David Simon on Anti-Semitism and “The Plot Against America”

“The Plot Against America,” a new HBO series based on the novel by Philip Roth, re-imagines what the past would have looked like if Charles Lindbergh had won the presidential election of 1940 instead of President Roosevelt. Creator David Simon joins Christiane to explain the vision behind the series.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: It’s sort of a warning tale. And I don’t know how much of what you have committed your creativity to here sort of collides with real-life politics in the United States right now. I mean, you imagine the year 1940, presidential election. The then aviator hero Charles Lindbergh, anti-Semitic white nationalist, wins the presidency against FDR.

DAVID SIMON, CREATOR, “THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA”: Yes, I would like to take credit for having some perception on the novel and that it’s this vehicle, this prescient vehicle to explain our current political moment. But, strangely, in 2004, Philip Roth, one of our great novelists, he wrote this alternate history through the eyes of his family in New Jersey. And it just sings as an allegory for our time. With every page, if you turn it and just read, it’s sort of astonishing how close he captured this political moment in America.

AMANPOUR: And, of course, when he did, it was the political movement that came after 9/11, when that just overwhelmed the creative, the journalists, the political. I mean, just every sphere, it just overwhelmed it. What was Philip Roth saying? Because he chose anti-Semitism as, you know, his vehicle. Do you still see it as an anti-Semitic warning, or is it about the, I guess, post-9/11, you know, others, minorities who have been targeted?

SIMON: That’s exactly right. He was looking at it in the context of his political moment, which was 2004. But it still applies, because these themes in America, our susceptibility to the demagoguery of nationalism, to the idea of the immigrant horde as the dangerous other, the populist — the cohort that will not become Americans, as we need them to become Americans, they can’t be trusted, whose loyalty can be questioned. Roth was using the vulnerable group in 1940, which was Jewish Americans, whose loyalty was being challenged by the America Firsters and the German American Bund and Lindbergh. He was using that group to tell the tale. But, right now, the people who are vulnerable, who are most vulnerable in America right now, are people of black and brown skins and Muslims. And while there is an increase in anti-Semitism — that train is never late whenever intolerance gets going — the fundamental human rights affronts right now are to others. And that was true after 9/11. And I think, in a basic way, Roth was using his own childhood and his own memories of anti-Semitism in the pre-war years to drive the lesson home.

About This Episode EXPAND

Former Obama campaign manger David Plouffe breaks down yesterday’s Super Tuesday results. Infectious disease expert Dr. W. Ian Lipkin tells Walter Isaacson how people can protect themselves from coronavirus. David Simon tells Christiane about his new HBO series “The Plot Against America,” based on the Philip Roth novel by the same name.