PROSPECT HARBOR — “Every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”

The words are those of Herman Roth, the father of the preteen narrator Philip Roth, who recounts the election as president in 1940 of Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974), the famous aviator, anti-Semite, promoter of “America First” and admirer of Adolf Hitler.

Of course, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who won an unprecedented third term as president in 1940. Lindbergh never held elective office. But if you are one of America’s greatest novelists, as Philip Roth certainly was (he died in May), and you lived through the World War II era, and you are Jewish, then you invoke poetic license and re-imagine your youth as it might have been in a 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America.”

To say that Philip Roth was prescient is hardly adequate. His novel, a work of alternative historical fiction that relies generally on historic truth – all the secondary characters from FDR to Lindbergh to New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to columnist and radio personality Walter Winchell – are quoted extensively. FDR, for instance, two years after his electoral defeat, speaks at a Madison Square Garden rally of Americans united against Lindbergh’s close ties to Nazi Germany, tells his audience that “the only thing we have to fear is the obsequious yielding to his Nazi friends by Charles A. Lindbergh, the shameless courting by the president of the world’s greatest democracy of a despot responsible for innumerable criminal deeds and acts of savagery, a cruel and barbaric tyrant.”

Similar words were uttered by many Democrats and a few Republicans about Donald Trump after his recent meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and, before that, about his Singapore meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Trump kowtowed to both autocrats. Just weeks before his recent death, the American hero and senator John McCain called Trump’s performance in Helsinki “disgraceful” and attributed it to Trump’s “naivete, egotism, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats.”

Trump’s racist references to Mexicans and Central Americans crossing America’s southern border, and his repeated salutes to despots such as Putin and Kim in such glowing terms, have actual historical antecedents. Following Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Lindbergh wrote about America’s need to “guard ourselves against … dilution by foreign races” and “the infiltration of inferior blood.” In October 1940, Lindbergh told 3,000 people gathered at the America First Committee’s meeting at Yale University that the United States needed to “make our peace with the new (Nazi) powers in Europe.”


Today in America, as in Russia and North Korea, a culture of corruption holds sway and, as in those two nations ruled by autocrats, officials in all ruling parties do little or nothing to hold their leaders accountable. Complicity is commonplace among all three nations’ ruling party members, where Orwellian doublespeak contaminates political discourse. “Truth is not truth,” Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, recently uttered in an unguarded moment. Moral relativity – or the spurning of moral probity – is now the Republican Party’s modus operandi whenever dealing with inconvenient facts.

Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, has implicated the president in payments of hush money to two women with whom then-candidate Trump had sexual relations during his current marriage (Trump has repeatedly denied directing Cohen to make the payoffs). Remember the good old days when President Clinton lied, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” – Monica Lewinsky – and Republicans came out of the woodwork to accuse the Democrats, who still supported Clinton, of moral relativism? Christian conservatives: Why give Trump a pass? Why not argue as forcefully for Trump’s impeachment as you did for Clinton’s?

And in the background, looming large if you are Donald Trump, is the “Steele dossier,” the Democratic-funded memos with allegations linking Trump to prostitutes in Russia. Unsubstantiated claims, at this time, yet if Russia has compromising material involving Trump, it might well explain why the U.S. president bends over backward to demonstrate fidelity to the Russian autocrat. (Who can explain Trump’s obeisance to Kim?)

Every day I ask myself “How can this be happening in America?” And then I recall Marx’s famous line about how all great historical events occur twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Philip Roth’s Lindbergh fictional scenario is truly tragic, and Trump’s slimy behavior and his party leadership’s reluctance to criticize Trump are embarrassingly farcical.


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