Dystopias have recently achieved full-spectrum dominance. Kids are drawn to such stories — The Giver, Hunger Games — like Goths to piercings. TV shows about zombie apocalypses, pandemics, and technology run amok inspire binge watching. We’ve seen the world-gone-truly-bad a thousand times over on the big screen.
This apocalyptic outpouring has been so intense that talk of “peak dystopia” started to circulate several years ago. Yet the stock of the doomsday cartel has shown no signs of falling, even as production continues at full blast. (A confession: with my recent novel Splinterlands I’ve contributed my own bit to flooding the dystopia market.) As novelist Junot Diaz argued last October, dystopia has become “the default narrative of the generation.”
Shortly after Diaz made that comment, dystopia became the default narrative for American politics as well when Donald Trump stepped off the set of The Celebrity Apprentice and into the Oval Office. With the election of an uber-narcissist incapable of distinguishing between fact and fantasy, all the dystopian nightmares that had gathered like storm clouds on the horizon — nuclear war, climate change, a clash of civilizations — suddenly moved overhead. Cue the rumble of thunder and the flash of lightning.
The response among those horrified by the results of the recent presidential election has been four-fold.
First came denial — from the existential dread that hammered the solar plexus as the election returns trickled in that Tuesday night to the more prosaic reluctance to get out of bed the morning after. Then came the fantasies of flight, as tens of thousands of Americans checked to see if their passports were still valid and if the ark bound for New Zealand had any berths free. The third stage has been resistance: millions poured into the streets to protest, mobilized at airports to welcome temporarily banned immigrants, and flocked to congressional meet-and-greets to air their grievances with Republicans and Democrats alike.
The fourth step, concurrent with all the others, has been to delve into the dystopias of the past as if they contained some Da Vinci code for deciphering our present predicament. Classics like Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, George Orwell’s 1984, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale quickly climbed back onto bestseller lists.
It might seem counterintuitive — or a perverse form of escapism — to turn from the dystopia of reality to that of fiction. Keep in mind, though, that those novels became bestsellers in their own time precisely because they offered refuge and narratives of resistance for those who feared (in order of publication) the rise of Nazism, the spread of Stalinism, or the resurgence of state-backed misogyny in the Reagan years.
These days, with journalists scrambling to cover the latest outrage from the White House, perhaps it was only natural for readers to seek refuge in the works of writers who took the longer view. After all, it’s an understandable impulse to want to turn the page and find out what happens next. And dystopian narratives are there, in part, to help us brace for the worst, while identifying possible ways out of the downward spiral toward hell.
The dystopian classics, however, are not necessarily well suited to our current moment. They generally depict totalitarian states under a Big Brother figure and a panoptical authority that controls everything from the center, a scenario that’s fascist or communist or just plain North Korean. Certainly, Donald Trump wants his face everywhere, his name on everything, his little fingers in every pot. But the dangers of the current dystopian moment don’t lie in the centralizing of control. Not yet, anyway.
The Trump era so far is all about the center not holding, a time when, in the words of the poet Yeats, things fall apart. Forget about Hannah Arendt and The Origins of Totalitarianism — also a hot seller on Amazon — and focus more on chaos theory. Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.
Don’t be fooled by Trump’s talk of a trillion-dollar infrastructure boom. His team has a very different project in mind, and you can read it on the signpost up ahead. Next Stop: The Deconstruction Zone.
The Zombie Election
In February 2016, when Donald Trump won his first primary in New Hampshire, the New York Daily Newsheadlined it “Dawn of the Brain Dead” and likened Trump’s GOP supporters to “mindless zombies.” Not to be outdone, that conspiracy-minded purveyor of fake news, Alex Jones, routinely described Hillary Clinton supporters as “zombies” on his Trump-positive website Infowars.
The references to zombies spoke to the apocalyptic mindset of both sides. Donald Trump deliberately tapped into the end-of-days impulses of Christian evangelicals, anti-globalists, and white power enthusiasts, who view anyone who hasn’t drunk their Kool-Aid as a dead soul. Meanwhile, those fearful that the billionaire blowhard might win the election began spreading the “Trumpocalypse” meme as they warned of the coming of ever more severe climate change, the collapse of the global economy, and the outbreak of race wars. There was virtually no middle ground between the groups, aside from those who decided to steer clear of the election altogether. The mutual disgust with which each side viewed the other encouraged just the kind of dehumanization implied by that zombie label.
Zombies have become a political metaphor for another reason as well. What’s frightening about the flesh eating undead in their current incarnations is that they are not a formal army. There are no zombie leaders, no zombie battle plans. They shamble along in herds in search of prey. “Our fascination with zombies is partly a transposed fear of immigration,” I wrote in 2013, “of China displacing the United States as the world’s top economy, of bots taking over our computers, of financial markets that can melt down in a single morning.”
Zombies, in other words, reflect anxiety over a loss of control associated with globalization. In this context, the “rise of the rest” conjures up images of a mass of undifferentiated resource consumers — hungry others who are little more than mouths on legs — storming the citadels of the West.
During the election campaign, the Trump team appealed to those very fears by running ads during the popular TV series The Walking Dead that deliberately played on anti-immigration concerns. Once in office, Trump has put into motion his campaign pledges to wall off the United States from Mexico, keep out Muslims, and retreat into Fortress America. He has put special effort into reinforcing the notion that the outside world is a deeply scary place — even Paris, even Sweden! — as if The Walking Dead were a documentary and the zombie threat quite real.
The concentration of power in the executive branch, and Trump’s evident willingness to wield it, certainly echoes dystopian fears of 1984-style totalitarianism. So have the extraordinary lies, the broadsides against the media (“enemies of the people”), and the targeting of internal and external adversaries of every sort. But this is no totalitarian moment. Trump is not interested in constructing a superstate like Oceania or even a provincial dictatorship like Airstrip One, both of which Orwell described so convincingly in his novel.
Instead, coming out of the gate, the new administration has focused on what Trump’s chief strategist and white nationalist Stephen Bannon promised to do several years ago: “bring everything crashing down.”
The Bannon Dystopia
Dystopians on the right have their own version of 1984. They’ve long been warning that liberals want to establish an all-powerful state that restricts gun ownership, bans the sale of super-sized sodas, and forces mythic “death panels” on the unwary. These right-wing Cassandras are worried not so much about Big Brother as about Big Nanny, though the more extreme among them also claim that liberals are covert fascists, closet communists, or even agents of the caliphate.
Strangely enough, however, these same right-wing dystopians — former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin on the (non-existent) death panels, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) on gun control, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter on soda bans and other trivial pursuits — have never complained about the massive build-up of government power in far more significant areas: namely, the military and the intelligence agencies. Indeed, now that they are back on top, the new Trumpianized “conservatives” are perfectly happy to expand state power by throwing even more money at the Pentagon and potentially giving greater scope to the CIA in its future interrogations of terror suspects. Despite falling rates of violent crime — a tiny uptick in 2015 obscures the fact that these remain at a historic low — Trump also wants to beef up the police to deal with American “carnage.”
So far, so 1984. But the radically new element on the Trump administration’s agenda has nothing to do with the construction of a more powerful state. At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Bannon spoke instead of what was truly crucial to him (and assumedly the president): the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Here, Bannon was speaking specifically of unleashing Wall Street, polluting industries, gun sellers, while freeing a wide range of economic actors from regulation of just about any sort. But Trump’s cabinet appointments and the first indications of what a Trumpian budget might look like suggest a far broader agenda aimed at kneecapping the non-military part of the state by sidelining entire agencies and gutting regulatory enforcement. Bye-bye, EPA. Nighty-night, Department of Education. Nice knowing you, HUD. We sure will miss you, Big Bird and foreign aid.
Even the State Department hasn’t proved safe from demolition. With professional diplomats out of the loop, Pennsylvania Avenue, not Foggy Bottom, will be the locus of control for international relations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is being reduced to little more than an ornament as the new triumvirate of Trump, Bannon, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner take over foreign policy (though Vice President Pence hovers in the background like a chaperone at the prom). Meanwhile, with a proposed $54 billion future hike in its budget, Trump’s Pentagon will remain untouched by the wrecking ball, as the new president presides over a devastating shrinkage of the government he dislikes and a metastasis of what he loves. (Think: giant, shiny aircraft carriers!)
Thus far, the Trump administration has acted with highly publicized incompetence: administration figures contradicting each other, executive orders short-circuiting the government machinery, tweets wildly caroming around the Internet universe, and basic functions like press conferences handled with all the aplomb of a non-human primate. Trump’s appointees, including Bannon, have looked like anything but skilled demolition experts. This is certainly no Gorbachev-style perestroika, which eventually led to the unraveling of the Soviet Union. It’s nothing like the “shock therapy” programs that first knocked down and then remade the states of Eastern Europe after 1989.
However, since deconstruction is so much easier than construction and Bannon prides himself on his honey-badger-like persistence, the administration’s project, messy as it seems so far, is likely to prove quite capable of doing real damage. In fact, if you want a more disturbing interpretation of Donald Trump’s first months in office, consider this: What if all the chaos is not an unintended consequence of a greenhorn administration but an actual strategy?
All that dust in the air comes, after all, from the chaotic first steps in a projected massive demolition process and may already be obscuring the fact that Trump is attempting to push through a fundamentally anti-American and potentially supremely unpopular program. He aims to destroy the status quo, as Bannon promised, and replace it with a new world order defined by three Cs: Conservative, Christian, and Caucasian. Let the media cover what they please; let the critics laugh all they like about executive branch antics. In the meantime, all the president’s men are trying to impose their will on a recalcitrant country and world.
Triumph of the Will
I took a course in college on the rise of Nazism in Germany. At one point, the professor showed us Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s famous 1935 documentary that covered the Nazi Party Congress of the previous year and featured extensive footage of Adolf Hitler addressing the faithful. Triumph of the Will was a blockbuster film, our professor assured us. It spread the name of Hitler worldwide and established Riefenstahl’s reputation as a filmmaker. It was so popular inside Germany that it ran for months on end at movie theaters, and people returned again and again to watch it. Our teacher promised us that we would find it fascinating.
Triumph of the Will was not fascinating. Even for students engrossed in the details of the Nazi surge to power, the nearly two-hour documentary was a tremendous bore. After it was over, we bombarded the teacher with questions and complaints. How could he have imagined that we would find it fascinating?
He smiled. That’s the fascinating part, he said. Here was this extraordinarily popular film, and it’s now nearly impossible for Americans to sit through the whole thing. He wanted us to understand that people in Nazi Germany had an entirely different mindset, that they were participating in a kind of mass frenzy. They didn’t find Nazism abhorrent. They didn’t think they were living in a dystopia. They were true believers.
Many Americans are now having their Triumph of the Will moment. They watch Donald Trump repeatedly without getting bored or disgusted. They believe that history has anointed a new leader to revive the country and restore it to its rightful place in the world. They’ve been convinced that the last eight years were a liberal dystopia and what is happening now is, if not utopian, then the first steps in that direction.
A hard core of those enthralled by Trump cannot be convinced otherwise. They hold liberal elites in contempt. They don’t believe CNN or The New York Times. Many subscribe to outlandish theories about Islam and immigrants and the continuing covert machinations of that most famous “Islamic immigrant” of them all, Barack Obama. For this hard core of Trump supporters, the United States could begin to break down, the economy take a nosedive, the international community hold the leadership in Washington in contempt, and they will continue to believe in Trump and Trumpism. The president could even gun down a few people and his most fervent supporters would say nothing except, “Good shot, Mr. President!” Remember: even after Nazi Germany went down in fiery defeat in 1945, significant numbers of Germans remained in thrall to National Socialism. In 1947, more than half of those surveyed still believed that Nazism was a good idea carried out badly.
But plenty of Trump supporters — whether they’re disaffected Democrats, Hillary-hating independents, or rock-ribbed Republican conservatives — don’t fit such a definition. Some have already become deeply disillusioned by the antics of Donald J. and the demolition derby that his advisers are planning to unleash inside the U.S. government, which may, in the end, batter their lives badly. They can be brought over. This is potentially the biggest of big-tent moments for launching the broadest possible resistance under the banner of a patriotism that portrays Trump and Bannon as guilty of un-American activities.
And it’s here in particular that so many dystopian novels provide the wrong kind of guidance. Trump’s end will not come at the hands of a Katniss Everdeen. A belief in an individual savior who successfully challenges a “totalitarian” system got us into this crisis in the first place when Donald Trump sold himself as the crusading outsider against a “deep state” controlled by devious liberals, craven conservatives, and a complicit mainstream media. Nor will it help for Americans to dream about leading their states out of the Union (are you listening, California?) or for individuals to retreat into political purism. Given that the administration’s dystopian vision is based on chaos and fragmentation, the oppositional response should be to unite everyone opposed, or even potentially opposed, to what Washington is now doing.
As readers, we are free to interpret dystopian fiction the way we please. As citizens, we can do something far more subversive. We can rewrite our own dystopian reality. We can change that bleak future ourselves. To do so, however, we would need to put together a better plot, introduce some more interesting and colorful characters, and, before it’s too late, write a much better ending that doesn’t just leave us with explosions, screams, and fade to black.
TomDispatch, March 13, 2017