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General News    H3'ed 4/16/20

Tomgram: John Feffer, Trump Rex

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At maybe age 13, I can remember reading H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds, his Martian invasion classic in which aliens tear up London, under the covers by flashlight while I was supposed to be asleep -- and I've read science fiction ever since. Ditto dystopian fiction from the time I stumbled across 1984 and Brave New World, again in my teens. I was an only -- when I was little, I thought it was "lonely" -- child and reading saved my life. So did the movies. They gave me a sense that there was another world out there, maybe scarier and stranger but also far more gripping and compelling than the one I was growing up in. With one exception: I've never been able to take horror films, never experienced the thrill of being scared out of my wits that way. I live in horror of horror, you might say, of something suddenly jumping out at me when I least expect it.

I remember, for instance, that when the film Jurassic Park came out (and I was writing a piece about dinosaurs), I had to recruit my son, who had already seen it, to go with me so that he could whisper warnings at the right moments. ("Dad, in maybe 30 seconds the Velociraptor is going to leap out of the grass.") He was at an age when it was embarrassing as hell and I'm lucky he ever forgave me.

I bring this up only because, as TomDispatch regular John Feffer, the author of two dystopian novels, Splinterlands and Frostlands (that have proved remarkably on target when it comes to our splintering, sweltering planet), suggests today, we are now in a landscape of horror. A world we all thought we knew well is disappearing and, no matter what his scientific advisers may be telling him, our president has been visibly determined not to avoid the velociraptors. So, among the rest of stressed-out America, I finally feel in good company. Something -- we call it Covid-19 -- did indeed jump out at us, scaring the hell out of most of us. As the horror mounts, none of us can leave the movie theater, no matter how thorough our social distancing. Unfortunately, the equivalent of my son isn't here to warn us. Instead, we have the president Feffer labels "Trump Rex" (or, to fit thematically with this introduction, I might even call him, T. rex) who's ready to scare us to hell and back daily. Nor is he from some dystopian future, some nightmarish fantasy written by a modern, slightly whacked-out George Orwell. He's here right now, every day, a figure directly out of a horror movie -- and at present, he jumps out of the bushes, news conference by news conference, every night of the damn week. Tom

From Here to Dystopia
Not With a Bang But a Cough
by John Feffer

In retrospect, it's no surprise that, after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, dystopian fiction enjoyed a spike in popularity. However, novels like George Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which soared on Amazon, would prove more horror stories than roadmaps. Like so many ominous sounds from a dark basement, they provided good scares but didn't foreshadow the actual Trumpian future.

Of course, it didn't take an Orwell or an Atwood to extrapolate from the statements of candidate Trump to the policies of President Trump -- and such projections bore little resemblance to the worlds of Big Brother or an all-powerful patriarchy. Many Americans quickly began bracing themselves for something quite different: less totalitarian than total chaos. There would likely be unmitigated corruption, new wars, and massive tax cuts for the wealthy, along with an unprecedented reduction in government services and the further concentration of power in the executive branch. And it was a given that there would be boastfully incoherent presidential addresses, as well as mockery from officials in countries that had only recently been our closest allies. A Trumpian dystopia would be a Frankenstein monster constructed of the worst parts of previous administrations with plenty of ugly invective and narcissistic preening thrown in for bad measure.

And yet, there was still a lingering hope that those unsettling noises from the basement were just the equivalent of a broken furnace -- annoying and expensive to fix, yes, but nothing like a living, breathing monster. Trump, after all, was going to be a singularly incompetent leader, or so his multiple bankruptcies and failed ventures suggested. Maybe he wouldn't be able to do that much damage tweeting from the White House or phoning in from the links. And even if his minions in Congress did manage to push through some disturbing legislation, the guardrails of democracy would continue to contain his administration, and dystopias would, for the most part, remain the stuff of scary novels, not everyday life.

For many Americans, a Trump presidency did indeed usher in harder times. The earnings of farmers, dependent on exporting their crops, plummeted during the trade war with China. Nearly 700,000 people were poised to lose access to food stamps. Hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees from Haiti, El Salvador, and other countries faced the loss of their temporary protected status.

Still, many of those farmers received government subsidies to offset their losses and the courts blocked the administration from following through on some of its cruelest immigration policies, at least postponing the worst nightmares. Meanwhile, the 2018 midterm elections signaled a possible post-Trumpian future, as the Democrats, led by a crew of new women candidates, won control of the House of Representatives. Admittedly, the ultimate failure of the impeachment effort was a setback, but it was still just a matter of holding on for less than a year until election 2020 and then quite possibly waving the Trump era farewell.

That has now all changed.

Thanks to the coronavirus, dystopia is here, right now -- but with a twist. As science fiction writer William Gibson once so aptly put it, "The future has arrived, it's just not evenly distributed yet." In April 2020, the same applies to our new world.


Dystopia arrived not with a bang, but a cough. The culprit wasn't a looming monster or a totalitarian state, but a microscopic speck that's technically not even alive. And that basement, by the way, turned out to be far-off Wuhan, the Chinese city where the novel coronavirus first appeared. With Hubei province overwhelmed by sickness and death, China responded by using the powers of a centralized state to shut down everything -- from travel to restaurants, public gatherings to dissent -- in a draconian fashion.

The Trump administration chose to ignore those warnings.

Meanwhile, given the level of international travel in a globalized economy, other countries soon became hotspots. South Korea used technology -- widespread testing, contact tracing, and apps to monitor quarantining -- to contain the problem. Iran's initial poor response, even as members of its leadership took sick and in some cases died, was compounded by punitive Trump administration sanctions. The hospitals in northern Italy were overwhelmed by Covid-19 and the government suddenly shut down the country in a belated attempt to stave off disaster.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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