The American Dystopia Didn't Begin With Trump
Dystopia is here. It’s not just the “imagined place” of the dictionary definition or a future state of dystopian novels. It is very real and right now, at least for those of us trying to follow national politics.
And it’s not just Donald Trump. It’s Barack Obama, it’s Ted Cruz, it’s the New York Times, it’s Breitbart News. It is an alternate universe detached from the world we live in but intruding into it in painful and dangerous ways.
It is a media narrative of political conspirators colluding with a dictatorial archenemy, of an intemperate and delusional leader overturning the institutions of democracy, of a “deep-state” resistance to constitutional authority.
It is a dystopia of rampant hypocrisy, where obstructing legislation, supporting a law-enforcement official who strays beyond the limits of his authority, or boycotting a president’s appointments is evil and undemocratic until it’s your party that wants to do it.
Two dystopian classics have shot back to the top of best-seller lists because the media suggest the authoritarian surveillance societies they portray have arrived. The 1948 novel “1984” and the 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” are touted as descriptions of where we are headed under Trump.
While the author of “Handmaid,” Margaret Atwood, and the cast of the Hulu miniseries based on it see a Trump administration as the realization of the misogyny depicted in the novel, it’s obvious the U.S. is not about to become a Puritanical theocracy like that in the book.
Critics on both the left and the right dispute the media meme that “Handmaid” is a depiction of the Trump era.
Irish feminist Angela Nagle writes in the left-wing Jacobin magazine that it is neoliberal market forces that are oppressing women, not an imaginary theocratic state.
“The real-world dystopia for the majority of women in the age of Trump is not that they are being forced to have children by a repressive traditionalist state,” she wrote last week, “but that they’re being compelled not to by far more insidious forces, and those that do are financially and socially punished at every turn.”
We are ruled by myths, she continues, but not those in the miniseries. “The mythologies of our age in the West are not enforced by repressive theocratic regimes,” Nagle says, “but by the market command to be free, to be creative, to be flexible, to love what you do for even the most uninspiring of jobs.”
Right-wing media critic Brent Bozell also takes issue with “adoring” coverage of the series in the liberal mainstream media. “This is why conservatives tend to laugh when liberals rail against the scourge of ‘fake news,’” Bozell wrote last week in Townhall. “There is no faker news than the notion that America is on the precipice of a Puritan patriarchy under President Donald Trump.”
As for Big Brother watching us, a la George Orwell’s “1984,” it has become quite clear that the surveillance state made its greatest strides under Obama, though previous administrations had done their part to implement it.
“Obama’s most enduring legacy may be the establishment of the modern U.S. surveillance state,” Penn State professor and Internet privacy advocate Sascha Meinrath wrote in the Christian Science Monitor as Obama left office. “During his eight years in office, Obama has dramatically expanded the reach of U.S. government surveillance, with scores of new revelations of previously unknown surveillance initiatives continuing to regularly come to light.”
Meinrath criticized Obama’s “schizophrenia” in calling upon his fellow citizens to reform surveillance laws and protect privacy even as he unilaterally expanded surveillance by granting “sweeping surveillance powers” to 17 government agencies through an executive order as he left office.
In fact, the hagiography about Obama that began when he first set his sights on the presidency and continues in full force now is an important component in our dystopia. The mythmaking by and for Obama does not square with the experience many people had during his presidency.
The controversial new biography, “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama,” by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Garrow claims that many of the people and anecdotes in Obama’s best-selling memoirs are fictional and serve the purpose of creating the myths around him.
He quotes a psychologist to the effect that “someone’s life story ‘is more like a personal myth than an objective biography, even though the subject believes the story to be true.’”
Garrow concludes in a highly critical epilogue that Obama’s pursuit of his ambition to be president became the dominant characteristic of his life. “While the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core,” Garrow says in a much-quoted judgment.
Of course Obama supporters leapt to his defense. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani calls Garrow’s biography, which runs nearly 1,500 pages, “a dreary slog” and labels the epilogue “a condescending diatribe unworthy of a serious historian.”
In keeping with Washington’s trench warfare, this comment prompted Bozell, in another column, to snort, “As for Obama’s outright lies and evasions, Kakutani offered the conclusion you might expect from a political party commissar,” Bozell writes. “For reliable history, ‘Go back to Obama’s own eloquent memoir,’ she says. In other words, ‘the myth shall set you free.’”
Ultimately, the dystopia of this media narrative has little to do with the world most of us live in — we can hardly recognize it. We do have real problems, however, and it would be helpful if politicians paid attention to them instead of chasing shadows in Washington.
As he took office in 1974, President Gerald Ford said, “Our long national nightmare is over,” describing the 26 months between the arrest of the Watergate burglars and the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
When and how will we end this current nightmare?