The hour calls for optimism; we’ll save pessimism for better times.
A great many people, myself included, have understandably used the word “shock” to describe Donald Trump’s election and the first months of his presidency. Though he breaks the mold in some ways, Trump’s tactics do follow a script, one familiar from other countries that have had rapid changes imposed under the cover of crisis. In his first week in office, for example, Trump signed a tsunami of executive orders that had people reeling, madly trying to keep up. Since then, he’s never allowed the atmosphere of chaos and crisis to let up.
But as I’ve reflected on the word “shock” while writing No Is Not Enough, I started to question its accuracy in this context. A state of shock is produced when a story is ruptured, when we have no idea what’s going on. But in so many ways, Trump is not a rupture at all, but rather the culmination—the logical end point—of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a very long time. That greed is good. That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest. That the natural world is there for us to pillage. That the vulnerable deserve their fate, and the 1 percent deserve their golden towers. That anything public or commonly held is sinister and not worth protecting. That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own. That there is no alternative to any of this.
Given these stories are, for many of us, part of the very air we breathe, Trump really shouldn’t come as a shock. A billionaire president who boasts he can grab women by their genitals while calling Mexicans “rapists” and jeering at the disabled is the logical expression of a culture that grants indecent levels of impunity to the ultrarich, that is consumed with winner-take-all competition, and that is grounded in dominance-based logic at every level. We should have been expecting him. And indeed, many of those most directly touched by the underbelly of Western racism and misogyny have been expecting him for a long time.
So maybe the emotion beneath what some have been calling “shock” is really, more accurately, horror. Specifically, the horror of recognition that we feel when we read effective dystopian fiction or watch good dystopian films. All stories of this genre take current trends and follow them to their obvious conclusion—and then use that conclusion to hold up a mirror and ask: Do you like what you see? Do you really want to continue down this road? These nightmare futures are horrifying precisely because they’re not shocking—not a break with our underlying stories, but their fulfillment. I’ve come to believe that we should see America’s first nuclear-armed reality-TV president in a similar fashion: as dystopian fiction come to life. Trump is a mirror, held up not only to the United States but to the world. If we don’t like what we see—and throngs of us clearly do not—then it is clear what we need to do.