In America, Imagination is a Third Party: The Presidency in Fiction
Fiction lets us to explore our weirdest speculations and darkest fears about the person who sits in the White House. Is reality, under America's current president, worse than fiction?
It Can't Happen HerePublisher: Penguin (reprint)
Author: Sinclair Lewis
Publication date: 2005-03
Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!Publisher: Dial
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publication date: 1999-05
Infinite JestPublisher: Back Bay
Author: David Foster Wallace
Publication date: 2006-11
The West Wing: The Complete Series CollectionCast: Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford
Author: Aaron Sorkin
Release date: 2006-11-07
"2012" he shrilled, and then fell to cackling grotesquely. "That was the year Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates. It must have been one of the last coins minted, for the Scarlet Death came in 2013. Lord! Lord!—think of it! Sixty years ago, and I am the only person alive to-day that lived in those times."
-- The Scarlet Death by Jack London
In one imagined version of the United States under a certain presidency, everyone over the age of 35 is rounded up by teenage stormtroopers, put into re-education camps and constantly dosed with LSD. In another, the American people wake up one morning and discover they all have new middle names, plus several hundred thousand new siblings. Elsewhere in the multiverse, President Jeb Bartlet explains to the nation why he lied about his multiple sclerosis, President Lex Luthor promises to apprehend the alien fugitive Superman, and President Johnny Gentle sets out to clean up the country... with disinfectant, if necessary.
In any one of these innumerable imaginary republics, the leaders we dream up for America -- the country which is itself a kind of dream -- often tell us just as much about those disunited States as the ones it actually elects. For whatever reason, there has always been some quality in the weird, gilded mythos of the American presidency that ignites our collective compulsion for fantasy, dark or otherwise -- something presidents themselves are by no means immune to. At times, this quality can inspire us to ask some brave questions -- or bring out our worst instincts.
Yet over the past four years, the presidency has been noticeably absent from contemporary fiction. We have certainly not lost our thirst for speculative literature of all kinds, but when it comes to the White House, we may be too fascinated by what is to wonder about what it could be. The Bush administration offered a marked contrast, but hobbled fiction in a different way; from 2000 to 2008, cinema, literature, television and comics offered audiences an overabundance of stumble-mouthed neocon caricatures, though none managed to be quite as ridiculous as the dynastic dullard that inspired them. Now, it's almost as though the creative community, so awed by the election of Obama and conscious of being witness to history, now feels incapable of coming up with any fictional president, realistic or satirical, whose existence is as unlikely as the real thing.
As for Obama's political and cultural opponents, whose incoherent fury has only grown louder and more hysterical since their second defeat at the polls, one suspects the reason that they have no fictional analogues for the President is because they cannot imagine anyone worse than the real deal, to whom they have already attributed everything that they fear and despise. To them, Obama is already guilty of almost every negative extreme; there is no reductio ad absurdum for their fantasists to pursue. The grandiose, paranoid impulse that would once have found expression in the dystopian speculations of fiction is now a part of daily political life in America, and shows no signs of abaiting any time soon.
Of course, it's traditional during election season for America to go temporarily nuts, while the rest of the world looks on with a mixture of horror and popcorn. And clearly, I am no American, but a proud (if slightly confused) Scots-Irish-Armenian. When spells in the White House are periodically exchanged between the two wings of what Gore Vidal described as "the Property Party", I watch from the hemispheric cheap seats. Yet in the strange days and weeks since Obama's bitterly fought reelection, it's becoming clear even to an outlander like me that the insanity is not dissipating, or even quieting down to its usual background hiss.
At the time of writing, more than 100,000 citizens have put their name to a petition demanding that Texas be allowed to secede from the Union, with sympathisers in other states rushing to follow their example; meanwhile, science fiction writers who earn their living dreaming up fragmented futures and second Civil Wars are exchanging distinctly nervous glances. Right now, there are huge swathes of ordinary people (that is, if you put any stock in the idea of 'ordinary') who honestly believe that the President is a secret Communist, and that an unholy totalitarian nightmare is not simply on its way, but has already come to pass. We are not all living on the same planet.
These people -- the inhabitants of what Jon Stewart aptly termed "Bullshit Mountain" -- and the conspiracy theories that fuel their rage are now so widespread and entrenched that it's almost not worth pointing out that if Obama is a Communist, he's a pretty lousy one (take it from me, I never saw him at any of the meetings). But facts matter little in a socio-political landscape that has taken on the warped dream-logic of the pulpiest fiction.
"The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman -- sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations... He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will." -- 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics' by Richard J Hoftstadter, Harper's Magazine, November 1964
In a twisted way, I can almost sympathise with the paranoid style of those who believe the President sleeps in red pyjamas. I'm a born sucker for dystopias of all kinds, not just because most of my fascinations are morbid (am I the only one whose circle of friends enjoys the occasional 'nuclear holocaust movie night'?), but because the best of them are, unfortunately, among the most recognisable fiction I know. I never trusted those lovingly-wrought nightmare worlds, or the people who run them, to stay safely on the screen or page -- not with surveillance cameras on every corner, spy-drones in the sky, and Donald Trump contemplating the Oval Office whenever he gets bored. Our weirdest and most insightful dystopias act as proof of the Brechtian dictum: "Realism is not a matter of showing real things, but of showing how things really are."
Dystopianism is the flip-side of utopianism, and the presidents of fiction are often good indicators of both. Culture as a whole seems to share my pessimistic predilections: by sheer bulk, we seem to find dystopias more interesting than utopias, the closer to home the better. Utopias may be fascinating because of what they tell us about the people who came up with them, but the fact that we devote far more of our imaginative lives to thinking up new ways it could all go wrong probably says more about us as a species.
The preoccupation with presidents, fictional or not, is -- rather obviously -- a particularly American phenomenon. From William Morris's News from Nowhere to Franz Kafka's The Castle, the majority of European fiction's utopias and dystopias are usually concerned not with the head of state, but with the nature of it; the means and mechanics of how it all works (or doesn't), regardless of the flailing puppet at the top. By contrast, the idea of a society being determined by benevolent rulers and evil tyrants is the stuff of fairy tales.
But America, particularly in its fiction, is perhaps the last place where the so-called 'Great Man' theory still holds any ground. Named for that old grouch Thomas Carlyle's assertion that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men", it argues that the forces of history are predicated on the actions of each era's heroes and villains -- Alexander, Napoleon, Lenin, Hitler, Bob Dylan -- who exert such vast influence over their age that their significance cannot be underestimated. In much of modern historiography however, no one believes a word of it; humanity, historians tell us with all the gloomy relish of Lovecraft, is in the grip of forces beyond our comprehension. Since most of us are currently having our heads kicked in by economic determinism, it seems hard to argue with that.
And yet, when fiction puts the bizarre and the seemingly impossible in the White House, we let ourselves partake in the fantasy that the new boss, for better or worse, may not in fact be the same as the old boss. In recent years, the most obvious example of this was The West Wing, which almost acts as a reversal of Brecht's definition: despite the fact it came garlanded with authentic-sounding political window-dressing, it still managed to be one of the most unrealistic shows on TV, spinning a comforting bedtime story for the alienated ranks of liberalism during the long, cold Bush years. But other than Aaron Sorkin's predictable platitudes, the most revealing comment Bartlet's America offered on our reality was to highlight the gulf between a fictional America overflowing with intellectualism and articulacy, and a real one where such qualities are deeply distrusted.
Far more than naive speculations over what might happen if a really swell guy managed to get himself elected, presidential fiction is fascinating when it sets out to explore a wider malaise, perhaps as yet undefined by those parts of the culture that lack the arts' capacity for imagination, and then experiments with ideas the status quo dare not contemplate.
"The missiles are flying. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"
-- President Greg Stillson, The Dead Zone (1983)
Naturally, these explorations can vary from the prescient to the enjoyably ludicrous. The cult 1968 b-movie Wild in the Streets looked to the youth movements of the day and imagined President Max Frost, a protest singer elected by a fanatical constituency of newly-enfranchised teenagers, who transforms America into a hippie fascist state under a generational apartheid. While hippies are no longer considered quite the threats to national security they once were, the film is still a good illustration of the irrational fear one generation can feel for another.
In Kurt Vonnegut's 1976 novel Slapstick, the brilliant, hideous Dr Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain wins the Presidency under the slogan of 'Lonesome No More!' In a sublime mockery of the arbitrary nature of human connections, Swain 'solves' human loneliness by assigning all citizens a new middle name -- a random object plus a random number -- and thus creates a series of nation-spanning extended families. So when a beggar asks for change, Swain tells his voters, "you ask him his middle name, and when he tells you "Oyster-19" or "Chickadee-1" or "Hollyhock-13" you say to him: Buster -- I happen to be a Uranium-3. You have one hundred and ninety thousand cousins and ten thousand brothers and sisters. You're not exactly alone in this world. I have relatives of my own to look after. So why don't you take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut?"
Sometimes, unreal presidential hopefuls have been employed to throw the absurdities of the real candidates into sharp relief. Stephen Colbert's 2008 campaign was so memorable he won the endorsement of no less a figure than Spider-Man, and in 1968, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin's short-lived Youth International Party nominated 'Pigagus', a 145lb hog, for President at the Democratic National Convention, promising to either put him in the White House or have him for breakfast (both Jerry Rubin and Pigagus were later arrested by the Chicago police department).
As with so many things, David Foster Wallace grasped the possibilities of the fictional presidency brilliantly; in his 1996 masterpiece Infinite Jest, the surrealistic near-future narrative plays out in the shadow of Johnny Gentle, a former lounge singer and "the cleanest man in entertainment". As the effects of rampant pollution and distrust of the political class reach crisis point, Gentle's combination of slick celebrity charm and Howard Hughes-like germophobia sweeps him into office as the head of the 'Clean U.S. Party', which Foster describes in both vividly fantastical and darkly plausible terms.
"...the strange-seeming but politically prescient annular agnation of ultra-right jingoist hunt-deer-with-automatic-weapons types and far-left macrobiotic Save-the-Ozone, -Rain-Forests, -Whales, -Spooted-Owl-and-High-pH-Waterways ponytailed granola-crunchers, a surreal union of of both Rush L.-and Hillary R.C.-disillusioned fringes that drew mainstream-media guffaws at their first Convention (held in a sterile venue), the seemingly LaRoucheisly marginal party whose first platform’s plan had been Let’s Shoot Our Waste Into Space, C.U.S.P., a kind of post-Perot national joke for three years, until - white-gloved finger on the pulse of an increasingly asthmatic and sunscreen-slathered and pissed-off American electorate - the C.U.S.P suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry voter-spasm that made the U.W.S.A. and LaRoucers and Libertarians chew their hands in envy as the Dems and G.O.P.s stood on either side watching dumbly..."
-- Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Wallace was not, as a rule, an explicitly political writer; this makes it all the more impressive that Infinite Jest is, almost as an afterthought, one of the best pieces of dystopian fiction of recent years. But the phantasmagorical 'Organisation of North American Nations' Wallace created serves not to illustrate any particular partisan viewpoint, but to echo the encroaching psychoses of his characters, America itself, and the world at large (including Wallace) -- something not so different from what was being done in the more openly ideological kinds of literature that have largely fallen out of fashion.
Few did this better than Sinclair Lewis, whose imagination gave the Oval Office a cabal of terrifying occupants in It Can't Happen Here, his 1935 novel that not only recognised the dangers of the fascism rising in Europe, but foresaw the possibility of the same happening in the United States. The Depression had already provided Lewis with the environment necessary to imagine such a transformation -- in his novel, all the populist senator Berzelius 'Buzz' Windrip needs to do in order to win the vote is promise each citizen $5,000. Once installed in power, Windrip abolishes Congress, imprisons minorities and dissidents, and eventually falls to a succession of coups orchestrated by his own supporters, whose policies soon make Windrip's look sane and restrained. Lewis's genius was in recognising the dangers that came not from foreign ideologies infecting the American status quo, but from the dark potential within the human character itself -- our capacity for fear and hate and greed, which knows no nationality -- and that "the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word 'Fascism' and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American values."
As if to confirm that they had completely missed the point of both the title and content of the book, when NBC was considering a televised adaptation of the novel in 1982, it decided that the idea of fascists taking over the USA was too unlikely, and so made them invading space aliens, instead. This is, believe it or not, how the TV series V was born. Make of that what you will.
All of these unrestrained imaginings -- acts of creative vandalism against our shared mental image of the most powerful office in the world, filling it with clowns, amatuers and maniacs -- remind us that there are possibilities beyond what the politicians and pundits will admit. They smear wild designs across the vast canvas of the United States, a nation far too large and varied to be defined by any single government, and demonstrate that, if you dress it up appropriately, there is very little you cannot call 'presidential'.
So, if fictional speculations about the descent of the United States into a terrifying new regime (as opposed to the terrifying old one) have both artistic and political credibility, then what is the true harm in the Obama-loathing, Glenn Beck-loving conspiracists that dominate today's agenda? Well, other than their gleefully medieval policies, the answer lies in the fact that this very credibility lies into drawing a line between truth and fiction; between that which might occur and that which is actually happening, and then demonstrating what circumstances would be necessary for one to become the other. That's the difference between being an actual writer and a lunatic.
Nevertheless, for a great many, that point of distinction has been lost. Maybe they never grasped it in the first place. But in order to prevent the worst suspicions of dystopianism from coming to pass, we must all try to understand the difference between reality and make-believe. If we do not, then the administration of Johnny Gentle may soon seem preferable to real thing.
“And as Lindbergh's election couldn't have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as 'History,' harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”
-- The Plot Against America, Philip Roth