The acclaimed TV creative discusses the Jewish response to his alternate-history drama.
David Simon is the creator of some of the most acclaimed TV series of all time, including The Wire and Treme. His new alternate-history miniseries The Plot Against America, based on the novel by Philip Roth, concludes its six-episode run on HBO April 20. It follows a Jewish family in Newark in the early 1940s as anti-Semitic war hero Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency and begins targeting Jewish Americans. (Catch up with JN‘s reviews of episodes one, two, three, four and five.)
Simon, who touched on his own Jewish identity to write the show, tells the JN it’s about “intolerance of all kinds.” He also shares his thoughts on the shocking ending (spoilers follow), and why Donald Trump is not Charles Lindbergh.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
JN: Do you feel like the current moment adds to the theme and message of The Plot Against America, or distracts from it?
Simon: It’s hard to say. It depends on who’s watching it, I think. I’m witnessing an astonishing display of incompetence, and dishonesty on the part of the leader of my country, and that portion of the government that answers to him. Other people apparently think he’s doing swell. I think we’re going to have some needless deaths as a result of that dystopian version of communication. But time will tell. Certainly I think if he gets his way, and you try to reopen or relax [coronavirus] restrictions in this moment, more people are going to die. There’s certainly something to be said about the demagogue in Plot Against America that can be said about this moment and how we’re being governed.
JN: There are a lot of Detroit connections in the show. You’ve got Lindbergh, you’ve got Henry Ford. Hank Greenberg makes a cameo on the radio, and Detroit’s one of the first cities to riot in the climax. Did Detroit hold any significance to you in the making of the show?
Simon: No, it was all in the book. We added a few cities to give a sense of the civil disturbances marching east from the Midwest. So we actually thought, what would set Herman off? And we put on the radio a riot breaking out in Scranton, which is very close to him in New Jersey. We needed more material than in the book, but we held Detroit, because there was no reason not to. Roth seemed to have a sense of where he thought it should start. Hank Greenberg, is there a better Jewish ballplayer of the era? We didn’t have Koufax yet. So there’s that.
And Henry Ford, that’s again Roth. He was the Secretary of the Interior in the book. Ford’s anti-Semitism is well-known.
JN: Detroit does seem to have this dark connection to this fascistic period in America. What kind of role do you think a show like yours can play in helping communities like ours reckon with our own dark histories?
Simon: Well, I’m hoping it’s more generic than Detroit. Honestly, as this thing plays overseas a little bit, I’m hoping that other countries that are experiencing this turn toward totalitarianism [see it]. Because it’s happening in a variety of places around the world. It speaks to that political dynamic.
Also, since you’re writing for the Jewish press, I’ll be very clear. The allegory is for who is the most vulnerable in our society. And in 1940, at the height of the [German-American] Bund and isolationism and “America First,” Jewish Americans were othered, and made to feel as if they were less than first-class citizens. And that was the vulnerable cohort.
Right now, anti-Semitism is decidedly on the rise, because when you give way to intolerance, to totalitarianism impulses, that train always leaves the station — it’s never late. If you’re metastasizing intolerance, Jew-hate is going to come along for the ride.
But in fairness, the allegory for today’s moment is black and brown people and Muslims and immigrants. Those are the people who are being othered, those are the people who are being brutalized at the Southern border, those are the people who are stranded at the airports within weeks of this administration taking office. They’re the vulnerable cohort, to the greatest possible extent. So I would hope that Jews in particular would have the understanding that this is not just about Jews. The piece is not about anti-Semitism. It’s about intolerance, fundamentally, of all kinds.
And I’ve read a couple things in the Jewish press that have been disappointing in that regard. They’re trying to decide whether or not, because Trump moves an embassy in Jerusalem, he’s good or bad for the Jews. He’s bad for anybody who’s a minority anywhere, who has minority status anywhere. That’s the point: This kind of demagoguery where you trade on fear and you trade on xenophobia and racial identification in order to maintain and expand your political power, this is dangerous for everybody. It’s dangerous for the Republic.
And the myopia of some Jewish writers who respond to the piece is like, “Oh, Trump, he’s not so bad for the Jews.” I thought, my God, every lesson of the Holocaust has just been thrown on the fire. I was really embarrassed by some of the writing.
JN: We know our readers are really attuned to anti-Semitism and want to talk about what it means in the modern day, but I think a lot of American Jews are unsure about how to have that conversation, especially as it links to other forms of bigotry. What are your hopes for this show among Jews?
Simon: I would think that after the experience of Jews over the centuries, particularly the 20th century, the dynamic of a vulnerable cohort of human beings being “othered,” being treated as less than first-class citizens or having less potential to become first-class American citizens than any other immigrant group, that that would activate and energize Jewish dissent. That you couldn’t possibly look at, say, the desperation of Syrians who are running for their lives, basically, or Somalians, or anybody who’s trying to make their way to a better life in this country, and who find themselves thwarted because of the same xenophobic and demagogic language that was used to keep Jews out of the country from 1924 on.
And up on my website I have pictures of 10 of the 11 people in my family who were lost in the Shoah. I know their names, I know where and how they were killed. They couldn’t get out. And the world thought, “There’s too many of them, and they’re not like us, they don’t worship the same way, they have different politics, we can’t trust them, they’re liable to be Bolsheviks.” It was all said the same way it’s now said about Muslims, or about Mexicans, or whoever else Trump is hating on. And the quietude of so many in the Jewish community in this moment, because they don’t happen to be Jews, it’s a shonda.
JN: You were able to talk to Philip Roth before he died. How did he help you shape the vision of the show?
Simon: The most dramatic thing we did was expand the point of view from a grown Philip looking back on his childhood, which is a very singular point of view. If you’re trying to avoid that problem, it seems inevitable that you’re going to expand the point of view to the other characters. So we gave everyone in the nuclear family a point of view, and we added Evelyn and Alvin. And he was in ready agreement about that.
He had several things he wanted us to be wary of, and some requests. He asked us to change the name [of the family] from “Roth.” He wanted a bit more distance for his family. And we honored that.
He wanted to make sure we understood that this moment with Donald Trump, and what has happened in terms of the rise of the demagogue in America, and the vilification of normal democratic norms, that it’s even more extraordinary than the world he conjured. In his view, and I think historically he’s correct, Lindbergh stood a far better chance in everyone’s minds of taking on someone like Roosevelt, because of the sheer magnitude of his fame. And his genuine heroism and his self-effacing charm and his cowlick and his Midwestern accent. He presented so much more to the average voter than a real estate magnate and failed casino operator who had a reality show.
Trump has managed to achieve what he has without the heroism, without the slightest genuflection toward the heroic. So Roth said, “Don’t confuse the two men. Lindbergh was in no way Trump, and Trump is in no way Lindbergh.” The characterization, at least. It’s one thing to portray the process as being comparable, but the characterization needs to change.
He wanted us to know that all the stuff at the end of the book about how the [Lindbergh] son is alive and the Nazis have him, it was all nonsense. That’s the kind of conspiracy theory stuff that gets said when somebody disappears. And he thought that was evident. He was shocked to see several reviews of the book took that stuff literally, as if Evelyn and the rabbi had some inside information about what really happened to Lindbergh. So he wanted us to make clear that it’s nonsense, it’s crazy talk.
One more thing. He said, “Make sure they’re secular Jews,” that they’re assimilated. Because in doing so you put the lie to everything that Bengelsdorf and Ford and Lindbergh are attempting to claim and act upon, which is the idea that Jews are not assimilated as well as they need to, and they’re vulnerable to outside influences, they’re not as loyal, they won’t make the same kind of citizens as other Americans unless they’re more carefully layered into the culture.
The point of the book is, that’s a lie. They’re one generation from Ellis Island, and they’re effectively assimilated; they’re as American as anybody. That first Friday night dinner, they’re not even doing the long Kiddish. And in the middle of the ‘motzi, the son is talking about the Yankees game. That was purposeful. We were really trying to say they’ve shed the old world, and they’ve shed much of the religion in ways that a lot of American Jews have.
I’m not suggesting that’s a good thing. I’m not suggesting affirmation for discarding traditions or discarding liturgical moments and religious observance. I’m just saying that for purposes of this story, Roth is clear that we needed to make sure these cannot be Orthodox Jews. No peyos, no walking to shul on Saturday. That’s not the community he was trying to depict, and that does not serve the purpose of the story.
And he’s right. Because what’s being said now is that Syrians and Somalians and Mexicans, and everybody else who’s black or brown-skinned and doesn’t worship the way “regular Americans” do, are somehow vulnerable to outside influence and to being less American and less viable as citizens. The same stuff is being said now about today’s culture of immigration. And of course it’s a lie, it’s always a lie. It’s been a lie since the Know Nothings were worried about the Irish in the 1840s. A politician can run many miles on that lie — he can scare the hell out of people. But the truth is everyone just wants a better life. Everyone wants to be American so fast it makes your head spin. So what Roth was chasing there was, I think, politically sensible and essential to the narrative.
JN: You talk about how the show uses anti-Semitism as an allegory for these other societal ills, but the show is also very specifically Jewish. There’s so much in there that is directly speaking to a Jewish audience. What was the significance of that for you to show that kind of Judaism on a major television show?
Simon: Obviously I grew up Jewish. I am Jewish. My father was involved in Jewish issues for his whole professional life. He worked for B’nai B’rith. He shined his shoes at the ADL — did stuff for three-and-a-half decades with them. And he grew up in Jersey City and [had] the immigrant experience — he’s in the same cohort as Roth. And I’ve read Roth, and I’m acculturated with Jewish American identity.
I’ve written a lot of different people. The material, because I was accessing things that were familiar to my upbringing and my childhood, there’s some lines that are my father’s lines that he invented in the piece, along with dialogue from the book. Did I have fun with it? Yeah, but I have fun with all the characters. It was an opportunity to write something a little different. But I didn’t come to it thinking, “Oh boy, I get to write Jews.” I was thinking, “Oh, some of the stuff I’ve had in my head could find the page.”
JN: But it does sound like you value the opportunity to speak to a Jewish audience and show them some of the things you were talking about before, about how some of the same language that was once used against them is now used against other populations.
Simon: You know, I’m thinking of a general audience. On the phone with you, because you’re the Jewish press, I’ve spoken to some of the coverage and how myopic some of it has seemed, how the allegory has seemed beyond some of the Jewish writers’ approach to the piece. But if you were from Variety, from Vanity Fair, whatever, I probably wouldn’t have gone into that.
Whenever I write a character, whether I write an Irish cop or an African-American police officer, you use the vernacular, you try to write the character the way they’ll sound. So if there’s a way of delivering a line with a certain bit of familiarity to how Jews of that generation would talk, that’s my job and I’m trying to do it and I hope I get close. When Evelyn’s making a joke that she’s dating a rabbi, and she thinks he might actually be Jewish. That’s our humor. The next joke out of your mouth is, “Not that it’s a good job.” You try to make the characters real.
So I guess if you’re Jewish and you find the characters to be a bit more real and they remind you of people in your family, then we did something good and we’re credible. But that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to tell a story, and this story by Philip Roth just happens to be in a Jewish-American neighborhood in 1940.
JN: I watched the final episode, and I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.
So you got to the end. You saw we played a little with Alvin, right? [Editor’s note: In the series finale, Alvin joins an underground anti-Lindbergh resistance spearheaded by Jews and the Canadian military, and plays a crucial role in scrambling the signals of Lindbergh’s plane before his disappearance.]
JN: Yeah, so he’s part of this conspiracy now?
Yeah. Obviously I went into the meeting with Roth and said, you know, in the book the president’s plane takes off and disappears. You made it work for the book nicely. I meant this as genuine. He set it up when he was talking about the earlier crashes, with the air-mail service, how early flight was less reliable than it is today. He set it up for the plane simply disappearing. But to a modern audience and after six hours of television, waiting for that final pivot from alternate history back to the history we know, I was worried it was a little too abrupt, it was a little bit of a deus ex machina.
And so I threw this concern to Roth. And honestly he sat there, he read those two pages over again I think twice. And it’s just eight, nine minutes of him looking at his book and I’m dying, I’m starting to sweat. And finally he just closed the book and said, “Well it’s your problem now.” And I took that as permission to at least try something different. And as I did, I thought, well at some point I’ll have to show him the pages and we’ll have a fight. And maybe not, maybe he’ll like it. But either way I’m going to have to clear it. There’s a conversation to come. And what happened was of course, by the time we had the script he passed away.
JN: You really do go down this path of, sometimes there are conspiracies, sometimes there is a deep state. That seems to be what you’re implying.
Simon: All I’m implying is, it’s Julius Caesar, it’s John Brown. I thought it was interesting to ask, what happens when the levers of democracy are frozen? And there is no plausible reform possible because the democratic norms, the democratic institutions, have calcified or shattered? What do you do then? Is John Brown a terrorist or is he the greatest abolitionist, the greatest humanitarian who ever lived? Is Brutus wrong to slay the tyrant? Or is the cure even worse than the disease? That’s a classic argument to have in any political forum. I’m not advocating for one thing or another, but I thought introducing it was adding an interesting layer.