Reading the Trump Era

After Trump’s election people were suddenly interested in It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. Published in 1935, it is considered to be one of the most important cautionary tales about how America could suddenly turn fascist. I don’t think it is considered Lewis’ best work, but it was widely regarded as an important book. I probably don’t need to over-explain the connection to Trump, but let’s just say Lewis uses a blustery business man as the face of the ascendant authoritarian political force.

Even if it could happen here, how would it unfold? Matt Taibbi has a new book out from his travels with the Trump campaign throughout the 2016 election. Insane Clown President – Dispatches from the 2016 Circus slogs through the whole pile of bizarre behavior, vulgar rhetoric, and countless promises of tremendous war crimes all in the name of taking away our civil liberties in order to fuel the kleptocratic destruction of America.

Once the inauguration officially made Trump the most powerful man in the world many concerned readers turned to George Orwell’s 1984. Published in 1948, it is Orwell’s imagining of a totalitarian super-state that spans, roughly, the NATO countries of Western Europe and the United States, and is perpetually at war with the world’s other two totalitarian super-states. There is a sophisticated exploration of power dynamics and propaganda in a technologically advanced world, as experienced by the hapless protagonist. One may quickly tire of the constant comparisons in the popular discourse, but, when Trump starts prosecutions for Thoughtcrimes we’ll all agree it is getting a little too Orwellian.

Another take on the dystopian future waiting just around the corner is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Here we follow a woman living a fun and exciting life as state property in a theocratic state where women are no longer allowed to read or have money. I can’t imagine a better elevator pitch for Mike Pence’s America.

And finally, though I’m sure I will update this list at some point, perhaps instead of only looking to the bleak future we may also learn something from our bleak past.

The so-called Gilded Age was at its peak in this country around the turn of the last century. Corporate monopolies controlled more markets and people than ever before, and those who controlled these behemoths enjoyed lives of extreme wealth never before imagined. That wealth was created almost entirely by the hard and dangerous work of the regular American man and woman (and child), whether tending farms or splitting wood or building railroads or butchering animals.

Today, we live in what is often called a New Gilded Age or Second Gilded Age. Fifty families own about half the world’s wealth. Corporations control policy and we are entering an age of unprecedented technological advancement which will, if unchecked, only serve to widen the chasm between the wealthy and the rest of us.

Upton Sinclair was something of a socialist utopian, and saw the plight of the mostly-immigrant workers in the Chicago stockyards as a tragic microcosm of the injustice of runaway capitalism. He wrote The Jungle as a parable, with the Eastern European family who come to the United States hoping for a better life showing us what so many people from garbage countries faced when they got here, the absolute greatest place ever invented, yet somehow really kind of shitty.

They find work in slaughterhouses and tanneries and are subjected to every kind of abuse the pre-labor movement American juggernaut could come up with. After reading it, President Theodore Roosevelt created the FDA in response to the shockingly disgusting descriptions of the production of meat products at the time. He did not advocate for the creation of a socialist utopia, but he did begin work on breaking up corporate monopolies and their influence over government. The book was influential in progressive circles at the very beginning of the progressive era, and is probably responsible for preventing a couple hundred million cases of foodborne illness.


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