Dueling Dystopias

amidalaThe morning after Donald Trump's speech at the Republican National Convention, a friend of mine texted me a meme from Star Wars Episode III. "So this is how liberty dies," Queen Amidala says while watching Palpatine become Emperor. "With thunderous applause." She is far from the only one to use dystopian fiction to describe the rise of Trump. Last month, The Washington Post's Carlos Lozada wrote about Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America in an article titled "How does Donald Trump stack up against American literature's fictional dictators? Pretty well, actually." In April, Salon compared Trump to comic book supervillains who became president.

In the U.S., presidential candidates are always compared to Hitler and Stalin, and totalitarianism is always allegedly around the corner. But the idea of Trump as world-historical villain seems to be taken more seriously this time around. He certainly hasn't helped his case by retweeting Mussolini, complimenting dictators and praising the Tienanmen Square massacre. The idea of Trump as a dictator is being taken so seriously in many circles that Slate has published an article explaining how Donald Trump isn't technically a fascist.

Trump's supporters also tell a story of dystopia - but one coming from the opposite direction. They're not painting Hillary Clinton as a budding Stalin. In fact, they're doing exactly the opposite.

The night after Trump's speech, Seth Meyers joked that Trump believes "We are currently living in a dystopian nightmare," and that "Trump talked about America like he was pitching a post-apocalyptic show to the Syfy network."


Maureen Dowd in the New York Times also made note of the dystopian picture Trump was creating. "LIKE any masterly comic book villain, Donald Trump is reveling in conjuring a dystopia." But, Trump's dystopia is different than the classic totalitarian dystopias of George Orwell or Suzanne Collins. Trump does not conjure the specter of an all-controlling state -- instead, he sees the state as too small to protect. He linked violence of a lack of leadership, saying the "legacy of Hillary Clinton is Death, Destruction, Terrorism and Weakness." Trump's dystopia is the chaotic, violent nightmare of Mad Max or The Walking Dead.

mad max 1979

The fear of anarchy has usually taken a second seat to the fear of dictatorship in the West. For one, our experience of anarchy has usually been short-lived; chaos quickly gives way to types like Cromwell and Robespierre in European history. The legacy of the World Wars helped cement this attitude. 

The New York Daily News, in an editorial on "Donald's diabolical dystopia," points out that Trump's dark vision of America isn't statistically true.

"In fact, America’s crime rate is at a 40-year low and line-of-duty police killings fell by almost 40% from 1981 through 2015, with the number hitting a record low under Obama."


Slate's graphs and Steven Pinker's books circulated across liberal social media this weekend. They prove that the United States and the world are about as safe as they ever have been. Of course, graphs aren't generally comforting to people in a panic. The fear the Trump campaign channels isn't based on a statistical analysis of the rate of global genocide. The white, middle-class American voter has always assumed things are better at their mall, school or workplace than they are in an unstable third world country. ISIS has been successful at bursting that feeling of security -- and that feeling of security is nearly as important to the quality of life as actual security is.

ISIS isn't the only contributor to the feeling of instability. If you're not safe while surrounded by police officers, when are you safe? As a teenager, the attack on the Pentagon was the most immediately frightening part of 9/11. If even the Pentagon is vulnerable, we all are.

v_for_vendetta15The truth is, both types of dystopias are legitimate expressions of legitimate fears. Some of the most thoughtful writers saw dangers in both Scylla and Charybdis. Aldous Huxley debunked Rousseauian savagery as a solution to corrupt civilization in Brave New World. Alan Moore railed against his totalitarian future in V for Vendetta, but never allowed you to feel comfortable rooting for the radicals either.

The aforementioned Collins warns against permanent revolution in The Hunger Games. In film, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight features a hero who must embrace mass surveillance and violence in order to defeat a villain bent on anarchy for its own sake. Although liberals will likely dismiss the fears of Trump's supporters as fervently as Trump's supporters will dismiss liberals', orderless violence and its consequences are a real part of American life.

I'm certainly not implying there is an equivalence between the candidates in this year's election or that all fears are equally possible of being realized. (I decided who to support quite some time ago, but I prefer to keep my precise political views off my blogs.) But I do believe that the underlying values and fears of both camps are legitimate -- and I expect candidates to take full advantage of them.

(And let's leave Idiocracy for a totally separate discussion)