Dystopias have recently achieved full-spectrum dominance. Kids are drawn to such stories – The Giver, Hunger Games – like Goths to piercings. This apocalyptic outpouring has been so intense that talk of “peak dystopia” started to circulate several years ago. 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.
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.
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 article has been excerpted from ‘Doubling Down on Dystopia: Preventing the
Triumph of Trump’s Will’.