Opinion: Why HBO’s Alt-History Drama ‘The Plot Against America’ Hits Close to Home for Latinx Viewers

Morgan Spector, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis in 'The Plot Against America.' Photograph by Michele K. Short/HBO

Soon after the 2016 election, the one Donald Trump started as a candidate who derided Mexicans and finished as president of the United States, I picked up a book from my wife’s collection. It was Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, which is now an HBO series created by David Simon and Ed Burns. Reading it then felt like reading a road map into the next few years: a known star glorified by all sways democracy their way, their prejudices manifest into political power and communities — like those of the Levins, the Jewish-American protagonist family — are uprooted and ruined in a way that shocks some and eludes others. Perhaps a stale story to us by now, its freshness comes from it happening in a moment in the past we glorify, when the United States’ valiant, door-busting entry into World War II eventually reshaped the world in its favor. The Plot Against America pokes a welcome hole in that history and reminds us that the scales could have tipped the other way just as easily. The parallels to the present day feel too close to home. To many Latinx folks today, it is home.

Home is the land where a shell of a man the media has depicted as a product of gritty individuality and noble self-assurance becomes the most palatable presidential choice for millions of voters. In an interview with The New Yorker in 2017, Roth said that Charles Lindbergh (played by Ben Cole in the show) was at least an actual success story; Donald Trump was nothing but a con man. But is Trump not a hero to millions? Is that not what reality television and inane news media does and keeps doing, glorifying the individual, advancing the presence of the image versus the substance of the man? Donald Trump is the mirage of a hero. You can see the continuation of this in the religious memes where Trump is shown to be praying with Jesus, the paintings where he is playing poker with other Republican presidents (without his huge belly somehow). Trump, like the fictional Lindbergh, has gone on to take the highest office of the land and turned the country inward, further and further into its own ass.

Home is also where shit once thought unthinkable is now the fabric of the everyday. In the story’s plot, Lindbergh’s administration is fervently anti-war and all too happy to let ethnic cleansers like Adolf Hitler live their life unbothered. At one point, Lindbergh even meets Hitler, shakes his hand. They’re depicted as just two normal leaders being pals, exchanging sweet glances of violent exclusion that will later be put into practice in this fictional American timeline. In an echo of that fictional history, Trump rises to the challenge of making reality extremely stupid in comparison. Not only does he easily bond with ethnic-cleansing dictators and strongmen, he has expressed admiration for them. He’s talked about being president beyond his terms, and he’s succeeded at eroding institutions with no real repercussions, let alone at unleashing the ethnic cleansers already in our institutions either through hard orders or through the soft blessing of not giving a damn.

At home, paranoia reigns supreme. In episode three of The Plot Against America, the Levins take a trip to D.C. that turns out to be full of vitriol and prejudice against them. Herman, the family’s patriarch, refuses to censor himself through these horrid experiences. Their tour guide even has to step in at one point, when some asshole threatens Herman (Morgan Spector) at a restaurant. The aggressor returns to his table. Moments after, Herman sings a song (about Indiana, of all places). He sings it sweetly, one slow line after the other, first to his wife and family and then to the entire restaurant. His aggressor’s back is threatening, boiling. But in the end, it remains unturned.

Everybody beams at Herman with applause, utterly charmed. The effect of such a scene might conjure a gnawing dread in the viewer. But here is Herman Levin, a man who is desperately hanging on to the space he takes up in America. In the face of adversity, of ever-mounting odds, of days and situations darker than the last, Herman takes a few breaths of American air and turns them into song with his American voice.

After El Paso, how many of us weren’t nervous about our place, about our lives? After the election, how many of us weren’t ready to keep being stubborn, to keep speaking out and defending the justice which we know is true in the face of an avalanche of a poisonous whiteness? Even before the election, how many of us weren’t dreaming of not having to prove our place — immigrants and nonimmigrants, undocumented or otherwise? And how many decent idealists will stand with us and defend virtue from the rot within?

My wife was surprised that I burst into tears after Herman’s song. But sometimes, when you see yourself reflected in art, you can’t help but sing along.

The Plot Against America airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on HBO.