Four (Or Five) Novels To Prepare You For Life In Trump's America. Like Anything Could Prepare You For That.
Oh dear. Best case scenario, there.
In a funk from all the bummer news about the bummer election, and slowly coming to the realization that we're the ones living in the horrifying alternative universe where the 2016 election went all wrong? Somewhere in the Multiverse there's probably an America where the Hillary Clinton transition team is preparing to name the new Secretary of Unicorns and Rainbows, but here we are looking at...well, nobody rightly knows yet. Maybe only four years of really bad government, maybe a shock to our civil institutions they won't recover from for decades. So as a service to you, the Wonkette reader, we'd like to offer some possible guides to navigating whatever form of Trumpocalypse is on the way. Of course, our selections come with a caveat: since these are all novels constructed by talented, intelligent writers, they're bound to make a hell of a lot more sense than anything our next few years of messy reality are likely to serve up. We wouldn't exactly call any of this escapism, but maybe you'll pick up some ideas.
Also, if you haven't already read it and wept, make sure you read Masha Gessen's invaluable essay "Autocracy: Rules for Survival," with its essential tips from a Russian journalist who knows from autocracy, starting with "Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says," through the really important one, which we hope our fictional selections may help you remember, is "Rule #6: Remember the future. Nothing lasts forever. Donald Trump certainly will not..." We can pretty much guarantee things are going to suck. How much, we'll have to find out, and fight against, because we're all we've got. That, and a bunch of dystopian precedents to help us survive our dystopian president. Now, let's get to reading! And remember -- buy with the linkies, and Yr Wonkette gets a cut.
Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here (1935)
Let's get this out of the way first: Sinclair Lewis never said, "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Yeah, we were surprised, too. But the line is wrongly attributed to him because that's pretty much a capsule description of It Can't Happen Here. Also, a confession: this is the only book on this list Yr Dok Zoom hasn't read yet. We plan on remedying that. Written as European nations were really going fascist, Lewis's novel imagines a charismatic populist politician who sets America on the road to its very own version of a fascist dictatorship. We have no idea why people keep thinking it's somehow relevant today. Since we have already crushed what you thought was a famous quote and shamed ourselves by not having read the novel, we may as well make the humiliation complete and give you the Wikipedia summary, like a first-year composition student who hasn't done the reading (because we haven't):
The novel describes the rise of Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a Democrat and United States Senator who is elected to the presidency after fomenting fear and promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and "traditional" values. After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes a plutocratic/totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of Adolf Hitler and the SS. The novel's plot centers on journalist Doremus Jessup's opposition to the new regime and his subsequent struggle against it as part of a liberal rebellion. Reviewers at the time, and literary critics ever since, have emphasized the connection with Louisiana politician Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president in the 1936 election when he was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the novel's publication.
So you got your elected strongman, your grandiose promises, and your takeover of government by corporate overlords, plus the eventual collapse of the strongman when he can't provide the prosperity he promised. Oh, plus a civil war when an ambitious general overthrows the strongman. This bit about Jessup, the newspaperman, sounds like it could describe any number of columns written over the last couple of weeks:
The hysteria can’t last; be patient, and wait and see, he counseled his readers. It was not that he was afraid of the authorities. He simply did not believe that this comic tyranny could endure.
And then Jeff Sessions got picked for attorney general. Yup, gonna have to read this one.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
OK, this one we've read, though ages ago, not terribly long after it came out. That's fine, since Atwood's anti-feminist dystopia is horrifyingly real enough that you can't forget it. Also, there are no fake Margaret Atwood quotes to debunk, so that's a relief. The Handmaid's Tale is as scary today as it was during the Reagan years, when Atwood simply added a heaping dose of the contemporary Religious Right to your basic dystopian totalitarian framework, and if you somehow haven't read it, then you need to, so there.
Though there aren't any spaceships or lasers, The Handmaid's Tale has a clearly science-fictional feel; the story is set in the "Republic of Gilead," a near-future theocracy based on fundamentalist Christian law, or more accurately, a selective Fundie version of Old Testament law, with an emphasis on subjugation of women. Our main character is a "handmaiden," a concubine assigned the job of bearing a child for a government official whose wife is sterile (or maybe he is, but in Gilead, infertility is women's fault -- it's implied there's some unspecified environmental catastrophe at work). Our protagonist doesn't get her own name; she's allowed no identity other than as her Commander's property, so she's called Offred (for "Of-Fred"). Through the course of the novel, Atwood shows us women in a world where they have no political or social standing except in relation to the men who control them, and the subterfuges they undergo in order to have some scrap of identity or agency. It's not especially cheery. How Trumpian is this scenario? Seems unlikely, until you notice that Trump has a whole lot of support from the Family Research Council and other Gilead-makers in training. Perhaps the only comfort is that in Gilead, Donald Trump would be too worldly, and would be exiled to the toxic-waste colonies. So hey, The Handmaid's Tale is really aimed at preparing us for a world ruled by Mike Pence.
Phillip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)
Philip Roth takes a real nugget of historical trivia -- a note in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s autobiography about radical Republicans who wanted Charles Lindbergh to run for president against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 -- and builds it into a how-close-we-came-to-disaster alternative history. Framed as a fictional memoir of the Roth family, as seen through young Philip's eyes, The Plot Against America tells the story of what happens after Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt on an "America First" platform. Gee, that phrase sounds vaguely familiar for some reason. Elected on the promise he'll keep America out of Europe's war, Lindbergh's first act as president is to sign a peace pact with
Vladimir Putin Adolf Hitler, promising he won't interfere in Germany's takeover of Europe, and a similar pact with Japan, letting it take as much of China as it might want. With Henry Ford as Secretary of the Interior and a cabinet full of anti-Semites, Lindbergh starts ratcheting up a series of anti-Jewish measures, including a program to take Jewish boys from their families, placing them with good Christian families in the South and Midwest so they can become "Americanized." One of the kids selected is Philip's brother, who's sent off to get reeducated in Kentucky. He returns to New Jersey and is disgusted by his family, who he calls "ghetto Jews." Things get progressively worse; American Jews start fleeing for Canada and Mexico, and dissenters like radio broadcaster Walter Winchell start getting fired from their jobs if they speak out against Lindbergh. Anti-Semitic riots sweep the country, and Winchell, on a speaking tour against the new madness, is murdered by a mob. President Lindbergh can't be troubled to speak out against the murder or the violence; he's more of a law and order kind of guy, and knows who's really inciting the violence: the victims. Imagine that!
Improbably enough for a dystopia in progress, the novel ends up [spoiler alert] with an eventual return to something like history as it played out in reality: After Lindbergh's plane goes missing, a Jewish plot is blamed, and prominent Jewish Americans start getting rounded up. But just when things look darkest, Anne Morrow Lindbergh calls for an end to the violence, and America comes to is senses, because you don't mess with the moral authority of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The bad guys are kicked out in an emergency election won by Franklin Roosevelt ex machina, and America enters the war after Japan attacks Pearl Harbor after all. So yay, genocide averted, at least in the USA. Lessons: Don't trade human rights for "national security," but if everyone else does, your best hope is to hold on and wait for an improbable authorial intervention.
Robert Charles Wilson, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America (2009)
A lot less grimdark than the others in our list, but still plenty grimdark enough, Julian Comstock is really more of a post-post apocalyptic novel. It's 2172, and the oil ran out long ago. Technology and the economy crashed, billions starved with the end of factory farming and international trade, and climate change has radically altered the planet. Now the United States is sort of resurgent, extending into what was Canada and as far south as the Isthmus of Panama. One little teensy problem: while this sad sorry world is beginning to recover, complete with a new age of steam, the USA is now ruled by the Dominion, a fundamentalist Christian theocracy that rules in tandem with the presidency -- now a hereditary position. In a nice bit of history-spinning, the Dominion grew out of the fusion of the fundamentalists surrounding the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and the defunct US Air Force, which had plenty of Christianized personnel but no planes to fly. The Supreme Court was abolished since it kept limiting Congress's ability to institute a theocracy. The First Amendment is still around, though, guaranteeing the right of all Americans to worship at any Christian church they like.
Our title character is the sitting president's nephew, sent away to the sticks so his uncle won't murder him (Roman history illiterate that Yr Dok Zoom is, we didn't know until we read reviews that the story roughly parallels that of Julian the Apostate, so there's that). Julian is a freethinker who dreams of bringing back the forbidden knowledge of the old times, like the theory of evolution and the knowledge that humans once went to the moon. It's a nifty future-crapsack world, and [spoiler warning] the good guys sort of win, maybe kinda. Read it for the narrator, Adam Hazzard, Julian's boyhood friend and a would-be adventure writer with a smart naivete to rival Huck Finn's, who [another spoiler warning] relates Julian's story years after escaping to Europe, which is less fucked up than America. Hey, that sounds kind of relevant, too!
Optional Reading: Victor Gischler, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse (2008)
This one's pure fluff, as if the title hadn't tipped you off already, but we have to mention it, if only because of its key bit of survivalist advice: If you want to thrive after the End of Civilization, go live on a mountain and have a cave stocked with the most important currency for the Day After: Lots of guns, ammo, and as many cases of Johnnie Walker Blue as you can afford. Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse is pleasantly silly pulp, especially considering that its climax turns on the search for the Lost City of Atlanta, with a Mad-Max-ish showdown between two factions driving the last operable electric cars in North America. IMDB informs us there's a movie adaptation that may or may not be stuck in Development Hell. Sadly, it looks like Gischler never wrote the e-book sequel he successfully raised Kickstarter funds for -- the last update on the project is a 2014 backer-only message titled "Operation Payback," which sounds like it never came together and Gischler refunded his backers. Go read the original and enjoy it anyway -- Gischler plays with end of the world scenarios a bit like Douglas Adams might have if he'd been a redneck instead of a Brit.
So there are some books to help you get through the Trump Years; also, for pure silliness, we strongly recommend Dana Schwartz's Dystopian YA Novel Twitter feed, written in the voice of a character in a generic Dystopian teen novel, where you know it's the future because important Events and Things are Capitalized. Sample: "Ermias was Chosen to be my Mate. But what if my 16 year old heart knows better than this scientifically and culturally established process?"
If your tastes run more to nonfiction that looks at how the hell we ended up here, we may just do another post soon, which might well focus solely on Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, and his most recent opus, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise Of Reagan. Add your own reading recommendations in the comments, which we don't allow, and be on the lookout for our 2021 review of the best fiction inspired by the Trump Years, to be published on clay tablets.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.