Writing about the genesis of his novel, The Plot Against America, the great Philip Roth wrote, “All the assurances are provisional, even here in a two-hundred-year-old democracy. We are ambushed, even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history.”
The Plot Against America was counterfactual, an imagined scenario in which Charles Lindbergh, the great aviator and American hero who happened also be to be a rigid isolationist and committed white supremacist, had been elected president of the United States. It never happened, of course, but it was not inconceivable. During the 1930s and ‘40s, Lindbergh was, as Roth put it, “a socio-political force” to be reckoned with.
Still, when The Plot Against America was originally published, in 2004, it seemed far-fetched. Now, though, not so much. Now with Donald Trump in the White House has been a war on truth. Now with Donald Trump in the White House has been a diminution of the US as leader of the liberal world order. Now with Donald Trump in the White House has been a surge in bias and bigotry. Now with Donald Trump in the White House has been a degradation of the national discourse. Now with Donald Trump in the White House has been corruption at the highest levels of government. And now with Donald Trump in the White House has been an assault on the most venerable of American institutions.
I include on this list the press. Not incidentally, in fact ironically, it is the press – purported perpetrator of “fake news” – that I hereby designate “good leader(s) of the year”! More specifically, if Trump does not demolish our democracy, we will have the New York Times and the Washington Post to thank first and, arguably, foremost.
The importance of their investigative reporting during 2017 is impossible to overestimate. The Times and the Post have led the way in giving us the information we need, the ammunition we need, to protect ourselves against authoritarianism, maybe even totalitarianism. Of course, this fight is by no means over. America’s democracy remains under threat. Trump is not only a narcissist but a pugilist, which is precisely why 2018 threatens to be unusually nasty and singularly dangerous.
But there is evidence that we can continue to rely on – though not obviously to the point of complacency – these two venerable newspapers, both of which have long played storied parts in American journalism. Moreover, even now, when old media have been existentially threatened by new media, both the Times and the Post continue to enjoy the incalculable advantages of protection by their owners. In the case of the former, the legendary Sulzberger family; in the case of the latter, billionaire Bezos, who bought the paper in 2013 and promptly gave it an infusion of fresh cash.
In 1971, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote the following, referencing publication of the Pentagon Papers. “Far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly.” Good Leaders of the Year indeed – then as well as now.
Roth must be relieved. Not completely or permanently. But, at least, partially and preliminarily.