"The Plot Against America" (HBO)

"Democracy is never perfected": David Simon on his new HBO series and the 2020 "s**tshow" election

"The Wire" creator appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss HBO's "The Plot Against America" and making political TV


D. Watkins
March 16, 2020 11:00PM (UTC)

Imagine venturing off to a foreign country with hopes and dreams of prosperity, economic opportunity and a new way of life — only to get a small glimpse of what that dream feels like before having it all snatched away. Philip Roth brilliantly told this story through the eyes of Jewish-American immigrants in his acclaimed novel, "The Plot Against America," and now David Simon and HBO are bringing his book to the screen in a six-part miniseries. Simon, the Emmy Award winner and creator behind "The Wire," "The Deuce," and "The Corner," sat down with me on "Salon Talks" to discuss the making of the show and the message behind it.

Over the past five years, I've leaned on Simon for advice as a mentor and friend –– and now I have the opportunity to write for one of his television shows currently in development.  

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"The Plot Against America" takes place in the 1940s and offers of an alternative history in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt loses to Charles Lindbergh, a populist pushing the nation towards fascism. The end result is a clear wakeup call in response to what our country is going through now, and I truly believe many viewers will be called to action. The HBO series, staring Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, Winona Ryder, and John Turturro, debuts on March 16 and could not have come at a better time.

Like the book, our country is disgustingly divided and led by a xenophobe who pretends to love America while subscribing to everything America shouldn't be. Beyond the show, Simon and I spoke about why 2020 is one of the most important elections ever, the creative process inside his writers' room, and "The Wire" and the stamp it left on America. Watch my "Salon Talks" with David Simon here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below. 

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I'm honored to have you here and to discuss this project with you.

Well, we're working together now on a project.

I wish I had a chance to work on you with the project before I'd spent so much money on college.

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I'm just a boon to higher education. I feel better about that.

One thing that I think a lot of your fans love about the shows you create is how you take these big ideas and you teach us so much about history, so much about cities, and you do it in a non-didactic way. We learn so much from your characters. How difficult is that?

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I think in some ways that's the hardest part. It's very easy, I think, relatively easy, to construct a television franchise. Which is to say, here's some characters, we'll put them under great stress, there'll be some adventures, some stuff will blow up, some people will get shot, some attractive people will sleep with each other.

They find each other.

All the things that work, work, but we'll just keep it going, and whatever the viewer likes we'll do more of, and whatever they don't seem to like, we'll do less of. You just keep going like that. The hardest parts in our writing room are when we all begin and we say, "Well, why are we doing the show, and what is it about?" And at the end after we finish the narrative, what will the argument have been? Is it worth the time we spent on it? That's kind of existential, but I don't think it happens a lot in television. 

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It certainly happens when people sit down and write a book. Why am I writing this book? But with television, because these franchises can be so self-sustaining and because there's so much money involved, I think people sit down and go, "How are we going to have a TV show and get people to keep watching?" which is not really the question we ask.

What was the "why" in the room when you decided to make "The Plot Against America" for HBO?

It obviously has its origins in the 2016 election. Philip Roth wrote a novel called "The Plot Against America" that imagined a different 1940 election, where Charles Lindbergh, an insurgent populist, a great hero to many Americans for his flight across the Atlantic, runs against Franklin Roosevelt on a platform of isolationism and xenophobia and barely hidden antisemitism. And that was a real threat in 1940. It actually almost happened. Roosevelt was terrified the Republicans were going to offer, they did offer the nomination, and that Lindbergh would accept. He did not. So it didn't happen, but it was a moment in time where we might have ended up either very neutral in World War II, not entering on the side of the Allies, or we would even entertain the idea of being allied with the fascist powers.

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That moment really does echo into this. We have an insurgent populist who is arguing xenophobic things about the immigrants, the immigrant class, about people who are a little different than what he thinks is normative, white America, white Protestant America. We have a rise in antisemitism. We have a rise in race hate, in crimes and in human rights affronts on our southern border. We're separating families. We all saw what happened in the airports almost within a couple months of the inauguration. This stuff plays politically.

The timing is almost too perfect.

When you've read Roth's book, you just think to yourself, did he anticipate this moment? But in truth, this moment's been coming around. This train is never late, and going back to the 1840s and the Know-Nothings and the fear of the Irish, and then to the latter part of the 19th century, the fear of Jews, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, the fear of the Italian Americans.

Whoever's coming in is subject to the same iconic fears, just devoted worries of the Americans already here, which is they're not going to be American enough. They're not loyal. Their politics are different. Their religion is different. The smells of the food coming down the hall from what they're cooking for dinner is nothing I've ever smelled before. They're just not American like we're American. They play that stuff, and that stuff can lead to political power, because those kind of resentments — they travel with people's worst fears.

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Some of my favorite parts about watching the series are the family conversations in the living room.

One of the things that Roth was very careful of was to show that this is a family that is assimilating so fast it makes your head spin. They're leaving behind a lot of Jewish observance. They're leaving behind a lot of the Old Country ways. This is the generation after the immigrant generation, and they're becoming Americans so fast. I mean, there's that moment early in the first episode, which I kind of delight in, where they're saying the traditional Jewish prayer over the bread every Friday night and while they're saying it, they get to talking about the Yankees ball score. They interrupt the kid making the prayer to talk about what the Yankees did that day. That speaks to the idea of the whole notion that, "Oh my God, these new immigrants are never going to be Americans like we need them to be Americans." It's always a lie. It's always a lie and it's a lie now that the targeted groups are people with black and brown skin, people from Latin America, people from Africa, people from Muslim countries.

Meanwhile, Trump is like, how come we don't get more immigrants from Sweden?

Right. Yeah. It's overt. I mean, it's so overt what he's speaking to, and the latent fears of white America. And the truth is, everybody gets to be American so fast. It's really remarkable how this country absorbs and transforms the people who arrive here. It's one of the great powers of the republic. And we doubt in it, we always doubt in it, and we always don't believe in it. But it's there and it's true.

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This show provides some lessons on the Jewish American experience, especially around that particular time. Do you think there were any big misconceptions out there about that experience?

I know from my own family that the victor writes the history. My father went to college, he was the first generation to go to college, and before him his grandparents were shopkeepers and peddlers, and before them, they were running from the Cossacks somewhere in Europe. So the fact that I'm now my father's son and I was raised in a nice little suburban enclave where you're told you can do what you want, you're American. Looking back, it seems inevitable. But the truth is, if you read anything about the Jewish American experience, there were tens of thousands of people who came here, saw that the streets were not paved with gold and went back. They actually went back to Europe. Like New York is too hard. They don't get to write the history that I know of, having researched my own family history. I've got relatives who went to prison. I've got relatives who fell into radical left politics.

They don't come up.

They don't come up, no. The people who get to the place where they're having a conversation around the dinner table, they always have the stories of success.

That's actually pretty American. My family's the same way. You end up always talking about your cousin who cured some rare disease.

That's right. You shape the facts to fit the story you have now. So the truth is, you look at any struggle that any new wave of immigration is having right now, acclimating to America, and if you just take a breath and wait, they're going to be telling the same stories of overcoming and perseverance and success 20, 30 years from it.

Yet, two generations from now, whoever was being kicked to the curb by the anti-immigration fears of today are going to be looking back on it and talking about overcoming that the same way if you're Irish American now you remember when it said, "No dogs or Irishmen here," "No Irish need apply." So that dynamic, Roth understood that. And he put that in the novel to basically put the lie to what Lindbergh and the America Firsters, because that is where the term originated. Lindbergh and his antisemitism and pro-fascism.

It's like that line he says: "Vote Lindbergh or you're voting for war."

It puts the lie to that stuff, and it feels like this was the time to do this book because it's a remarkable work of alternative history, and a remarkable vision of a dystopian America where we start trading away our civil liberties for a little more security, which is always a bad bargain.

With "The Plot Against America" and "The Deuce," you're making these time pieces. What are some of the challenges that come with that?

Well, everywhere you point the camera is wrong. Just finding a street where there weren't so many wires, overhead wires that we had to paint out for 1940s Newark, where the Roth family grew up and where our family is situated. Wherever you point the camera, something is historically wrong. And even if you think you can control for events, here comes some car not paying attention and barreling past your PA, and all of a sudden you've got a 1987 Toyota Camry flying through 1940.

We also have these computers now that can paint anything in or out. It's an adventure, but the other real struggle was, I'll be honest, Roth is one of our great novelists. He's a guy who was waiting right at the end of his life for a Nobel that many argue should have come. And this was a book that, for the first time I was adapting somebody's novel and it wasn't just any somebody, it was Philip Roth. Although I got to meet with him once and talk over the project, the truth is every day I woke up feeling like, well, I'm a TV hack and I'm about to do surgery on a novel by Philip Roth. So staying true to the intent of the book, while also doing the things necessary to make it a viable miniseries, it was kind of agony.

And you feel like you did it?

I don't know. We're going to find out.

It's entertaining, and it's extremely relevant, and people are going to learn a lot. What are some of the main things you want them to take away?

That self-government, and by extension democracy or even a republic as we have in America, is hard. It's really hard to govern this way, to govern by coalition, to govern in a multicultural, pluralistic society. Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government until you consider all the alternatives, and I think that's accurate, which is to say, it's a lot easier to come up with simple answers and to leave people out of the equation and to govern ideologically. The harder thing is actually to fight for coalitions, to kill the snakes you have to kill every day, to resist the impulse to do away with democratic norms and institutions that have been time tested. That's what we're experiencing in this moment. It's not even about liberal or conservative. It's about, do you want the structures by which we govern ourselves and allow a multitude of voices, do you want to kill them or do you want them to endure? And that's the fight right now.

Democracy is never perfected. We never finish it. Every day you leave more work on the table. Every day it presents its own problems. It can never be completely won, freedom, but it can be lost. And we're in that moment where, do we have the patience and the temperament to govern ourselves properly as a democracy? That's being asked right now.

Those messages come through clear in this show. Same goes for shows you have created in the past. You make characters that last forever. I interviewed Michael K. Williams on "Salon Talks," and we talked about how Omar is like part of his DNA.

I just feel bad. He can't go into a restaurant without somebody saying "Omar coming."

"Omar's coming!"

He can't sit down, the poor guy.

I know that obviously you can't revisit that character because of what happened on the show, but you ever feel like you want to revisit any of these characters, or do you just put them to bed once the show's over?

No, I feel like stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and if you plan the end and you say what you need to say, there's always more universes to create. We're actually going back, in a basic way, on the project you and I are working on in Baltimore, telling a nonfiction narrative that's in the same milieu, but it's a different story with a different beginning, middle, and end. So I'm looking forward to that.

We're working on a story about a real-life scandal in Baltimore involving a police unit that went completely awry, and what that represents, not just that it's a handful of bad cops, but that it represents something structural, and something that came out of the drug war and mass arrest and all of those policies of the '90s and aughts. And I think in some respects it's a chance to say something we haven't said before. My God, if you make another show and you say the same thing you just said, you've wasted your shot.

That's like one of the beautiful things about this next project is the whole idea of the drug war and how it works. I joined the drug war as a dealer. It's police officers joining the drug war as people who are supposed to fight against guys like me.

But everybody enlists.

Everybody's in it. You've got to report it and tell those stories. It's like we're all in a war in a different way. The drug was was never supposed to directly tear you apart as a storyteller because you're covering the stories as they happen. It's supposed to tear me apart as a person who is on the wrong side of it, because I'm the bad guy, and then a cop is supposed to be a hero. But in actuality, if these suburban cops weren't investigating these drug dealers, then they never would have came across these cops, the heroes. That's like the beauty of it.

The whole thing is just a wonderful tangle of lost morality and lost purpose, which is pretty much the drug war defined. There's an opportunity to say something here and to do it with real facts and real names and the people who actually were engaged in this scandal. Listen, every show is an opportunity to slice off something else about who we are and what we're doing. Sometimes it's historical allegory, as with this show, sometimes it's just straight journalism. Sometimes it's a combination of the two.

I also had a chance to interview Maggie Gyllenhaal on "Salon Talks," and she was talking about her experience on "The Deuce" and how she got a chance to contribute to the character Candy that you guys created. That's major.

The actors who worked on "The Deuce," particularly if they were working on depicting the rise of pornography, we were asking them to do things and to depict things that, it was a hard road for actors. It's asking them to struggle with scenes about sexual commodification and misogyny that are at points, painful and ugly and blunt. Nobody's more brave than Maggie Gyllenhaal when it comes to that stuff. So if you're asking her to do that, and we were, then her ideas as to why we're doing what we're doing and what needs to be in the piece, and how we need to address certain things, that has to be heard. That's only fair. And that dynamic, that cooperation between us, it made the work better.

Every show that you've worked on and created, they are timeless in their own ways and they last. What do you tell new people who are trying to get into this?

I had a terrible way of getting into television, which is, I became a newspaper reporter and I worked for 14 years at a regional newspaper, and then I wrote a book, and then some A-list director found it and made it into a TV show. And then he taught me — he and his friends taught me — how to write some television. I start telling the story of how I got into television to other writers and their eyes start to glaze because it's a terrible plan, right? I had no plan.

But I would say the one thing that I think is, if you want to do the kind of work that, and by the way I'm not saying you should because there's not a lot of market for it, and I have a very strange and happy syndicator at HBO, but if you want to do this kind of work, the thing you must do is you must sit down and have that first conversation of, why are we telling this story? What do I think about this issue? What do I think about this world that I'm trying to depict? What's my argument? And you have to solve that before you put the first character in the first scene. You have to decide why you're doing the piece and why it matters and why you want to spend two, three years working on a project. A lot of people don't want to do that work. 

Yeah, it's hobby. They want to take the quick way out. Do you have an alternative history of what's going to happen if Trump gets another four years? 

I don't know. I don't know what happens. I'll say this: We're working on another project that was a political show, and it was supposed to depict a realistic version of what was going on on Capitol Hill. It was a legislative story. It was about the part of American government that I think is actually the most broken, the branch of government that is the most broken, which is Congress. And we were working on that. We were working on that, and we wrote the pilot and we imagined in 2015 either a normative Democratic politician or a normative Republican politician was going to become president the next year. So we wrote a pilot that worked on that basis.

Then Donald Trump becomes president. We throw that pilot out, we start writing again. Then there's the mayhem at the airports and the few early missteps by the administration. And we looked at each other and we said, well, this guy's a clown. And so we can discard any notion of seriousness coming from the White House. And we wrote another pilot on that premise. And then Mitch McConnell passed that tax bill, and we threw that pilot out. And so we're sitting here now after that, after impeachment. We're now at the next election and we haven't, so we still haven't figured out how to write that as a pilot.

Hopefully, maybe instead of throwing the script out, someone can figure out a way to throw Mitch McConnell out.

All I can say is, the reason you go back and you take a moment from 1940 and use it as allegory to your present time, is that if that's a lot easier to do, apply the history that you know and the lessons that you know, rather than take this fast-moving dynamic of the current administration where everything changes every 48 hours and try to capture that. We'll probably know a lot more about how to depict what happened in America in the last four years looking back on it from four years hence.

Do you think the 2020 election is going to be a major s**tshow, or just a partial s**tshow?

It's definitely going to be a s**tshow. It's absolutely going to be a s**tshow. I think it's going to be as ugly a misrepresentation of what democracy is supposed to be as we're capable of. I don't know if the actual will of the people is going to be evidenced. I'm not sure I trust the voting systems. I'm not sure I trust the willingness of both parties to engage in a contest where votes are counted accurately. I'm not sure what I trust in anymore. So many American norms, so many institutions are under siege now, where the ends by people justify the means. And really again, conservative, liberal, centrist, I don't care. I'm really interested in how many of my fellow citizens are interested in preserving the norms by which we live.

I'm optimistic still. It's terrifying, but I'm optimistic.

Well, it's because you're from Baltimore. How could you not be optimistic?

"The Plot Against America" premieres Monday, March 16 at 9 p.m. on HBO.


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

MORE FROM D. WatkinsFOLLOW @dwatkinsworld


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