Originally published in TomDispatch.
I went to a birthday party recently.
The celebrants greeted each other with hugs on the patio. After an outdoor barbeque dinner, we stood shoulder to shoulder around the island in the kitchen, eating cake from small paper plates. We sang “Happy Birthday.”
Ordinarily, an event like that wouldn’t be worth noting, but these aren’t exactly ordinary times. In this twilight world of ours, half-in and half-out of a pandemic, hanging around without masks and within spitting distance of vaccinated friends should be considered just this side of miraculous — a combination of luck, privilege, and a stunning series of events on a national scale that would strain credibility in a work of fiction.
To get to that birthday party required, first of all, surviving the pandemic, which has so far killed somewhere between 600,000 and 900,000 Americans, while infecting as much as one-third of the population (including, months earlier, a couple of the guests at that very birthday party). No foreign enemy has ever inflicted such casualties on America, and never in our lifetimes have American civilians faced such a catastrophic breakdown in homeland security.
Nor has the international scientific community ever responded with such dispatch and efficacy to a global crisis. Less than a year from the date of the initial outbreak, not one but several Covid-19 vaccines had been developed, tested, and approved. Then came the anxious wait for eligibility and the constant refreshing of vaccination websites to try to schedule an appointment. Only when enough people like me had gone through the extended regimen of inoculation and after the infection rate had begun to fall rapidly did officials in my home state of Maryland begin to lift quarantine restrictions.
Even though everyone at that birthday party was fully vaccinated, I still felt uncomfortably vulnerable without my mask. I hesitated before hugging people. My hands itched for a squirt of sanitizer. It was, in other words, a celebration tempered by uncertainty. We were navigating new rules of social discourse: Handshake? Bear hug? Peck on the cheek? And no one dared jinx the celebration by saying, as we normally would have, “Next year, same time, same place.”
By temperament, I’m an optimist. By profession, however, I’m a pessimist. In my day job as a foreign-policy analyst and in the speculative realm as the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy of novels, I’m constantly considering worst-case scenarios.
So, yes, I’m well aware that Covid-19 infection rates have dropped to levels not seen in a year and that the United States may indeed be on track to reach a 70% vaccination rate among adults by July 4th, which could, as the president has promised, offer us a new version of “Independence Day.” But this country is still experiencing the same number of infections (tens of thousands) and deaths (hundreds) as it did during the lull following the first outbreak last year. More infectious variants of the disease continue to emerge globally, most recently in India, where the numbers have been horrific, as well as in Vietnam. The current vaccines reportedly stave off such variants, but what about the next ones?
My professional dystopianism extends to the political sphere. I’m grateful on a daily basis that Donald Trump is no longer in the Oval Office or blathering on Twitter. I now take for granted a Democratic Congress (however marginally controlled), which seemed like a longshot last Election Day.
But let’s face it, politically, things could go south fast. Even though the Democrats are working overtime to inoculate this country’s economy with one stimulus shot after another, the Republicans could retake the Senate and even the House in 2022, and, three years from now, Donald Trump could still prove to be a viable presidential candidate.
By then, for all we know, an even more infectious strain of Trumpism — call it T.2 — might have emerged in the form of far-right challengers like Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, or even (god save us all) Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Their followers who lurched from Reopen rallies to Stop the Steal protests were struck dumb by the failure of their Duce to cling to power in January 2021. In the months since Joe Biden’s inauguration, with a majority of Republicans still proclaiming his election stolen, they’ve again become restive.
Keep in mind as well that dystopia remains unevenly distributed around the globe. Trump is gone (for now), but other putatively democratic authoritarians remain in power. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is still effectively leader for life in Russia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro cling to their offices, and and rebel-turned-tyrant Daniel Ortega just arrested the woman challenging him this year for the Nicaraguan presidency.
Meanwhile, not only has India been overwhelmed by Covid-19, but the numbers in Brazil remain terrifying and Taiwan has recently been hit with a first wave of infections — and that’s just to begin down a grim list. Even the Seychelles Islands off the coast of Africa, despite a world-leading vaccination rate of more than 60%, has recently experienced an unexpected uptick in cases.
In other words, as I left that party, it just didn’t feel like the right moment to exhale.
Human beings are adaptable creatures. We have an unfortunate ability to normalize worst-case scenarios. Rising temperatures? Guess it’s time to sell the beach house and move inland. Raging pandemic? A good opportunity to chill for a few months with Netflix and UberEats.
But dystopias are not just about objectively terrible things. Dystopia is about losing control over your life. It’s about a faceless bureaucracy trying to evict you from your home. It’s about a virus evading all your carefully constructed defenses. It’s about right-wing crazies subverting democracy even as they claim to revere it.
So, tell me the truth: in June 2021, do you really feel back in control yet?
The Insurrection Next Time
The last scene of a horror film often elicits a gasp. The eyelid of the supposedly dead serial killer snaps open. A mad scientist, reportedly cured, is released from the asylum clutching a briefcase full of plans for his next planet-destroying invention. A puppy scampers into the kitchen with the telltale orange rash of a disease that was allegedly extinguished.
Such scenes are obviously setups for sequels, but they’re also reminders that horrors seldom simply disappear. Instead, they mutate, hibernate, and burrow into our everyday world.
With that in mind, let’s revisit the final scene of this year’s most talked-about horror story, the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.
Inflamed by the president’s lies and conspiracy theories, thousands of people overwhelmed the Capitol police, broke into what should have been one of the most protected buildings in the country, and launched a search-and-destroy mission against various politicians located inside. The noose set up on the West Front of the Capitol was an unambiguous indication of the insurrectionists’ intentions. Some of them had even brought bear spray, and they were indeed out for bear.
The story of the insurrection ended with order restored, legislators returning to their chambers to confirm the 2020 election results, and a modicum of bipartisan horror at what had just happened. But the very last scene elicited a gasp from the audience watching at home. Even as they condemned the violence that had just taken place in their midst, a handful of Republican legislators continued to claim election fraud. Early on the morning of January 7th, seven Republican senators and 122 members of the House refused to certify the election results in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.
Those votes were the sick puppy with the orange rash, the sign that the infectious horror of Trumpism had not been stamped out. At best, this country would experience a respite of unknown length before another surge captured the headlines. After all, Trump and his followers have been in the process of fundraising, assembling a cast and crew, enlisting thousands of extras, and beginning to film their sequel, while promising even bigger thrills and chills to come.
Their fans can’t wait.
While most Americans go about their calmer post-Trumpian lives under the Biden administration, a significant number of their fellow citizens live in a different reality entirely. For them, a world of dystopian intensity has just begun. After all, those Trumpsters are now experiencing their worst-case scenario — a Biden victory in a “stolen” election and Congress in Democratic hands. They have no desire to normalize what they consider a socialist regime in Washington. Astonishingly, one-quarter of Republicans belong to the church of QAnon with its imaginary global syndicate of Satan-worshipping child traffickers.
Although it was the Trump administration that helped spur the creation of the Covid-19 vaccines, 41% of Republicans still say they won’t get inoculated (compared to 4% of Democrats). Against all evidence, they believe the vaccines to be unsafe, ineffective, or even downright undemocratic in the way they subject their “victims” to nonstop surveillance through a supposedly injected microchip. Fixated on such imaginary threats, the anti-vaxxers are dismissive of a pandemic that is still a clear and present danger.
In the good old days, people with such a tenuous connection to reality would retreat to their armchairs to listen to Rush Limbaugh. They’d live in their own private dystopias — stocking their bomb shelters, polishing their guns, muttering to themselves — with lots of fire and fury but little real-world impact.
Thanks to Trump, the Proud Boys, and QAnon, however, the dystopians of today have turned their delusions into a political project even to the point of taking over the Republican Party. Mo Brooks, the Alabama Republican who still believes that the 2020 election featured the “worst voter fraud and election theft in history,” repeatedly incited his followers to post-election violence. Gun nut Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, called Joe Biden a “tyrant” for his tepid gun-control proposals after a spate of mass killings this spring. Led by Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, the party is now rewriting the events of January 6th to blame the violence on supposed left-wing agitators.
Equally troubling, true believers of this sort are still attempting to overturn the results of the election, beginning with the vote “recount” in Maricopa County, Arizona. The outfit in charge of that recount, Cyber Ninjas, has been set loose in a basketball arena in Phoenix like the Keystone Kops on a mad caper. In the process, they’re violating all the rules of a proper audit, from tolerating a huge error rate in tally sheets to flagging ballots as “suspicious” for things like folds, Cheeto stains, and suspected bamboo fibers (the result, supposedly, of having been sent from somewhere in Asia). According to Jack Sellers, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, the Maricopa recount is “a grift disguised as an audit.”
It’s not the 2020 election that hangs in the balance, of course, since no amount of imaginary bamboo fibers — in Arizona or any of the other states the Trumpsters are targeting — can overturn what Congress has already confirmed. What can potentially be overturned, however, is American democracy itself. After all, it’s now clear that the Trumpsters will treat every future election that doesn’t produce the results they desire as a globalist plot no different from a new vaccine or a new pronouncement by infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci. Each contested election has the possibility of generating another potential insurrection, with the rioters perhaps chanting, “Remember January 6th!”
The nonsense now being spouted by the loony right would be grist for satire if we hadn’t seen all this before. Karl Marx once proposed (and Groucho Marx proved) that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” Trump has turned this dictum on its head, since many of the laughable things he said on his road to the presidency — his paeans to his future “big, fat, beautiful Wall,” his white nationalism, his love of Vladimir Putin — were indeed turned into tragic policy by his minions.
We laughed when Barack Obama roasted Trump at the Gridiron dinner in 2011, but those jokes likely kindled Trump’s ambition to become president. We would be wise not to laugh at the antics of Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has spouted QAnonsense and compared mask mandates to the Nazi treatment of Jews, or else she could ride similar waves of derision to even greater political heights.
The Power of the Marginalized
I have a great deal of empathy for many people in the Trump camp. I’ve never liked Washington, D.C., and its obsession with insider politics. I share the distaste that much of Trump country feels for the arrogance of the power elite and its incessant jockeying for influence.
After all, it wasn’t Trump who created our current mess. Sure, he turned up the heat under the pot and gave its contents a vigorous stir, but he didn’t assemble the ingredients or design the recipe. The climate crisis, the travesty of global military spending, the inequities of the global economy: these were created by the “adults in the room” backed by the mainstream political parties, Washington’s “Blob,” and an ever-ascendant military-industrial-congressional complex.
The MAGA crowd was right to reject this version of the status quo. With his economic populism, Trump gave voice to those who felt shafted by Wall Street, transnational corporations, and globalization in general. The wages of blue-collar workers, adjusted for inflation, had at best stagnated since the 1970s (while the incomes of America’s billionaires have done anything but). Because the mainstream parties abandoned these voters, economically speaking, many of them naturally basked in the attention Trump showered on them. They felt that their dystopia of economic marginalization might finally be on the verge of lifting.
In challenging one pillar of the status quo, however, Trump consciously reinforced two others, the power of the wealthy elite and of white privilege. In the process, legitimate economic grievances became entangled with anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, and blatant racist rhetoric. Trump’s electoral defeat has by no means silenced this white nationalism.
Fortunately, other voices have come to the fore as well, as millions of Americans rejected the status quo in more productive ways. One year ago, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin reignited the Black Lives Matter movement, triggering the largest protests in American history (as well as demonstrations in more than 60 other countries). In exercising their freedoms of speech and assembly, those protestors were also very deliberately trying to regain control of their lives by rolling back a dystopia of police terror that has disproportionately harmed Blacks.
Similarly, the #MeToo movement has been a reassertion of control by women over their own bodies and lives. Thanks to such efforts, the dystopia of rape culture and patriarchal authority has begun to recede, though not everywhere or quickly enough.
Environmentalists are likewise standing up to the fossil-fuel companies, while economic justice advocates continue to challenge multinational corporations. Peace activists are protesting wars and military spending, while human rights demonstrators are rallying against authoritarian leaders. These efforts all contribute, little by little, to the possibility that we can regain control over our own lives. They are part of a long-term process whereby the powerless become subjects in their own stories rather than the objects of someone else’s tales. Such challenges to the status quo would become more powerful still if joined by some of the economically marginalized previously drawn to Trump (as long as they check their white privilege at the door).
I’ve tried to describe such historic efforts in essays and in fiction. In my Splinterlands series of novels, I’ve done my best to peer into our future and consider the worst-case scenarios of climate change, unrestrained corporate power, and nationalism run amok. However, in the standalone finale, Songlands, I let a little sunlight break through the dystopian storm clouds to tell the story of an international community of activists coming together in the face of a planetary crisis. (George Orwell, meet Greta Thunberg.)
As I said, by temperament I’m an optimist. Sometimes, that optimism even leaks into my professional life.
Sure, I continue to worry about what the next wave of Covid-19 might look like. I fear both the continued lunacy of the Republican Party and the pallid incrementalism of the Democrats. But I’m heartened by the energy of people all over the world determined to beat back dystopia, take control of their lives, and transform the optimists’ credo of “hope and change” into something a great deal more significant than a campaign slogan.