WASHINGTON — Call it Roth’s Complaint.
America’s most celebrated living writer, Philip Roth, is as exasperated with US President Donald Trump as his most fervent readers would expect.
In a rare interview with The New York Times published Tuesday, the author of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” “Sabbath’s Theater” and “American Pastoral” ripped into the president without an ounce of restraint.
“No one I know of has foreseen an America like the one we live in today,” he told the veteran literary journalist Charles McGrath. “No one (except perhaps the acidic H. L. Mencken, who famously described American democracy as ‘the worship of jackals by jackasses’) could have imagined that the 21st-century catastrophe to befall the USA, the most debasing of disasters, would appear not, say, in the terrifying guise of an Orwellian Big Brother but in the ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon.”
Roth has seldom spoken with media since announcing his retirement from writing in 2012. He agreed to be interviewed via email, McGrath said, because he needed to take the time to think about what he wanted to say.
Since Trump’s improbable rise during the 2016 election, Roth’s 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America,” has been cited, over and over, for what Trump critics see as its prescient depiction of a charismatic bigot ascending to the American presidency — and the consequences that arise from it galvanizing a culture of nativism and xenophobia.
It imagines what life might have been like if the rabid isolationist and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 presidential election instead of Franklin Roosevelt.
Lindbergh, who was also a groundbreaking American aviator, was a spokesman of the America First Committee, which advocated against US entry into World War II. One of the first things Lindbergh does in Roth’s novel as president is to strike a treaty with Adolf Hitler to keep America out of Europe.
Once Trump appropriated the term “America First” as a campaign slogan, a legion of articles were written citing the resonance. And it hasn’t died down. Revealed in The New York Times piece was that David Simon, the writer and co-creator of “The Wire,” is adapting “Plot” into a six-part miniseries.
But while countless commentators have compared Roth’s novel to the times we are living in now, the Newark native insisted there was at least one major difference between Lindbergh and Trump.
“It’s the difference in stature between a President Lindbergh and a President Trump. Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also — because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 — an authentic American hero 13 years before I have him winning the presidency. Lindbergh, historically, was the courageous young pilot who in 1927, for the first time, flew nonstop across the Atlantic, from Long Island to Paris. He did it in 33.5 hours in a single-seat, single-engine monoplane, thus making him a kind of 20th-century Leif Ericson, an aeronautical Magellan, one of the earliest beacons of the age of aviation. Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.”
At the time of the book’s release, a slew of critics interpreted it as a commentary on the then presidency of George W. Bush. Roth denied that that was the case, too. And yet he was, for his part, a fierce critic of that president, as well. He wrote in an article for The New York Times Book Review that Bush was “a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one.”
Known for his frank and often lurid depictions of sexuality, Roth also weighed in on the #MeToo moment and revelations surrounding predatory sexual behavior by prominent men with power and influence.
“Men enveloped by sexual temptation is one of the aspects of men’s lives that I’ve written about in some of my books. Men responsive to the insistent call of sexual pleasure, beset by shameful desires and the undauntedness of obsessive lusts, beguiled even by the lure of the taboo,” he said.
“I’ve stepped not just inside the male head but into the reality of those urges whose obstinate pressure by its persistence can menace one’s rationality, urges sometimes so intense they may even be experienced as a form of lunacy. Consequently, none of the more extreme conduct I have been reading about in the newspapers lately has astonished me.”
While Roth has always resisted being labeled a Jewish writer, his books have often centered around Jewish characters and penetrated the meaning of Jewishness itself. (Two of his novels — “The Counterlife” and “Operation Shylock” — have taken place in Israel.) The critic Adam Kirsch has said a recurring theme in Roth’s oeuvre is that “rebellion against Jewishness is one of the most authentic and acceptable forms of Jewishness.”
Some of his earliest work, like the novella “Goodbye, Columbus” and his short stories “The Conversion of the Jews” and “Defender of The Faith,” angered the American Jewish community for its less-than-flattering depictions of American Jewish life. “What is being done to silence this man?” a rabbi once famously wrote in a letter to the Anti-Defamation League in 1958.
Over the last 50 years, however, Roth was anything but silent, churning out more than 30 books and winning most of literature’s highest honors, with the exception, to the consternation of many, of the Nobel Prize.
And while he is no longer actively writing, he’s maintained a diverse reading diet, ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reflections on race to Bruce Springsteen’s memoir to Steven Zipperstein’s “Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History” and Yuri Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century.”
“Reading has taken the place of writing,” he said, “and constitutes the major part, the stimulus, of my thinking life.”