This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Dystopian, yes. Unimaginable, no. In fact, a version of our present moment was imagined more than eight decades ago by novelist Sinclair Lewis who wrote a still readable (if now fictionally clunky) novel, It Can't Happen Here. Its focus: the election as president of a man we might today call a right-wing "populist," but who, in the context of the 1930s, was simply an American fascist. Lewis gave him the fabulous name Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip and, unlike our president of the moment, he wasn't a billionaire from New York but a politician from the Midwest.
As we all know, fascism didn't come to America in the 1930s. Still, in his instant bestseller, Lewis caught the essence of an American tendency that hasn't left us. And if you read his book now, you can't help but be struck by certain passages that have the eerie ring not of 1935 but of 2017. Take Lewis' description of the journalistic Svengali, Lee Sarason (think: Steve Bannon), who wrote his fictional president's single famous book: "Though he probably based it on notes dictated by Windrip -- himself no fool in the matter of fictional imagination -- Sarason had certainly done the actual writing of Windrip's lone book, the Bible of his followers, part biography, part economic program, and part plain exhibitionistic boasting, called Zero Hour -- Over the Top."
Exhibitionist boasting? Sound faintly familiar? Or take this passage about a U.S. Army major general who leads a militaristic show of support for Windrip at the political convention that nominates him: "Not in all the memory of the older reporters had a soldier on active service ever appeared as a public political agitator." Though Michael Flynn (the "lock her up" guy) was a retired lieutenant general when he strutted his stuff at the 2016 Republican convention, doesn't it sound uncannily familiar? Or to pick another example, at one point in Windrip's ever more authoritarian presidency, the book's protagonist, journalist Doremus Jessup, has these thoughts, which have a distinctly Trumpian feel to them: "He simply did not believe that this comic tyranny could endure. It can't happen here, said even Doremus -- even now." Admittedly, the ability to tweet was still 70 years away, but comic nightmare, dystopian revelry, a nation slipping further into a militarized state of autocracy?
These days, all of us, it seems, are Doremus Jessups, facing both the increasingly grim and bizarrely comic aspects of the Trump era and all of us have to deal with them in our own lives in our own ways. With that in mind, we've turned to TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan (and her children) for both inspiration and a striking meditation on the dystopian world of Donald Trump and how to face it. Tom
Growing My Way Out of Dystopia
Can We Stop Feeling Quite So Helpless and Hopeless in a World on the Skids?
By Frida Berrigan
In the wake of Donald Trump's inauguration, George Orwell's 1984 soared onto bestseller lists, as did Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which also hit TV screens in a storm of publicity. Zombies, fascists, and predators of every sort are now stalking the American imagination in ever-greater numbers and no wonder, given that guy in the Oval Office. Certainly, 2017 is already offering up a bumper crop of dystopian possibilities and we've only reached July. But let me admit one thing: the grim national mood and the dark clouds crowding our skies have actually nudged me in a remarkably positive direction. Surprise of all surprises, Donald Trump is making the corn grow in Connecticut!
Maybe I'd better explain.
My kids and I planted corn seeds in a square bed in our front yard this spring. Really, they just dumped the kernels in the ground and stared expectantly, waiting for them to grow. Three hundred corn plants seemed to germinate overnight, crowding each other out as they worked to reach the sun. I've been steadily thinning the clumps into rows and now we have a neat line of a dozen or so corn plants, each just about three feet high, along with lettuce, kale, collards, peas, basil, and a few tomato plants in a four foot by four foot raised bed. The kids -- Madeline, three, and Seamus, four -- visit "their" corn plants, name them, argue over whose are whose, and generally delight in their bona fides as Connecticut corn growers.
It's all part of a (somewhat incoherent) plan of mine that's turned most of our front yard over to vegetables this year, including more tomatoes sprouting beside that raised bed along with plenty of cilantro. We have a fig tree, too, and apple trees, blueberry bushes, even a Shinto plum in back of the house along with a little potato patch and more herbs of various sorts. It's a fertile little urban oasis.
For water supplies, I went as far as to install rain barrels at our downspouts, which tend to quickly fill to the brim whenever we get a half-decent rain and then cause moisture problems in the basement as water begins to gush out of their mosquito-proof tops. I worry about those barrels whenever I go away, but also feel a strange pride when I water my vegetable patches from them instead of the hose. If I stop to think about it, however, they drive home the point even better than a haphazard row of jaunty corn: I have no idea what I'm doing.
That's not the end of the world, though, is it? This spring, as the political scene turned from truly bad to criminally bad, I began to see how not knowing what you're doing could be a legitimate path, if not to power, then to resistance -- and therapeutic as well.
Seriously, it was therapeutic to dig and plant, weed and water. It was healing to do that with my kids, to hear them teaching each other about a world of growing things, to watch them go from grossed out to awed by worms and beetles, to see them bend their noses almost to the earth to follow the wiggly movements of such creatures. We're now picking peas from plants that grew from seeds Seamus planted in little cups at the end of his school year. Every time we come home, he says, "Daddy, look at how tall my peas are!" and he runs over to trace their curly tendrils as they climb the twines we tied.
It's Pretty, But Can We Eat It? Stalking Self-Sufficiency
Sometimes, when the dystopian possibilities of our world sink in, I think about the importance of self-sufficiency. Still, to be perfectly honest, given the costs of the rain barrels and the lumber for those raised beds, given my time and effort and ignorance, we may be growing some of the world's most expensive peas, tomatoes, and kale. And it's not like we have to wait for the kids' corn to grow (and cure) to make popcorn.
We do, however, make a lot of our own food. We bake sourdough bread from a pungent starter kept in the fridge. We ferment our own yogurt and stir up batches of granola every few weeks. It's fun. It's work our whole family gets into. It helps teach our kids what real food tastes like -- that yogurt doesn't come naturally in a plastic tub loaded with sugar and fruit on the bottom; that bread can emerge from the oven hot and chewy and is best eaten at that moment slathered in butter.