WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 24: U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a signing ceremony for H.R.266, the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, with members of his administration and Republican lawmakers in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC on April 24th, 2020. The bill includes an additional $321 billion for the Paycheck Protection Programs forgivable loans to cover payroll and other costs for small businesses. Hospitals and other health care providers will receive $75 billion and another $25 billion is allocated for COVID-19 testing. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times/POOL/Getty Images)
In his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, the novelist Philip Roth speculated what might happen if a celebrity outsider and known racist with ties to foreign enemies became president of the United States.
The fictional president? Not whom you might think.
Roth imagined that the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh won the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1940 and upset President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ran for an unprecedented third term.
Like the current occupant of the White House, Lindbergh advocated an anti-immigrant platform that put America First.
For the first man to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean, the alien invaders were not Mexicans or Muslims, but people of the Jewish faith.
Lindbergh admired the German regime under Hitler. And, in the novel, signed an agreement with the Nazi leader to keep America out of the war in Europe.
In The Plot Against America, the Lindbergh presidency terrorized American Jews, threatening to relocate families to isolated areas, much as the FDR government placed Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II.
Roth’s death in spring 2018 provided an opportunity to analyze how much of a threat the one-year-old Trump administration presented to American democracy.
There were plenty of danger signs.
Trump instituted a ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, separated families at the border, and claimed white supremacists at Charlottesville, Virginia were “very fine people.”
Still, resistance to the president appeared formidable.
A broad spectrum of opposition movements formed, leading to the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cast the deciding vote to defeat Trump’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Special Counsel Robert Mueller led an investigation of the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia and efforts to cover it up.
Besides, the American economy roared and there were no crises to test Trump’s leadership.
Recently, HBO presented a mini-series based on Roth’s novel, as interpreted by David Simon and Ed Burns, show-runners of the acclaimed cop drama The Wire.
Another chance to perform a democracy check on America, now three years into the Trump presidency and considering whether to add four more.
Assessment: Danger is at hand.
The Trump administration intensified its campaign against immigrants.
Just last week, ICE officials gave immigrant parents confined in the Berks County Residential Center the “Sophie’s Choice” of leaving detention if they agree to sign away custody of their children.
Unrestrained by Mueller or impeachment, enabled by compliant Republican members of Congress, and goaded by Fox News and alt-right media commentators, the president has declared war on opponents in and out of government.
William Barr, Trump’s attorney-general-turned-sworn-protector, dropped charges against admitted perjurer and Trump advisor Gen. Michael Flynn.
Following his failed attempt to coerce Ukraine to investigate his political rival Joe Biden, an increasingly desperate Trump is lobbing wild accusations against the former Vice President and his ex-boss, President Barack Obama.
States under lockdown orders issued by Democratic governors such as Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania need to be “liberated,” Trump tweeted.
In reply, armed anti-quarantine protestors forced the closure of the Michigan state Capitol.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the public health official who openly criticized Trump’s efforts to reopen the American economy, continues to be threatened.
Just imagine what Trump could do without fear of re-election.
The most frightening scenes in The Plot Against America involve not so much active government persecution, but the failure of institutions to protect minorities from threats, discrimination, and mob violence.
Like the Jewish families in the Roth novel, we have a choice. We can avoid injustice, we can accept it, or we can confront it.
The institutions that protect all of us – the courts, law enforcement, an impartial civil service, the freedom of dissent, a vibrant press, and free and fair elections – are more endangered now than at any time in modern history.
In Roth’s America, ordinary folks stepped up to the challenge.
Will we do the same?
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Follow him on Twitter @McCleleF.
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