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Through the Looking Glass - The Plot against America and Years and Years: Between Fascism and Populism

Through the Looking Glass - The Plot against America and Years and Years: Between Fascism and Populism
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

Warning, this article may contain spoilers.

In less than six months between June and November 2016, the anglo-saxons experienced a double whammy. From Brexit to Donald Trump’s election, populist movements have garnered strength and momentum in a way that is extremely worrying.

Has the British vote opened the way for an American "derailment"? "If the Europeans said ‘No’ to Europe, why shouldn’t we say ‘Yes’ to a man who also rejects the conformism of traditional elites?" some Americans might think. We, too, can cross the Rubicon. 

This step into a new world has inspired writers of series on both sides of the Atlantic. Two in particular, one American, the other British, catch our attention: the American show The Plot Against America and the British Years and Years. They are both six-part mini-series. One is a dystopia, or a rewriting of the past, not as it happened, but as it could have. The other one is an imaginary dive into the very near future. Their respective messages are nonetheless quite similar. In fact, each in its own way is a type of final warning that is meant to provoke fear, but really they both leave little room for hope. Fascism roams freely, populism is on the rise, but all hope is not lost. Individuals can make a difference, through their increasing awareness of danger, through their resilience and courage - provided they do not surrender in the face of difficulty and thus give in to their natural passivity. 

These two series are quite similar in their themes and in their spirit. But they are not on the same footing when it comes to production and writing. The American series is of a much higher quality than the British series, at least according to the author. If you had to watch only one before the end of this summer, go for The Plot Against America.

The Plot against America

The Plot against America was first a novel published in 2004 by Philip Roth. Three years after the September 11 attack, the author of Portnoy's Complaint provocatively chose to focus, not on the Islamist threat coming from outside, but on the internal threat of right-wing temptation, which can easily turn into fascism. Roth rewrites history:

In the November 1940 presidential election, to everyone's surprise, Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated by the hero of the first solo crossing of the Atlantic, Charles Lindbergh. The latter’s campaign was about nationalism and pacificsm, with hints of anti-Semitism. Philip Roth's talent is to have intertwined the micro with the macro, the destiny of the Levins, a Jewish family from Newark, New Jersey, with the at first unlikely and insidious, then dramatically spectacular turn of events in American politics.

David Simon, the author of cult series such as The Wire and more recently The Deuce, has chosen to adapt Philip Roth's novel, which is extremely topical at a time when Donald Trump is president. He does it with great finesse and intelligence. Some critics even judge that the quality of the series, released in 2020, is better than the novel. A rather unjust judgement in the author’s opinion: the series is simply more relevant in 2020 than the novel was in 2004. It is only the great artist’s genius to have a premonitory intuition.

Beware, you don't know what tomorrow will bring. It is so easy to move imperceptibly from joy to terror, from democracy to authoritarianism, from pluralism to fascism.

Each episode of the David Simon series opens with a deliberately chilling introduction. To the sound of joyful music celebrating Charles Lindbergh's feat- a dreamy interlude in a world dominated by an economic crisis and the rise of fascism - we see images depicting people’s enthusiastic reactions to Lindbergh as an aviator, the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in Germany, culminating with the beginning of the Second World War.

The central message of the series is thus perfectly summed up. Beware, you don't know what tomorrow will bring. It is so easy to move imperceptibly from joy to terror, from democracy to authoritarianism, from pluralism to fascism. Fascination with a man that is perceived as a saviour is inherently dangerous. Entrusting him with your destiny is a guaranteed catastrophe

The series faithfully recreates America as it could have been in June 1940 when the story begins, on the eve of catastrophe. The young Philip Levin, the author’s namesake, is the hero of the story. It is through the childlike eyes of this barely 12-year-old that we will follow the story of Lindbergh's political and ethical drift in America. Each member of the Levin family reacts in his or her own way to the political developments. The mother, the most lucid one, is the first to grasp the seriousness of the situation that is brewing. She will beg her husband to leave for Canada (already considered to be the more humane part of the North American continent) before it is too late. Too proud an American citizen, Philip's father (played by the excellent Morgan Spector) will refuse to face the reality of rising fascism. In a spectacular segment of the series, during a family trip to Washington, D.C., and after Lindbergh has been President for more than a year, Philip’s father wants to show his children the monuments of the great Presidents that made America. He is movingly extolling the virtues of a country at a time when it is beginning to reject him not for what he has done, but for what he is - a Jew. Emptiness and suspicion grow around him. Without explanation, he will be denied access to the rooms he has booked in a Washington hotel for himself and his family. It becomes implicitly clear that he is no longer welcome in an environment that has been insensitively closed off by the anti-Semitism of the new President of the United States. The Jews support the "war party". There is no longer any place for them in an America whose facade of neutrality masks its pro-Nazi policies. Jews are acceptable only if they are perfectly assimilated (it is not quite Nazi Germany after all). This assimilation is what an ambitious and naive rabbi, the companion and then the husband of little Philip's aunt, is trying to achieve.

This "court Jew", collaborator of the regime, is one of the most disturbing characters of the book and the series. He considers himself the President's friend. For Lindbergh he is of course only an alibi: the Jewish friend of an anti-Semitic President. He campaigned for him among his community and his co-religionists. He will insist on living an illusion about the true nature of his "hero" until the end, until his arrest, the violence and the targeted murders by members of the Ku Klux Klan, as anti-Semitic as it is racist. The series also describes with great intelligence and skill the bonds of solidarity as well as the tensions that can exist between different immigrant groups: Italians, Irish, Germans and Jews.

The series asks disturbing and fundamental questions, forcing us to ask ourselves what would we have done if we were faced with such a political reality. 

White Americans, so spontaneously warm in appearance, can so easily become monsters, when by fear or conformism, their primary interests feel challenged. In Washington, the behaviour of frightened officials is depicted without sugar-coating. Doesn't Lindbergh's America resemble, at least in part, Vichy France? In short, the series asks disturbing and fundamental questions, forcing us to ask ourselves what would we have done if we were faced with such a political reality. Questions that must be asked before it is too late and the populists are in power.

Years and Years

This 2018 British mini-series by Russell T. Davies does not throw us into a reinvented past, but into a very near future. A future dominated simply by chaos and the loss of all moral bearings. The story takes place between 2020 and 2035 and describes the chaotic life of a Manchester-based stepfamily, the Lyons. It starts with a bang: Donald Trump has been re-elected President of the United States and has chosen to use nuclear weapons against China, to destroy an island in the China Sea transformed into a military base by the Beijing regime. This spectacular worsening of the geopolitical situation has economic and financial consequences that are all the more serious in a context of climatic chaos and ever-increasing migratory movements. In short, this is a proper catalogue of the world's fears, to which should be added the trans-humanist aspirations of one of the daughters of the Lyons family. The characters are complex, and the series insists on their weaknesses, from the father’s infidelity to the sisters’ and children’s "iciness". But all these characters are described with both irony and tenderness. All hope is not lost neither on the human level, nor on the political level. We witness the irresistible rise, then the brutal fall of a populist leader, brilliantly played by Emma Thompson. It's hard not to think of a British version of Marine Le Pen when watching her. Perhaps the resemblance is not accidental?

This is a proper catalogue of the world's fears, to which should be added the trans-humanist aspirations of one of the daughters of the Lyons family.

The most powerful parts of the series are devoted to the treatment of the migration issue: the chilling description of the smugglers on the French side of the Channel, and the increasingly inhuman treatment they receive on the British side. Lies and disinformation thrive with the temporary disappearance of the BBC, considered too free and independent by the new populist power. The series has chosen which side it stands on and does not hide it. The message is sometimes a little easy, a little confused, a little exaggerated, but ultimately clear.

It is so easy to fall into immorality and dehumanization. Even the "mother of parliaments", Great Britain, is no exception. At the end of the series, however, the villains collapse as victims to their own incompetence, lies and corruption. Emma Thompson’s character is forced to step down in shame.

In conclusion

In The Plot against America as in Years and Years, the one who is designated as "the Other", be that the Jew or the immigrant, is the enemy. At the heart of the issue in these two series is the dark side of human nature. But it is all described with tenderness for the characters, and even humor in Years and Years. Yet, the warning is clear. The worst is always possible and can come out at any time as a result of human stupidity. An even stronger word that stupidity could in fact be used.

The Covid-19 crisis makes us read these warnings about the rise of populism differently. First, it is clear that the crisis has revealed the weaknesses of populist, if not of authoritarian regimes. From Trump in the United States, to Bolsonaro in Brazil, not to mention the mullahs' regime in Iran, the virus has not been kind to populist leaders and corrupt regimes. The Coronavirus has exposed their inconsistencies, their incompetence, their "charlatanism". Trump will be difficult to re-elect and Bolsonaro may not finish his term. It is too early to say what impact the epidemic will have on the regime that has been in power in Tehran for more than forty years.

Democratic regimes are better off. They treat science with more respect, people with more humanity. But it would be dangerous to claim victory. If there is a second wave, if there is a need for a new total reconfinement, the economic cost could be a bonus for populism.

One thing is for sure: the warning given by these two series is more relevant than ever. 


Copyright : years and years limited & HBO

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