The Trump Presidency: Doubling Down on Dystopia

The Trump Presidency: Doubling Down on Dystopia by Jeff Feffer

Dystopias have recently achieved full-spectrum dominance. Kids are drawn to such stories — The Giver, The 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: my recent novel Splinterlands has contributed to the dystopia tsunami.) 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 — nuclear war, climate change, a clash of civilizations — suddenly moved overhead.

The response among those horrified by a Trump presidency has been four-fold.

First came denial — from the existential shot to the solar plexus as election returns came 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 has been to delve into the dystopias of the past as if they contained some Da Vinci code for deciphering our 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.

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