Roth in the age of Trump

Roth in the age of Trump

Peter Sagal to host conversation on ‘The Plot Against America’

Peter Sagal of NPR’s “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me” will talk about the podcast he hosts about Philip Roth’s novel, “The Plot Against America.”
Peter Sagal of NPR’s “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me” will talk about the podcast he hosts about Philip Roth’s novel, “The Plot Against America.”

When Peter Sagal recently reread Philip Roth’s 2005 novel “The Plot Against America,” he was struck at how prescient Roth was in “describing this creeping and expanding sense of dread and disbelief” that for him characterizes these years of Donald Trump.

“He was so amazingly accurate,” Mr. Sagal, the host of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” said.

Mr. Segal reread the novel, which he first had read not long after it was published, as part of his preparation for hosting the six-part podcast, logically enough called “The Plot Against America Podcast,” for HBO to accompany the network’s television rendering of Roth’s novel. The book tells the story of an alternate American history where aviator Charles Lindbergh was elected president on an isolationist American First platform that shaded into anti-Semitism.

The podcast also featured the show’s director, David Simon, and is a must-listen for Roth fans if only to hear Simon recount his 90-minute meeting in 2017 with the novelist to discuss the changes that would be made in adapting the book for television. (It was Roth who insisted that the filmed version rename the characters who, in the novel, were the Roths.)

In a couple of weeks, Mr. Sagal will moderate a discussion on the book and the miniseries sponsored by Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson. The congregation is led by Rabbi Doug Sagal, Peter’s brother. (See box.)

Mr. Sagal grew up in Berkeley Heights in the 1960s, 30 years after Roth’s childhood, which he describes and reimagines in “The Plot Against America.” Mr. Sagal’s father grew up in Brooklyn and he was a few years younger than Mr. Roth, “but it’s hard to imagine the Jews of Newark in the 30s and 40s were living very differently than the Jews of Brooklyn,” Mr. Sagal said.

HBO hired Mr. Sagal to prepare the Plot podcast after he had made a similar podcast for an earlier HBO show, “Chernobyl.” That story — of a sclerotic government mismanaging a scientific catastrophe — took on a new resonance this year, after the Trump administration failed to stem the covonavirus and the virus, for its part, failed to simply vanish as the administration had promised it would.

“A friend of mine wanted to get in touch with Craig Mazin, the show’s creator, to talk with him about the obvious parallels,” Mr. Sagal said. “Craig said he’s been getting so many requests he’s not answering them.

“Craig told me he conceived of the project long before Donald Trump was elected president. He never meant it as a commentary on the current moment in America. It clearly became one.

“David Simon had a much more specific parallel between Trump and Roth. He had been approached years ago to adapt the book and thought it was pointless. He thought, ‘Why would anyone be interested in some sort of fable of fascist takeover?’ With Trump’s election a lot of people were interested.”

For those who found “Plot” resonating in the last four years, the novel’s ending is particularly disquieting. The novelist does not show America overcoming Lindbergh and the hatred and violence he spawns; instead, one day Lindbergh flies away and disappears. It is a deus ex machina conclusion to a very realistic book.

“It does have that feel,” Mr. Sagal said.

“My personal take on it is that the novel is very internal. It’s all from the eyes of Philip Roth as a 9-year-old. Because of that, the entire novel has a feel of a nightmare, a really bad dream. Given that, it almost feels appropriate that it ends as if the nation woke up one day. Lindbergh disappears, and then history takes its normal course.

“I think that’s good for the book. You walk away from the book with the feeling that you awoke from a nightmare.

“Obviously, David Simon had different interests. His ending has a kind of concreteness we associate with prestige television. He couldn’t end it the way Roth did, any more than he could have ended ‘The Wire’ with everyone coming back to life and embracing. He had to figure out how to work it out in realistic terms. If Lindbergh disappeared, it wouldn’t have been by accident, so how did it happen? How would we know about it?

“The major change in the ending is that David Simon refused to give the viewer of the TV show that same odd comfort the readers of the book had. He does not give you that. He ends it with Herman Levin” — Philip Roth’s father in the novel — “listening to the radio, trying to hear the first election result, with the strong indication that the election was being rigged. That’s where he leaves you. It’s a very bold choice, maybe too strong a choice.”

A while back, the New Jersey Jewish News named Mr. Sagal as one of the top 10 Jewish entertainers from New Jersey. “Number one was Jon Stewart,” Mr. Sagal said

Mr. Sagal is an award-winning playwright. His 1995 play “Denial” dealt with a Jewish lawyer who defends a Holocaust denier on First Amendment grounds.

Twenty-five years later, what are his thoughts about the balance between free speech and hate speech?

“A huge difference between then and now is that in the play, the Holocaust denier, who was based on a real person, has to distribute his lies and propaganda via bulletins, newsletters and books,” Mr. Sagal said. “Now, of course, he has a YouTube channel. Or maybe an Instagram thing. And that obviously makes it so much easier to spread that stuff. How much easier is it to spread Holocaust denial or any conspiracy you want if all you need to do is to click on a button rather than go to a library and pick up a book?

“I had to research Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is a conspiracy theory. The conspiracy is that everybody, the Jews and the historians, have all conspired to pretend that it happened, to defame the noble Germans.

“I’ve started thinking a lot about conspiracy theories. I’ve learned that conspiracy theories are very attractive because they make the world comprehensible. If there’s something about the world that makes you upset, a conspiracy provides a better explanation.

“The other thing it does is it gives people who are powerless a sense of power because they know the truth. Because they have knowledge, they’re no longer victims. They’re in control.

“I think that has a lot to do with the rise of QAnon. It tells believers that the people they like are really human and the people they hate are extraordinary villains, and just you wait, justice is coming. That may be the most powerful thing. All of it is feeding an appetite that exists.”

Mr. Sagal said that he’ll lead the synagogue discussion “like a book club. I’m interested in what people have to say, how they relate it to what’s gong on. Some people will say that to compare Lindbergh to the real President Trump is a travesty. I’m interested in that. I’m interested in hearing what people think about Roth’s basic accusation, if you will, that it would be a lot easier for America to slide into fascism than people like to think.

“Is Roth’s story similar to our current reality, and if so, why?”

What: Conversation on “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth, moderated by NPR’s Peter Sagal.

Where: Zoom session hosted by Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson

When: Tuesday, October 20, at 7 p.m.

How much: Free

How to log on: Register at to be sent the Zoom link.

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