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

[1]

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” [2] 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 [3], 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 [4] 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 [5].

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 [6] (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.”