When Democracy Dies in Daylight

The following article contains spoilers for HBO’s “The Plot Against America.”

The one problem with Philip Roth’s tour de force 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America,” is that it’s too feel-good.

I know this is a strange accusation to make about an alternative history about a fascist United States. In Roth’s version of the 1940 presidential election, Americans choose the Nazi-sympathizing aviator Charles Lindbergh, who goes on to institute insidious and then overt programs of authoritarianism and anti-Semitism. The nation is riven and people are killed.

But in the end, everything is set right. In 1942, Lindbergh goes missing while flying his airplane, a special election is called, and Franklin D. Roosevelt is re-elected against Lindbergh’s vice president, Burton K. Wheeler. The United States enters the war against the Axis, and history continues, more or less, on the track that we know.

It’s a sober, unsettling story, but it ends on a note of optimism in America’s ability to right itself — too easily, I would argue, given everything we saw before it.

Earlier this year, HBO aired “Plot” as a six-part series, adapted by David Simon, who is not known as one of TV’s great optimists. His best-known series, “The Wire,” was a five-season lament for American cities. His website is titled “The Audacity of Despair.”

Simon’s confident, chilling adaptation stuck largely to Roth’s story, with few changes. The biggest was to that ending, which he reimagined in ways that get more unsettling and relevant as our own election season goes on.

The final sequence begins on Election Day, 1942, which, because history has a sense of humor, was Nov. 3, just like this year’s. On the soundtrack, Frank Sinatra croons “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me).” Citizens line up in the Weequahic High School gym in Newark. They go into the booths and cast their ballots. The citizenry is turning out. America is showing its best side.

As Old Blue Eyes keeps singing (“A certain word / Democracy”), a few discordant notes begin to sound. A man with an F.D.R. pin is told he is “not on the list” at the precinct where he has voted for 20 years and is hustled out by police. More officers wheel away a voting machine, telling puzzled onlookers, “It’s broken.” In a country field, men open a car trunk, unload ballot boxes — marked with the number of an election district in which we just saw lines of Black voters — and burn the contents.

We cut to that evening, in the living room of the Levins, the Jewish family the story was told through. A host on the radio reports on the first returns from precincts on the East Coast. Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) — a mainstream F.D.R. supporter who believes the system is ultimately good and self-correcting — leans in toward the set. “We are seeing some conflicting results early on,” the announcer says.

Then the screen cuts to black. It’s like another notorious HBO ending, except we’re not wondering if Tony Soprano is dead, but if democracy is.

“Plot” premiered in March, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was exploding in America. Maybe as a result, for all its focus on the dangers of demagogy and state-sanctioned racism, it got less attention than other political parables — like “The Handmaid’s Tale” — have in the Trump years. It was as if viewers decided: Yes, yes, we’ve heard about all that, but we’ve got other problems now, like finding masks and toilet paper.

But I have thought about those closing five minutes over and over since they aired. I have especially thought about them lately, amid headlines about whether the president would discredit or reject the election results; whether the pandemic might be leveraged to suppress turnout; whether the gutting of the U.S. Postal Service would cripple mail-in voting — and whether that was exactly the point.

Simon’s klaxon doesn’t pierce through just because of an endangered election. It also sounds a larger systemic critique that marks all of his work. The conclusion of his “Plot” is not, as in Roth’s telling, that the biggest bad apple has been eliminated and the rest of a small bad bunch can be dealt with.

It’s a story in which America comes to realize that democracy is merely a choice, not an inevitability. That choice, Simon argues, must always be made and remade, and there is no reason to assume it will always come out the same way.

This global focus — the belief that corrupt systems are more dangerous and influential than wicked or heroic individuals — is a theme of Simon’s work, from “The Wire” to “Show Me a Hero.” (The latter mini-series, also worth a second look today, was about a subsidized housing program in 1980s Yonkers and the racist backlash it aroused — very much the kind of suburban freak-out that the current president, a real-estate developer in the 1980s, has been trying to goad now.)

This outlook has particularly informed Simon’s writing about the police. And one thing that becomes clear, rewatching “Plot” amid protests over police violence, is that it is also very much a story about the power of the police as the arm of the state, and how easily that power can turn to menace.

You see this in the third episode, when the Levin family takes a long-planned trip to Washington, D.C. The Levins get lost driving to their hotel, and they’re guided there by a motorcycle officer, though Herman’s wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan), doesn’t trust him. But they have little choice. Outsiders in a country that they once believed welcomed them, they must drive on in the dark, relying on an officer who can choose to bring them to safety — or not.

Later, when they’re evicted from their hotel, plainly because they’re Jewish, it’s the police who show up to toss them out as Herman rails at the injustice and Bess urges him to keep quiet. “You ought to listen to your wife, Levin,” an officer tells him.

One of the powers of police and of government as a whole, the episode suggests, is the discretion to offer and withhold protection. As protests rise and the country spins apart, the police take sides more blatantly and politically, letting right-wing mobs run rampant, cracking down on protests and looking the other way while brownshirts attack demonstrators (who are later blamed in media reports for the violence).

The police provide the muscle of the Lindbergh state, not just through their own force but also by deciding who is allowed to wield it — who is looked on as a threat for gathering in the streets and who is welcomed for showing up with a weapon. (After mobs of his supporters carry out violence, the president addresses the nation but pointedly refuses to condemn them.)

The Lindberghist police, the self-deputized brutes in the streets and their allied politicians have enjoyed the spoils. Should it be a surprise that, as the election approaches, they take action?

They have an ally in the White House who applauds them and maximizes their power. They’ve seen that the rules of democracy and due process are crepe paper. Why assume they’ll just forfeit their authority because of norms? Why not make one last grab for all the marbles?

The arguments on the opposite side ring familiar too, especially between solid-citizen Herman and his hothead nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle), who enlists in the Canadian army to kill Nazis, is involved in an espionage operation that may or may not have led to Lindbergh’s disappearance and finally ends up working with gangsters.

Herman’s acts of resistance were limited to attending rallies and listening to the anti-Lindbergh broadcaster Walter Winchell — the 1940s equivalent of immersing in Twitter and MSNBC. To him, Alvin is a thug and a disgrace. To Alvin, Herman is useless. “All you people ever do is talk,” Alvin says. He spits, they fight and it all ends in a lot of broken furniture and no resolution.

All this makes “Plot” more than a thought exercise in “Here’s what might have happened then, and thank God it didn’t.” Instead, it’s: “Here’s what could happen at any time. Here’s what does happen, all the time. Why should we think we’re so special?”

The way this all plays out in “Plot,” its being 1942, is different in its particulars from today’s concerns — foreign influence operations, bots on social media, attacks on mail voting, reducing polling access and all the potential roadblocks related to voting in a pandemic.

The most chilling echoes, though, are broad and timeless. Someone takes a flight into anti-democracy, and others feel permission to follow. And a nation struggles to name what’s happening in plain terms, while we wait for the “conflicting results” to roll in.


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