Over the holidays, I spent a week binge-reading dystopian fiction. It’s something I wouldn’t recommend without an ample supply of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds. But I wanted to try to understand the rise of Donald Trump, his path to the US presidency, and what this might mean for our collective future—as well as if there was anything we could do to stop him. (Spoiler alert: There is!)
A review of the literature revealed amazing parallels. Books written in the 1930s and 1990s featured dictators using “just folks” populism to channel legitimate anger—as well as xenophobia and racism—for their own dictatorial purposes.
Unsurprisingly, the boldest, smartest and most brutal visions of a Trump-like America came from women of color. In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents, an evil Texas senator turned fascist dictator uses a folksy campaign slogan: “HELP US MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Reading that passage, I gasped out loud. We’re at a historical point in which dystopian literature isn’t just about imagining worst-case scenarios—it can apparently be used as a how-to book.
As I read, I became convinced that dystopian literature can help us all navigate the Trump era. As the old proverb goes, “Fish don’t see water.” Similarly, people often fail to notice the way that politicians are manipulating them. The insidiousness of an autocratic regime is the way it appeals to our lizard brains—most notably playing upon fear—and bypasses our rational centers. How else to explain the voters who claim they hate “big government” but need their Medicare? Or, say, people who hate “illegals”, but didn’t think to ask about my doctor-father’s immigration status when they were on the operating table? Dystopian fiction can help us recognize when—and how—we’re being played.
It’s no wonder Trump wants to get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts, an agency with a $146-million budget that represents roughly 0.01% of the federal budget. Artists are like deer: They sniff the winds of change long before the rest of us. So head to your library or bookstore and check out these reads. Forewarned is forearmed, as one of the novel’s folksy characters might say.
It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis
This 1935 novel follows a white-haired, socialist-leaning newspaper editor in a small Vermont quarry town. The editor watches with horror as Senator “Buzz” Windrip and his “League of Forgotten Men” (that is, the idealized white working man abandoned by the snobby élite) rise to power.
Windrip makes folksy declarations promising to return America to a better time, while also cannily purchasing airtime on the radio to make it seem as if his ideas have some validity. He also makes sure that men who disagree with him are tarred as tools of Mother Russia, and dismisses dissenting women as “silly socialists.”
Buzz Windrip’s supporters see his autocratic style and admiration of fascist regimes as strengths. As a local explains: “Didn’t Hitler save Germany from the Red Plague of Marxism? I got cousins there, I know!” Each chapter begins with excerpts of Windrip’s faux memoir, which sounds unnervingly Trumpian. He rails against the press as “a lot of irresponsible wind bags!” When told that his support in the Midwest is slipping, he replies:
“You forget that I myself, personally, made a special radio address to that particular section of the country last week! And I got a wonderful reaction. The Middle Westerners are absolutely loyal to me. They appreciate what I’ve been trying to do!”
Like any good autocrat, Buzz Windrip wins supporters by picking scapegoats. He has promised to save America from welfare cheats, immigrants, a liberal press, and college professors. Dissenters are quickly interned and often tortured, policed by an extra-legal group of goons, The Minutemen.
Lewis masterfully shows how a population that basically wants the same things can still be divided—much as the 2016 election results were driven by a schism between the coasts and the Midwest. And while his vision is dark, it’s made palatable by the book’s weird blend of satire and pathos—and by the editor’s admirable ability to continue to resist, even in the face of great suffering.
Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler
In this 1998 novel, a “pox” in 2015 (!) has wiped out most of the population—the result of some confluence of climate change and economic and environmental destruction. In the mid-21st century, a father, mother, and a child make a home in a small California community called Acorn. Their diary entries tell the story of what happened after a folksy, aphorism-spouting Texas senator, Andrew Steele Jarret, becomes president. Jarret’s platform promises to return the country to an “older, simpler time.” He offers a call to arms for the white majority voting bloc known as Christian Americans, who decry multiculturalism.
Meanwhile, Acorn becomes a small pocket of resistance. The community practices a leaderless, Buddhist-type religion of self-sufficiency and environmental stewardship called Earthseed, founded by Lauren Oya Olamina, the mother in the story. One day, the government goons (“Crusaders,” wearing crosses) arrive in fortified tanks. They destroy Acorn’s crops and kill or enslave the inhabitants, using horrible slave “collars” that can inflict debilitating pain and seizures without ruining a body for work or leaving marks.
But even when she is subject to the most abject conditions, Lauren never stops resisting. She continues to spread the gospel of Earthseed. Butler’s novel showcases the political possibilities offered by simple human connection: Lauren breaks through the scared, xenophobic carapace of one Andrew Steele Jarret voter at a time, merely by quietly demonstrating the interconnectivity of all humans.
In time, the novel suggests, these kinds of individual interactions can add up to mass movements—reminiscent of the Women’s March and the spontaneous demonstrations that have erupted around the airports over Trump’s executive order on immigration. But Butler doesn’t shy away from the great costs that can come with being a leader—even in the name of progress, peace, and freedom.
Our Twisted Hero, by Yi Munyol
A boy moves to the country from Seoul in this South Korean novel, translated by Kevin O’Rourke. His new school has a system in place wherein students vote on a “class monitor,” a position typically reserved for the smartest student. But his class monitor is a thick-headed bully who has clearly been held back several grades and who runs the class via physical intimidation. During lunch, each student has to give him the choicest part of their own meals. He never exerts himself, but “manages” his fellow students to do his assignments and tests, along with the usual classroom tasks like cleaning the latrines.
The protagonist eventually reaches an uneasy truce with the bully. He is accorded a few privileges as well as companionship, which he enjoys, but which also make him uneasy about his capitulation.
Eventually, this slim novel becomes an interesting exercise in contemplating what happens in an authoritarian country (e.g., 1980s Korea) when the leader is removed, deposed, or assassinated. It turns out that many people actually want dictators, or, at least, authority figures who take care of things. Mussolini, after all, was said to make the trains run on time. Similarly, Korea achieved much of its astounding economic growth thanks to a series of military and military-style dictators (including the U.S.-installed Syngman Rhee, who bombed refugees trying to escape Seoul during the war).
The novel also explores the question of complicity. How willing are you to sacrifice your morals for the sake of personal gain—or just physical safety? As adults, the protagonists’ classmates learn to game the system, working for corrupt corporations and taking bribes. The protagonist avoids this fate but faces his own hardships, especially since he now has a wife and children. He realizes that his high morals aren’t serving him well. Instead of being able to afford luxuries for his family or even a day at the beach, he is slowly being ground down by his work. Should he stick with his childhood idealism, or would it be better for him to be practical?
A book like this can help ordinary readers remember to keep questioning our own complicity in a system that we know, in our hearts, to be wrong. Today, a lot of people who haven’t made activism or civic engagement a core part of their lives are realizing that to stay home and stay quiet sends a message of its own. It’s likely that Trump will give us cause to consider such matters even more deeply in the weeks and months ahead. And perhaps even more importantly, the novel shows Trump opponents that a successful resistance cannot simply be “against” a person or even a party. What will be we for, if and when the autocrat is deposed? There will always be despots-in-waiting.
In the Heart of the Valley of Love, by Cynthia Kadohata
Welcome to post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. In this 1992 novel, water, food, and gas are rationed. Global warming has killed most vegetation. The city is so polluted that most people have skin diseases. Rich people self-segregate in gated communities called “richtowns,” not unlike the Silicon Valley survivalists of today.
Francie, our protagonist, is an impoverished teenager who lives with her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend. One day, the aunt’s boyfriend disappears—or gets “disappeared,” as happens to poor people who are clandestinely arrested and taken to an unknown location for years, sometimes forever. The country is well on its way to economic, environmental, and social collapse. But the multi-racial Francie, growing up almost feral in a violent world, notes that she has what many adults lack: “they held expectations of the world, whereas what we had was hope … but in the end I always found hope was enough.” Like Francie, many Americans today are coming to terms with the fact that they cannot take democracy and civil liberties for granted. In the place of expectations about the world, which can breed complacency when those expectations are met and despair when they are not, the novel suggests it is possible to find power in imagining better alternatives to the present.
The way forward
In looking at all of these books, it becomes evident that dystopian novelists are keenly aware of how nostalgia for an imagined past can be used to justify brutality and oppression. Interestingly, on the eve of the election, the nonpartisan polling organization, PRRI, discovered a hunger among some segments of the voting population to take America back to the past. Among likely Trump voters, 72% believed that American society and way of life had changed for the worse since the 1950s, while 70% of likely Clinton voters believed things have changed for the better. Most white Americans (56%) thought American society had changed for the worse since the 1950s, while 62% of black believed American society had changed for the better. And no group has a dimmer view of American cultural change than white evangelical Protestants: nearly three-quarters (74%) say American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950s.
The task of the resistance, then, is to show—as Hillary Clinton tried to—that the many diverse parts of the nation are stronger together than apart. That aiding one segment of the population helps everyone, and hurting one segment hurts us all.
Another lesson of these novels is that we must work to call out fascism, bigotry, xenophobia—things that go against our American ideals. Humans crave routine and stability, so we must be careful to avoid normalizing abominable actions. This past Monday was a holiday honoring Fred Korematsu—a 23-year-old of Japanese descent who openly defied Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s executive order, which targeted “all persons of Japanese ancestry” under the guise of national security. The memory of people like Korematsu reminds us that, despite Trump’s claims, there was never an American golden age. We need to focus on fighting to usher in a new one.
The incentives in an autocratic society are usually the opposite of those in a cooperative society. For a while, at least, the majority is able to prosper at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society. But as these books show, any advantages that people gain from allying themselves with dictators and bullies are temporary at best—and harm everyone in the long run.
Fiction can also help us remember that even an autocrat’s power is just one coup away from chaos. In those vacuums come the opportunity for redress—or the possibility of descent into even worse authoritarianism. Reading these novels is a powerful reminder that the problem we face is not just Trump. He’s merely seized the cultural moment, sowing fear in Americans so that they will put their faith in a leader who promises to make the world more comfortable and manageable for them. The heroes of these novels instead choose bravery—which opens them up to everything the world has to offer, including risk, pain and uncertainty. Our own dystopian reckoning has arrived. Which will we choose?