JULIAN GUILFORD, Contributor-
It’s an election year, in a time of economic uncertainty. Running for president is a ranting populist type who has a bestselling book that is part biography, and part shameless boasting. He promises to “make America a proud, rich land again,” rails against blacks, Jews, and Mexicans, and makes it a point of criticizing the press, whose editors he accuses of “plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions.”
No, this is not a description of 2016, and the candidate is not Donald Trump—although you can be excused for thinking so. This is, instead, a character named Berzelius Windrip in Nobel Prize winning author Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here,” a cautionary tale about how fascism comes to America. Although published over 80 years ago, Lewis’s novel seems especially relevant in the age of Trump. So, relevant, in fact, that it recently became Amazon’s number one bestseller in the Classic American Literature category.
The book — which Lewis set in the immediate future of 1936 — describes the election of a populist presidential candidate who quickly turns America into a fascist state, complete with concentration camps and a paramilitary force, patriotically if ironically dubbed “The Minute Men.”
An article by Andrew Sullivan in the May 2nd issue of New York contains one of the more recent invocations of the Lewis novel. Sullivan cited the book as part of his blistering analysis of the factors that have made a Trump presidency a possibility. But Sullivan is far from the first alarmed and/or bemused commentator to turn to Lewis in the past year. Last September, Salon published an article by Malcolm Harris enumerating the ways in which the events of the book foreshadow the real-life Trump campaign eight decades later. Harris noted that Trump’s “careful mix of plainspoken honesty and reactionary delusion” parallels the tack used by Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, Lewis’s fictional victor in the 1936 presidential sweepstakes.
In a Dec. 3rd New York Times opinion piece, “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” Ross Douthat asked: “[I]s it time for Trump watchers to dust off their copies of It Can’t Happen Here and The Plot Against America [Philip Roth’s 2004 novel imagining a 1940 election of Charles Lindbergh to the presidency]?”
Douthat conceded that Trump looked and quacked like a fascist but concluded that to label him as such would do no one much good. Such labeling, he wrote, would only be a way for the political class to ignore the bona fide reasons for the billionaire’s popularity, including “the accurate sense that the American elite has misgoverned the country at home and abroad.” Douthat intimated that the Lewis and Roth books might best, in fact, remain smothered in dust.
This past spring, Adi Robertson at The Verge presented a thoughtful article that dealt with the Lewis and Roth novels along with other examples of dystopian political fiction, such as Jack London’s 1908 The Iron Heel. He argued that “It Can’t Happen Here” is a “perpetually relevant” examination of “creeping fascism” in American culture, and he identified some striking resemblances between Windrip and Trump, including their tendency to encourage voters to blame their unfortunate circumstances on the presence of minorities. He also located several ways in which the fiction of Lewis and the fact of Trump part company.
Dystopias are almost always set in the future. Readers might identify certain unpleasant aspects of contemporary life exaggerated for effect by the science fiction writer. Women have no control over their bodies in The Handmaid’s Tale. Everyone is stupefied by drugs in Brave New World. Water has become the most precious natural resource in The Water Knife.
Vulture writer Adam Sternberg had earlier lamented in a June 27th article, “Right this minute, we live in “a time of death, destruction, terrorism, and weakness” — that’s not the tagline from Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s a line from Donald Trump’s nomination speech. Just this year we’ve seen the rise of an improbable political candidate whose reality-TV background recalls The Running Man and whose platform moved the Washington Post to preemptively anti-endorse him and call him a “unique threat to democracy.” What’s more, his rise is built on the very notion that we’re a society on the edge of collapse — a notion that, depending on your temperament, might be perpetually confirmed by the nightly news or the comments in your Twitter feed. But whatever your political affiliation — whether you are scared like Trump, or scared of Trump — there is plenty in the current moment to put you at unease. Do you really want to go to a movie or read a novel about a fictional world run amok when plenty of people on Facebook will tell you that this world is amok right now? It’s not so much that it’s become impossible to imagine a dystopia. It just seems pointless, even masochistic, given the endless terrified Now.”
Emily Rodrigues, a second-year Liberal Arts student has read many dystopian classics. Her all-time favorite is “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.
“Trump wants to take away a woman’s reproductive rights,” she says. “He says he would jail doctors who would perform abortions and their patients as well. He wants to take us back to the time when women were ‘in their place.’”
Speaking in a new interview with The Guardian, Atwood mentioned a pair of maps that recently went viral on social media; one shows how the US would look if only men voted, colored almost entirely in red to represent their affinity for Republican candidate Donald Trump.
The other shows how the US would look if only women voted: almost entirely blue, aka the color of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate. Atwood said: “It spawned a hashtag called #Repealthe19th. The 19th Amendment is what gave women the vote. So, there are Trump supporters who want to take the vote away from women.”
She added, “The Handmaid’s Tale [is] unfolding in front of your very eyes.”
The celebrated author went on to explain that, when The Handmaid’s Tale was published, many began to wonder how long they had until the events described by her main character, Offred, would come to pass.
“Apparently, not as long as I thought,” she said, adding: “With any cultural change there is a push and a pushback. Trump has brought out a huge pushback that was originally against immigrants.”
After Election Day, Atwood tweeted, “Dear Americans: It will be all right in the long run. (How long? We will see.) You’ve been through worse, remember.”
Syreeta McFadden of The Guardian argues that “Dystopian stories used to reflect our anxieties. Now they reflect our reality.”
George Orwell warns us: “Allowing for the book, after all, being a parody, something like 1984 could actually happen. This is the direction the world is going in at the present time. In our world, there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. The sex instinct will be eradicated. We shall abolish the orgasm. There will be no loyalty except loyalty to the Party. But always there will be the intoxication of power. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who’s helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever. The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”
And Sci-Fi writer John Scalzi adds to the conversation: “You don’t want to live in a dystopia. You’re not going to be the one of the ones living comfortably in the secret, high tech gulch. You’re going to be the one in the cold and all the rest of us are going to be there with you. Leave the dystopias to the novelists and leave the fiction on the page.”
Maddie Crum of the Huffington Post reveals in “A Dystopian Novelist Predicted Trump’s Campaign Slogan in the ‘90s”: “There’s something maddeningly vague about Donald Trump’s catchall campaign slogan, “Make America great again.”
“Maybe it’s the blatant fallacy of ‘again,'” Crum says. “Alluding to imagined halcyon days. Or maybe it’s the lack of specificity of the word “great” — if you were to survey 10 Americans about what greatness looked like to them, you’d likely turn up a mish-mash of responses, and certainly nothing actionable.”
Black Sci-Fi writer & Hugo Award winner, N.K. Jemisin (heavily influenced by Butler) discusses in “The Atlantic” interview on her views on Trump and the alt-right. “Reactionary movements can’t sustain themselves unless they find something new to catch and burn on. And when they keep using the same tactics over and over again, I don’t know that that’s sustainable. Or they’ll burn themselves out when they reach the point of, I guess, Donald Trumpism, for lack of a better description. They reach some point where it’s no longer a reactionary movement, some demagogue tries to take the lead and make it all about them. And at that point it becomes clear that it’s just some kind of petty narcissistic thing, and I think that’s what kills it.”
Professor Mark Walsh, who has taught Science Fiction at Massasoit for seven years offers his perspective on Trump and dystopias.
“When you listen to how Orwell had spoken about doublespeak, it’s language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. Trump has definitely mastered that staple of Orwell’s view on the politicization of the English language. Even when he has lost at something, he keeps on reminding us that he’s a winner. You know what, many people will believe him. That’s dangerous.”
Donald J. Trump took the oath of office last month, sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.
As Stephen King said, in his classic “The Running Man:” “In the year 2025, the best men don’t run for president, they run for their lives. . . .”