In retrospect, it’s no surprise that, after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, dystopian fiction enjoyed a spike in popularity. However, novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which soared on Amazon, would prove more horror stories than roadmaps. Like so many ominous sounds from a dark basement, they provided good scares but didn’t foreshadow the actual Trumpian future.
Of course, it didn’t take an Orwell or an Atwood to extrapolate from the statements of candidate Trump to the policies of President Trump—and such projections bore little resemblance to the worlds of Big Brother or an all-powerful patriarchy. Many Americans quickly began bracing themselves for something quite different: less totalitarian than total chaos. There would likely be unmitigated corruption, new wars, and massive tax cuts for the wealthy, along with an unprecedented reduction in government services and the further concentration of power in the executive branch. And it was a given that there would be boastfully incoherent presidential addresses, as well as mockery from officials in countries that had only recently been our closest allies. A Trumpian dystopia would be a Frankenstein monster constructed of the worst parts of previous administrations with plenty of ugly invective and narcissistic preening thrown in for bad measure.
And yet, there was still a lingering hope that those unsettling noises from the basement were just the equivalent of a broken furnace—annoying and expensive to fix, yes, but nothing like a living, breathing monster. Trump, after all, was going to be a singularly incompetent leader, or so his multiple bankruptcies and failed ventures suggested. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to do that much damage tweeting from the White House or phoning in from the links. And even if his minions in Congress did manage to push through some disturbing legislation, the guardrails of democracy would continue to contain his administration, and dystopias would, for the most part, remain the stuff of scary novels, not everyday life.
For many Americans, a Trump presidency did indeed usher in harder times. The earnings of farmers, dependent on exporting their crops, plummeted during the trade war with China. Nearly 700,000 people were poised to lose access to food stamps. Hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees from Haiti, El Salvador, and other countries faced the loss of their temporary protected status.
Still, many of those farmers received government subsidies to offset their losses and the courts blocked the administration from following through on some of its cruelest immigration policies, at least postponing the worst nightmares. Meanwhile, the 2018 midterm elections signaled a possible post-Trumpian future, as the Democrats, led by a crew of new women candidates, won control of the House of Representatives. Admittedly, the ultimate failure of the impeachment effort was a setback, but it was still just a matter of holding on for less than a year until election 2020 and then quite possibly waving the Trump era farewell.
That has now all changed.
Thanks to the coronavirus, dystopia is here, right now—but with a twist. As science fiction writer William Gibson once so aptly put it, “The future has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” In April 2020, the same applies to our new world.
Dystopia arrived not with a bang, but a cough. The culprit wasn’t a looming monster or a totalitarian state, but a microscopic speck that’s technically not even alive. And that basement, by the way, turned out to be far-off Wuhan, the Chinese city where the novel coronavirus first appeared. With Hubei province overwhelmed by sickness and death, China responded by using the powers of a centralized state to shut down everything—from travel to restaurants, public gatherings to dissent—in a draconian fashion.
The Trump administration chose to ignore those warnings.
Meanwhile, given the level of international travel in a globalized economy, other countries soon became hotspots. South Korea used technology—widespread testing, contact tracing, and apps to monitor quarantining—to contain the problem. Iran’s initial poor response, even as members of its leadership took sick and in some cases died, was compounded by punitive Trump administration sanctions. The hospitals in northern Italy were overwhelmed by Covid-19 and the government suddenly shut down the country in a belated attempt to stave off disaster.
Still, Washington dawdled. Trump and his crew squandered 70 full days during which they could have implemented valuable lessons being painfully learned elsewhere in the world.
Now, Covid-19 has decisively put the lie to American exceptionalism. Not only can it happen here, but it’s happening here, far worse than anywhere else. The United States is adding upwards of 30,000 new infections daily, twice the rate of China on February 12th, that country’s worst day, and nearly five times what Italy faced at its peak on March 20th.
Meanwhile, adding depression to disease, the U.S. economy has crashed. Claims for unemployment benefits have risen by an astounding 17 million in just three weeks, pushing the jobless rate close to 10% (and still rising fast). Yes, the whole global economy is taking a hit, but other countries have moved in more sensible directions. China’s blunt-force quarantine has now enabled it to restart its economy, South Korea’s pinpoint approach has so far avoided a full-scale economic lockdown, and Denmark has paid its companies directly to maintain their payrolls and retain workers during the downturn of self-isolation.
In other words, in true dystopian fashion, Washington has managed to fumble both its response to the pandemic and its potential economic recovery plan. Presidential incompetence, incomprehension, and intransigence have been key to these glaring failures. The myriad defects that Donald Trump displayed from his first day in the White House, then largely grist for the monologues of late-night talk-show hosts, have now turned truly tragic. They include his stunning disregard for science, his undeniable compulsion to spread misinformation, his complete refusal to take responsibility for anything negative, his thoroughgoing contempt for government, and his abrupt vacillations in policy.
Most of all, the president exhibited extraordinary hubris. Out of a belief in his own infallibility, he thinks he knows better than the experts, any experts, no matter the topic.
As it happens, he doesn’t.
In ordinary times, such an epic fail might bring thousands, even hundreds of thousands, out into the streets to protest. Not in this pandemic moment, however. Most Americans, if they can, are now sheltering in place, watching a dystopian scenario unfold in real time on their screens and expressing gratitude to front-line workers who are suiting up to fight the microscopic monster every day.
When the world outside becomes too much to bear, we escape into stories. Right now, however, dystopian fiction about other times and places just doesn’t do the trick. Instead, desperate to understand how and why this fate has befallen us, we’ve been watching films about infectious disease. In early March, 2011’s Contagion became the number one streaming movie of the moment, while Outbreak recently cracked Netflix’s top 10 even though it came out 25 years ago. And when we’re not streaming, we’re reading novels about epidemics that, from Camus to Crichton, are back on bestseller lists.
Don’t be surprised if you’re feeling a nagging sense of déjà vu. Bingeing on stories about plagues during a plague? Doesn’t that ring a bell? Could it have been something you were assigned to read or see on stage back in school?
Know thyself—or not
In 430 BC, the second year of its war with Sparta, the legendary democracy of Athens in ancient Greece was struck by an unknown infectious disease. The Athenians first suspected that the Spartans had poisoned their reservoirs. As it turned out, though, their undemocratic adversary wasn’t to blame. According to the historian Thucydides, the plague came from faraway Ethiopia and entered the city by ship. Since Athens had built its empire with naval power, it was perhaps grimly fitting that its greatest strength would prove in that moment to be its signal weakness.
The plague spread quickly. “At the beginning, the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods,” wrote Thucydides. “In fact mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick.” (Sound familiar?) The disease soon overwhelmed the city’s rudimentary health-care system and dead bodies lay about the streets, rotting and unburied. And yet, despite the plague, the Peloponnesian War continued. That forever war of the ancient world (sound familiar again?), already in its second round, wouldn’t end until 405 BC, a quarter-century later.
Over five years and three successive outbreaks, the plague would, however, ultimately claim more Athenian lives than the war. Nearly a quarter of that city-state’s population, an estimated 100,000 people, would die from the disease. Even its esteemed leader, Pericles, would lose two sons. Another victim: the vaunted Athenian political system. According to classical scholar Katherine Kelaidis, “The Great Plague of Athens wrote the first chapter in the end of Athenian democracy.”
During those plague years, Athens didn’t, however, completely lock down the city. It continued, for instance, to hold its annual drama festival at the Theater of Dionysus where, at some point, a new play by Sophocles had its debut. In itself, that was anything but unusual as he wrote more than 100 plays during his long lifetime. But this drama also proved painfully topical. Sophocles took the legendary story of Oedipus the king and added a wholly original element: he set its plot in motion with a plague.
Oedipus Rex takes place in Thebes while “a fiery demon” grips the city. Its king, Oedipus, desperate to understand why the gods have called such a plague down upon his realm, sends an emissary to the famed Delphic Oracle to find out. Its answer is unexpected: to rid Thebes of the plague, he must bring to justice the murderer of the previous king. As it happens, Oedipus himselfkilled that previous king. What’s worse, that king was also his father. In doing so, Oedipus had, however inadvertently, fulfilled the first part of a previous Delphic prophecy: that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In other words, he is the cause of the religious pollution that has brought plague down on Thebes.
All of this qualified Oedipus as the classic example of the tragic hero, a son of nobility who lacks self-knowledge, in this case an understanding of his true origins. Moreover, he demonstrates an extraordinary arrogance, believing that only he can rule wisely or save Thebes. Even when the oracle predicts a tragic outcome for him, he scoffs, believing that the will of the gods is no impediment to his actions.
The Greek word for this kind of arrogance is hubris and, in Greek drama, it’s associated with the pride that precedes the fall of a powerful man. The inevitable result of hubris is a visit from Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, often depicted with a sword and scales.
Focused as it was on the inevitable downfall of a tragic hero in a plague-stricken city, Oedipus Rex must have been deeply disturbing, if not terrifying, to watch in the Athens of that moment. Given the pandemic at hand, it’s remarkable that Athenians were still staging plays at all. But like Oedipus, its citizens undoubtedly wanted to better understand the cause of their affliction. This early example of horror fiction—with its plot twists involving murder, incest, and pandemic—surely helped some of them come to terms with their predicament and decide who or what to blame for it, just as, almost 2,500 years later, we watch films or read novels about plagues, among other things, to try to grasp ours.
In that first season of the plague, the citizens of Athens would indeed turn their fury against their leader, Pericles, and drive him from office. Later, after a brief return to power, he, too, would die of the disease.
Every society gets the tragic hero it deserves
Now, another democracy is being overwhelmed by contagion. It, too, is involved in endless wars and led by a man whom millions of its citizens once believed to be the last-chance savior of the country.
Donald Trump didn’t kill his father or marry his mother, nor is he the cause of the coronavirus.
Still, in other respects, he hews to a distinctly modern, reality-TV version of the tragic hero. He, of course, became as rich as Croesus, even as he bathed in the adulation of his television viewers. Thanks to the Delphic Oracle of the Electoral College, he then rose to the most powerful political position in the world. Yet, through it all, he has exhibited virtually no self-knowledge. To this day, his understanding of his own faults remains near zero, while his amplification of his imagined strengths is off the Richter scale. Admittedly, Donald Trump lacks the gravitas of Oedipus and would never have been able to answer the riddle of the Sphinx, but this is twenty-first-century America, not ancient Greece, and every society gets the tragic hero it deserves.
As with Oedipus, the president’s extraordinary arrogance has put the country in peril. His denial of the scientific evidence for climate change prompted him to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, a monumental blunder that will plague later generations. His “deconstruction of the administrative state,” the unravelling of government institutions patiently constructed by his predecessors, significantly crippled his administration’s response to the coronavirus. His gargantuan pre-pandemic addition to the national debt through simultaneous tax cuts and military budget increases put the country at great economic risk. All of these policies were pushed through over the advice of wiser counsels, even within his administration.
Now, on a daily basis, the president appears before the American people and pretends to know much more than he does: about when to lift shelter-in-place restrictions (Easter because “it’s a beautiful day”), which experimental drugs to use (“I’m not a doctor, but I have common sense”), and how to meet the needs of states desperate for ventilators (“try getting it yourselves”). Serial failure has not tempered his hubris, not faintly. In adversity, he’s simply fallen back on a tactic he’s deployed his whole life in the face of adversity: double down. If hubris didn’t work, then über-hubris is the cure.
Through it all, Donald Trump has somehow eluded the grasp of Nemesis. Poised with her scales of justice, the goddess watched over last year’s impeachment hearings. Yet courtesy of a phalanx of Republican senators, Trump was not brought to justice, despite his unconstitutional behavior.
Now, it seems, Nemesis has returned, this time brandishing her sword.
Trump’s incompetence in the face of Covid-19 has helped cause a soaring American death toll. The U.S. is being serially laid to waste, a reality for which he accepts no responsibility. Unlike Oedipus Rex, Trump Rex has not the slightest interest in confronting the truth of his sins or the horror of his actions. Don’t expect the president to put out his own eyes, as Oedipus does at the end of the play. No need, in fact. Trump has always been blind and, not surprisingly, his blind ambition combined with his blind greed has culminated in an administration in which the blind are indeed leading the blind.
Come November, it falls to the American people, if all goes well, to deliver the ultimate judgment of Nemesis.
The end of the world?
Dystopian fiction is about how the world ends—not the extinction of the planet but the end of our familiar world. How we got from here to dystopia isn’t normally central to such novels. In fact, the end of that familiar world has usually taken place before you open the book and you may, at best, see it through brief flashbacks. The point is to plunge you directly into a future from hell like, for example, the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Nightmares don’t work with long explanatory introductions.
In a similar fashion, we’re not experiencing the end of the world itself right now. We’re not (yet) in the midst of nuclear annihilation or, say, the extinction of the human species via some extreme version of climate change. The current coronavirus pandemic is an apocalypse, to be sure, but a passing one. As Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki wrote long ago about the everyday horrors of communism in A Minor Apocalypse, “Many generations have thought the world was dying, but it was only their world which was dying.”
Herein lies the sobering reassurance of such stories. They remind us that worlds, like people, die all the time, only to be replaced by new worlds. Cities fall and rise again, as do civilizations. Even dystopian places like Idi Amin’s Uganda or the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodian killing fields eventually burn out. The handmaid lives to tell her tale and Gilead, too, crumbles in the end.
Athens survived the plague, though its democracy was compromised by war and disease. America, too, will live on. But it will have lost some further measure of its greatness thanks in no small part to the man who, however cynically, wanted to make it great again.