Trump, The Plot Against America, and Vonnegut’s Accidental Apocalypse

In 2004, Philip Roth published The Plot Against America. It is a novel that depicts an alternate history, one in which the world renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats the incumbent Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a landslide. Lindbergh, in both the novel and our true history, had no prior experience in political office, and was instead best known for completing the first solo transatlantic flight, when in the summer of 1927 he flew from New York to Paris in his plane, the Spirit of St Louis.

In the novel, Lindbergh has become a prominent member of the ‘America First’ party, is a staunch isolationist that wants to keep the United States out of the war in Europe, and consistently blames a minority – Lindbergh’s scapegoat are the Jews – for trying to push the country into war. He is a surprise Republican nominee, only appearing on the floor of the party’s convention in the early hours of the morning after the last day, and once he has won the nomination he comes up with a slogan that, on first glance at least, is hard to vote against; “Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War.”

This will undoubtedly sound familiar. When the book was released Roth was asked if it was allegorical to the policies of the George W. Bush administration, something he had been openly critical of. He said no, but if the book had been released this year, imagine the obvious comparisons critics would draw between the fictional version of Lindbergh and the current President, Donald Trump. Like Lindbergh, Trump had no prior experience of holding office when he announced his candidacy, and he was a long-shot to win the race for the White House. But he had a slogan that would appeal to the Republican base; “Make America Great Again”, harking back to a non-existent bygone era when the United States was a utopia for all. He also had a scapegoat, or rather, numerous scapegoats, Trump preferring to be much more all-encompassing with his scorn than the fictional Lindbergh. Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans and women, to name just a few groups that are inferior according to the President.

Roth’s Lindbergh also had ties to a nation that, in a normal administration, would be condemned. After his Presidency has ended, and how it ends will be delved into later, the novel’s protagonist’s Aunt, who had married a prominent Rabbi that had endorsed Lindbergh and become close to power, presents her theory as to why the improbable had happened. According to her theory, Lindbergh had been forced to run for President by Nazi Germany, who had been the kidnappers of his first son Charles Jr. He had been raised as a young Nazi and held hostage, in return for Lindbergh carrying out policies of discrimination against the Jews, with the ultimate end being the Final Solution being brought to America. When Lindbergh had told the Germans that America would not accept this, he was simply removed by them. The protagonist, a young fictional version of Roth himself, discounts the theory as far-fetched, but not the least-convincing version of events.

Of course today it is not Nazi Germany but Vladimir Putin’s Russia that Donald Trump has ties to, and these ties run so deep that, according to the C.I.A. (admittedly not a reputable source on their best days) Russia actually meddled in the 2016 election. Whether Russia did or did not meddle in the election, and whether they are or are not very close to the Trump administration, it is chillingly similar to the theory espoused by Roth’s aunt in The Plot Against America. Donald Trump has not suffered the great injustice of having a child taken from him, but the fact that theories of blackmail, coercion and downright incompetence surround the administration shows just how odd modern-day America has become. Trump and his cronies are out-novelising the novelists.

In 1963, Kurt Vonnegut released his fourth novel; Cat’s Cradle. Unlike Roth’s work, it is allegorical, its year of release no accident in terms of what the work is referring to. In 1962 the world had narrowly avoided mutual assured destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it is the apocalypse that is the backdrop of the Vonnegut’s novel. It is bizarre, and so thoroughly Vonnegut; this being the only plausibly accurate way to describe his work. The protagonist, Jonah, or sometimes just John, becomes President of an island nation called San Lorenzo, after travelling there with the three children of the late Felix Hoenikker, a renowned scientist. Unbeknownst to Jonah, the trio each have pieces of Ice-9, a substance made by Hoenikker to aid the U.S. Army through swampy and marshy terrain by hardening the slush and mud. Instead, it has the ability to freeze anything it comes into contact with, and when a disaster does occur; U.S. military planes crashing into a tower on San Lorenzo, spilling the substance into the sea, killing almost all life on Earth, it is a complete accident. But of course an accident made possible by the very existence of the substance.

Vonnegut is trying to convey his disdain for the inspiration behind the man who created Ice-9, whom he identified in a 1969 speech to the American Physical Society as “an old fashioned scientist who isn’t interested in people.” The novel rails against those involved in nuclear weapons, only to know that they are going to be put in irresponsible hands – that is, any human being. Who could create such a thing that was capable of such destruction, when such terrible accidents like the accidental apocalypse in his book could occur? Vonnegut had lived through and witnessed the Missile Crisis, and as he usually did, saw the complete absurdity of it all. Cat’s Cradle was the answer to the absurdity.

Now, imagine a world where the President is a hyper-sensitive, ignorant, bigoted man known for rash judgement with his thumbs via Twitter. Suddenly the likelihood of not just a nuclear accident, but also an attempted gesture of strength by the man-baby President that turns into all-out war between powers with weapons capable of wiping out entire countries seems slightly increased. Cat’s Cradle may criticise the scientist for creating Ice-9 in the first place, but it also criticises those who hold on to the substance. The apocalypse in his novel would not have happened had Hoenikker’s three children not kept the substance, the same applies to nuclear weapons. The fact that they exist makes a disaster more possible, and if this disaster comes, whether it is an accident or not will be mute.

Near the conclusion of The Plot Against America, Charles Lindbergh vanishes after making a speech, climbing into the Spirit of St. Louis, and flying off into the distance. He is never found. His Vice President takes over, and violence mars the street, violence that is only calmed by the intervention of First Lady Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Franklin D. Roosevelt then runs as an emergency Presidential candidate, wins, and soon after, Japan attacks Pearl Harbour and America is drawn into the war. A happy ending, if one can call a horrific attack and the drawing of a world power into a war a happy ending. But Trump won’t just vanish into the sky. He is President of the United States, and his thumbs, as well as having access to a Twitter handle, have access to nuclear codes. Nuclear accidents, as well as all-out nuclear war, are more likely because of it. We do not need Kurt Vonnegut to be able to point out the absurdity of it all.


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