and aims vulgar. As he says most obviously in Self-Reliance: “As men’s prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect.” What are New Thought practices but another form of prayer, a disease of the will?

      More to the point: “The Circumstance is Nature. Nature is, what you may do. There is much you may not. We have two things,—the circumstance, and the life. Once we thought, positive power was all. Now we learn, that negative power, or circumstance, is half. Nature is the tyrannous circumstance, the thick skull, the sheathed snake, the ponderous, rock-like jaw; necessitated activity; violent direction; the conditions of a tool, like the locomotive, strong enough on its track, but which can do nothing but mischief off of it; or skates, which are wings on the ice, but fetters on the ground.”

      I suppose this isn’t on topic, but the casual lumping together of Emerson with “positive thinking,” New Thought, etc is something that I feel should be disputed; people may get the wrong idea and avoid his work. Especially since the only other mention I’ve seen of him on CC was an essay that denigrated the Transcendentalists as something like “a home-grown culture of critique.” It may be a fitting description of most of the Transcendentalists, but not of Emerson– no more than Nietzsche was a culture of critique unto himself.

      Incidentally, the more I’ve read of Emerson the more I’ve become convinced that nearly every thought Nietzsche put to paper was foreshadowed by the Sage of Concord; he was Nietzsche’s first philosophical influence, and with Schopenhauer, his most significant.

      • James O'Meara
        Posted February 5, 2017 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        Well, I mention Emerson only because Melville, or at least the Meville scholars, identify him as Melville’s target, one of the proponents of Confidence and hence apt to be Conned.

        Same with New Thought: the New Thinkers constantly assert their dependence on Emerson, and such historians as we have of the movement (see Mitch Horowitz, One Simple Idea, 2014) agree, but of course they could be wrong. The name itself, after all, was taken from his lecture “Success.” And the idea of “diseased prayer” sounds like their disparagement of petitionary prayer, which perversely sustains the condition of want by assuming it in the first place.

        Obviously the New Thinkers wanted to claim the prestige of Emerson, like Germans claiming to be followers of Hegel or Nietzsche, and if one despises NT, as you seem to, you would want to question that. I think otherwise, and while, like Hegel and Nietzsche, not everything presented as “New Thought” has the same value, some, such as Neville Goddard, is worthy of comparison with anything in the Western tradition (being essentially just a restatement of it).

        Why not write something on Emerson and Nietzsche for C-C?

        • AE
          Posted February 5, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          I don’t despise New Thought– I tend not to think of it at all, to be honest.

          I’m not disputing that there was any influence by Emerson on NT, only that there exists a notable affinity between them. Emerson was a pervasive presence and the nature and style of his work has left him open to endless misinterpretations, some more vulgar than others. I’d contend that any influence on NT was born of selective misreadings. And also that Melville’s target was a straw-man. The comparison with Nietzsche’s ‘heirs’ is appropriate.

          Emerson would’ve found New Thought methods to be petitionary prayer in disguise. Imagining the moment after your success with the goal of attaining it: what is that but petitioning for success in a roundabout way? They understood Emerson a little, but not enough. The man said: “Prayer that craves anything less than all good is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft.” This idea of prayer is akin to Nietzsche’s yes-saying. Whether one says “God, gimme dat” or whether one tries to effect a change consciousness, the goal, born of worldly desire and dissatisfaction, is the same. If NT was akin to Tradition its gurus would’ve led people to manage their desires, not image them so they could be fulfilled. They would’ve directed their followers vertically, not horizontally. Where was the vertical dimension when Goddard said: “I seek Him in projecting for me that which I desire in this world”? He could’ve added with the Christian: “All manner of things shall be well.” Emerson and Nietzsche, on the other hand (and mystics throughout the ages), would have countered: “All things are well.” But perhaps I have a false impression of New Thought, or of Goddard specifically. I’ll read your essay on the latter soon– I wouldn’t mind being surprised.

          I have thought of writing an essay on Emerson and his relevance for anti-Modernists, including his connection to Nietzsche, but just when I think I’m on safe ground it shifts beneath my feet. I think I’ll need another decade or two of reading Emerson before I can accomplish that task.

          • James O'Meara
            Posted February 6, 2017 at 6:39 am | Permalink

            Mitch Horowitz writes this, which may address your points:

            In a lecture from 1967, Neville drew an intriguing contrast:

            “I do believe that one must completely saturate himself with the things of Caesar before he is hungry for the word of God.”

            This passage sounds a note that resonates through various esoteric traditions: One cannot renounce what one has not attained. To move beyond the material world, or its wealth, one must know that wealth. But to Neville – and this became the cornerstone of his philosophy – material attainment was merely a step toward the realization of a much greater and ultimate truth.

            In the last twelve years of his life, the teacher took his philosophy in a radically new direction – one that cost him some of his popularity on the positive-thinking circuit. In a complex interweaving of Scripture and personal experience, Neville told of “the Promise:” that each of us is Christ waiting to be liberated through metaphysical rebirth; this is the true symbolic meaning of the crucifixion in which God became man so that man could one day know himself as God. Our imagination, Neville taught, is the God-seed. He saw literal and final truth in Psalm 82:6, “Ye are gods.”

            Neville’s lecture audiences, however, seemed to prefer the earlier message of affirmative-mind success, or what he called “Imaginism.” Many listeners, the mystic lamented, “are not at all interested in its framework of faith, a faith leading to the fulfillment of God’s promise,” as experienced in his vision of rebirth. Audiences drifted away. Urged by his speaking agent to abandon this theme, “or you’ll have no audience at all,” a student recalled Neville replying, “Then I’ll tell it to the bare walls.”


  4. ReinDeDio
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Why not make the obvious parallel between Melville and Trump? That Trump is Captain Ahab in pursuit of the white whale America, while Washington is the Pequod destined to sink…

  5. San Fernando Curt
    Posted February 10, 2017 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    One of the things that struck me about “Plot” was, of course, how badly it’s written. Roth likes to forcefully signal how readers are supposed to react to some leaden atrocity or revelation of Jewish eminence; he doesn’t ‘show’ through character or leave interpretation open to speculation (and what’s any art without that). But, also, he reveals that stark Jewish hatred of goy peasantry. When coupled with long history of Jewish exploitation of hardscrabble gentiles, we see familiar, delusional reinforcement that Jewish targets MUST be evil, because Jews couldn’t so denigrate those targets without being monsters themselves. People of Kentucky come off the worst – maybe a Roth idiosyncrasy. (What IS going on with that Al Capp-style obsession with hillbilly shiksas, anyway?) And the part about Jews sent to live with Gentiles – classic “you’re obsessed with us” self-flattery. If we didn’t want them in our country clubs, who’d think we’d want them in our homes?

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