Scott D. Pierce: HBO’s ‘The Plot Against America’ echoes Trump — and it’s no coincidence this time

(Photo courtesy of Michele K. Short/HBO) John Turturro stars as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf in “The Plot Against America.”

The parallels between Philip Roth’s novel “The Plot Against America” and what’s happening in 2020 are coincidental. The timing of HBO’s miniseries adaptation of the novel is not.

There’s something almost eerie about the story of a celebrity with a history of racism and anti-Semitism; whose motto is “America first”; who is unexpectedly elected president; and who leads the United States down a disturbing path. It’s hard to believe that when the book was published in 2004, the first season of “The Apprentice” had just aired and nobody was taking its host, Donald Trump, seriously.

In “The Plot Against America” (Monday, 7 p.m., HBO), the year is 1940 and the celebrity who’s elected president is aviator Charles Lindbergh. And when writer/executive producer David Simon (“The Wire,” “Treme”) was first approached about adapting Roth’s novel, President Barack Obama was serving his second term and Simon rejected the idea out of hand.

“I said, ‘I enjoyed the novel. It’s a nice little artifact. It was fascinating in its moment, but that doesn’t seem to be our political moment,’” Simon said. “So how wrong was I?”

In Roth’s all-too-plausible narrative, Lindbergh uses his celebrity, combined with a vow to keep the United States out of World War II, to oust Franklin D. Roosevelt. Voters ignore Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism and affinity for Nazis and elect him in a landslide. And Lindbergh (who really was a white supremacist/anti-Semite), even gets help from a prominent rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), who’s blinded to what’s really happening.

After his inauguration, Lindbergh negotiates deals with Nazi Germany and imperial Japan — allowing them free rein to conquer much of the world — and sets the United States on a path to fascism. But the miniseries isn’t really about Lindbergh, though he does appear (played by Ben Cole) in five of the six episodes.

“The verdict on Lindbergh is no reason to do a six-part miniseries,” Simon said. “I’m more interested in the dynamic of what creates a Lindbergh and how that can play upon our political institutions.”

The tale centers on a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey. Herman Levin (Morgan Specter) and his wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan), are horrified as anti-Semitic hate crimes rise. Their young son, Philip (Azhy Robertson), is more concerned with his stamp collection than anything else; Herman and Bess are beyond concerned when the government sends Jewish teenagers — including their older son, Sandy (Caleb Malis) — to spend summers with Christian families so they can “assimilate” into American society.

Bess’ older sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder) — heretofore the fun aunt — is collaborating with the collaborationist rabbi, and the family is torn apart.

The miniseries is filled with excellent performances, but Kazan stands out as a woman caught up in circumstances completely beyond her control.

It’s a gripping, cautionary tale. And, while it’s set eight decades ago, “The Plot Against America” echoes 2020 without being heavy-handed about it.

“Because of the forces that are now in play politically, the piece is incredibly relevant,” Simon said. “That’s why we’re all here.”

Ryder said that when she’s talked to people about the project, “Everyone thought [Roth] had just written it because of the [political] climate. … I think it hits you. It’s a guttural, visceral thing that happens when you watch this.”

When Roth wrote the book, it left readers with the uncomfortable feeling that this could have happened here. When viewers watch the miniseries, the inescapable conclusion is that this is happening here.

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