From Hannah Arendt to The Handmaid's Tale: Margaret Atwood and lit scholars talk dystopia in the age of Trump
Since the election of Donald Trump, landmark books about totalitarianism and political dystopias have vaulted to the highest rungs of the bestseller lists, alongside the contemporary breed of dystopian fiction that has so gripped teenagers and millennials.
The feeling is that Trump may not be completely unprecedented. He may have been prefigured in books that warned of the appeal of demagogues and their ability to lead the masses from democracy to tyranny.
So people look to great fiction and non-fiction to understand how they got here, and perhaps find a roadmap to what lies ahead.
- George Orwell's 1984: a bleak vision of a totalitarian society defined by surveillance, thought control and relentless propaganda. Sales of 1984 soared when Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway uttered the Orwellian expression "alternative facts" last winter.
- Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here: the story of a populist demagogue named Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, who is elected to the White House and proceeds to impose fascist rule while political moderates and liberals look on haplessly.
- Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: a novel about a Puritanical patriarchal theocracy called Gilead coming to power in New England, stripping women of any rights and reducing them to servants and child-bearing chattel. It has been an opera, a ballet, a film, a graphic novel and has now been adapted for television. It is airing as a miniseries on Bravo.
- Aldous Huxley's Brave New World: a totalitarian future dystopia in which people are happily enslaved by a steady diet of drugs, escapist entertainment and sex.
- Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism: her 1951 tome analyzing the role of anti-Semitism, propaganda, political lies and appeals to the masses that made Nazism and Stalinism possible.
- Margaret Atwood is Canada's best-known writer and a Booker Prize- and Giller Prize-winning author. In addition to The Handmaid's Tale, she has written dozens of other works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her latest book is the graphic novel Angel Catbird.
- Sally Parry is a professor of English at Illinois State University and the executive director of the Sinclair Lewis Society.
- Roger Berkowitz is an associate professor of Politics, Human Rights, and Philosophy. He's the founder and academic director of Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.
What is a dystopian novel or work of art?
Sally Parry: I think that dystopian literature is that which presents a society which seems absolutely horrible, whether it's a theocracy or a bad political arrangement. Some might think that we're currently living in a dystopia. But what's a dystopia for one person is a utopia for somebody else.
Margaret Atwood: Utopias and dystopias are joined at the hip, in that every dystopia contains a little utopia, and every utopia — when you start digging — contains a little dystopia. They're both blueprints of something we don't have yet but could have should we continue down this or that path. Anything human can happen to any society given the circumstances. So we're not immune.
Roger Berkowitz: Dystopias are popular and important because they provide fear. And I think the memory of bad things that have happened in the past — be it the Holocaust, totalitarianism or the Gulags — is generally not going to create the kind of experience mediated over generations that's going to prevent it from happening again. The best protection we have against this happening again is real fear. And I think in that way dystopian novels are very important.
Berkowitz: I think she would be shocked. There's a famous story that Isaiah Berlin said when she died that she was an overrated journalist who would be forgotten immediately. And that hasn't happened. I think her work is unique in that it brings an incredible philosophical and literary erudition — humanist erudition — to real problems in the world. She constantly allows us to look at everyday problems differently, at a time when there's so much groupthink. She's not liberal, she's not conservative. She's hard to put in any kind of box.
Margaret Atwood, you started writing The Handmaid's Tale in 1984 when you were living in Berlin. Was that a coincidence?
Atwood: It was a coincidence but a meaningful one. I was of an age to have read 1984 as a young teenager, as well as Brave New World, just about all of H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury as he was coming out, and Hannah Arendt somewhat later when I was in college.
When we launched the film in 1990, it was just as the wall was coming down. In East Berlin, they looked at it very intently and they said "this was our life." They didn't mean the theocracy and the outfits. They meant "you didn't know who you can trust." And now that we've opened the Stasi files, we know how very true that was.
You've said that this was not a predictive novel. It was an anti-predictive novel. What do you mean by that?
Atwood: You write these kinds of books in the hopes that they will not happen. I was looking at a lot of newspapers and magazines and clipping them at the time. And the Right was already talking then about what they would like to do, should they have the opportunity. And now they have.
Parry: Very much. Lewis traveled quite a bit throughout Europe in the early thirties and his marriage to Dorothy Thompson really spurred his interest in political problems in the United States. It Can't Happen Here was written in a white heat in about two months. And it's not perfectly formed but it's so passionate about the fear of what could happen. Over and over again, he heard about American exceptionalism. That it happens in other countries — in Germany, Italy or wherever — but it can't happen here. And he wanted to show that it was really possible.
When you were watching the campaign last year, did the thought cross your head that this election is starting to look a lot like what Sinclair Lewis was talking about?
Parry: It certainly did, especially when the convention ended up in Cleveland — just as it did in It Can't Happen Here. There's also a comparison because Donald Trump, despite the fact that he has so much money, was speaking to the people that identified as being forgotten or ignored. Buzz Windrip in the novel is speaking to that same constituency. A lot of his followers are called the "forgotten men." This was in the depths of the Depression, but you can certainly see a correlation between those two groups of unemployed or underemployed white men who felt that the country had passed them by.
Windrip is described as a vulgar, almost illiterate public liar who represents the forgotten man and complains about the lies in the mainstream press. That's rather close to home, isn't it?
Parry: Sadly, yes. One of the things that's obviously different is that Windrip in the novel has a paramilitary organization called the Minutemen. I'm glad to see that the courts in this country are still staying very strong and trying to deal with the rule of law rather than the rule of the tweet.
I tend to teach Handmaid's Tale and It Can't Happen Here every time there's a presidential election. They may make a wonderful pair.
Berkowitz: It's a text that engages them on many different levels. The main theme of the book is that the root of totalitarianism is in a kind of existential loneliness that pervades a modern society — a society that doesn't have its rootedness in traditions, home, family, religions and other things. The book is really about the danger and the formation of movements and the way they can take power.
In the late 19th century and into the 20th century in Europe, there was the pan-German movement and the pan-Slavic movement. These were both transnational imperialist movements around German and Slavic identity. So one of the themes of her book is that totalitarianism is actually not connected to nationalism. It's connected to imperialism and globalism.
One of the things that I've always had to point out to people is that there are problems around nationalist movements emerging in the United States, Hungary, Russia and Turkey. But from an Arendtian point of view, totalitarian movements have to be internationalist. They have to be imperialist not nationalist, because they have to create total domination. Nationalist movements are always limited.
I've read that we read these novels in times of great change, of dislocation in the culture or in the economy. Why are we attracted to them? Is it because we are afraid of what we might become, or are we looking for some anchorage?
Atwood: It's like Ionesco's play Rhinoceros. We're afraid of other people turning into that. People of my generation ask ourselves, "what would I have done in the war?" We don't know the answer to that because we weren't actually in it. So you put yourself in that situation by reading a book like this. It's a way of testing your own potential decisions against the decisions of people caught up in that. What is a good way to act under these circumstances and also how might we avoid ever being in such a circumstance.
Atwood: The origin story is simply that every society has a foundational mythos, if you like. And one of the ones of the United States is 17th century Puritan theocracy, on top of which was erected an 18th century deist enlightenment structure which is right now standing between you and tyranny. So of course they would have to get rid of that. As a Canadian, you'd remember the suspension of civil rights in the October Crisis, and the invocation of the War Measures Act. So you create a crisis and then you suspend civil rights. And then you have a military coup. That's happened in country after country after country on this planet. I put nothing into the book that somebody somewhere had not already done.
Hannah Arendt had said that dictators are not the product of a mob but of a mass. What did she mean by that?
Berkowitz: It's one of the more complicated aspects. A mob is the lower class people who have particular economic and political interests and have traditional interests. And to the extent that they take power, they are happy. The mass is a very different beast for Hannah Arendt. It's not classed. It emerges out of the breakdown of classes and the breakdown of interests, and it goes back to what I said about the sort of existential loneliness of modern society. She thinks that the majority of people in most democracies are not members of any of the classes or parties that exist but are people who are, in a sense, part of the mass. They're the forgotten people.
But she says the early 20th century taught us for the first time that, in certain circumstances, the masses can be politicized. And when they are politicized, it's not around interests; it's around a movement that promises that they will make their lives more meaningful. Himmler, who Arendt thought understood this as well as anyone, said that the masses are the neutral, politically-indifferent people who never joined a party and hardly ever go to the polls.
But they seem to have an implacable sense of loyalty. There are all kinds of polls now suggesting that 90% of the people who voted for Donald Trump would vote for him again, even though they look askance at some of the things he's done in the last hundred and some odd days.
Berkowitz: I think that makes a lot of sense. Trump said a long time ago that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and he wouldn't lose his support. That to me is the essence of his campaign. It's what he understood. He's not running a political party or a political campaign. He's running a movement. And in a movement, what he promises is meaning and significance.
There's different levels of people who support Trump. There's racists. There's corporate interests. There's people who maybe think he can help the economy. But the core of his support are people who feel that the political correctness in the United States or the inability for people to say certain things — the liberal technocratic center model — has made them feel unimportant and worthless and even contemptible. The "deplorables" as Hillary Clinton called them. Donald Trump has given them a sense of meaning and importance, and that is much more important than any particular policy or interest.
And that's why he can never apologize or say he's wrong, because part of his attraction to them is that he's speaking the truth. He's a truth-teller against this lying press and lying technocracy.
Parry: I think that there is also an aspect of the charismatic leader connected, whether we're talking about Hitler or Donald Trump. Not only are they giving the people meaning, but in an age when people feel that the country is either going in a wrong direction or feel lost like in the depths of the Depression, they say "I know how to fix this." And they have little buzzwords that you can hang on to — not something complicated but something that will make people say, "He's right. He speaks the truth. He's simple. Even if he has lots of money, he's still like us."
Mike Pence is virulently anti-choice and we know about Donald Trump's views of women. When people are gravitating toward The Handmaid's Tale, do they incorporate that in their own views?
Atwood: I would say that the people who are reading it and looking at it are the people who understand it. And the people who are not reading and looking at it are the people who do understand it but that's the way they want it to be.
It all comes out of what people said they would like to do if they had the chance. Not the outfits maybe, but the rest of it: women should be back in the home, their purpose is childbearing and all the rest of it. That's been pretty clear for some time.
But it's hard to take Donald Trump as a Puritan fanatic or a bible literalist.
Atwood: He's not. And you then have to ask of the of the majority of white evangelical Christians, "why did you vote for this guy?" But because the answer to everything is in the Bible, the answer to that is in the Bible too: God provides imperfect vessels. They see him as somebody who's not their idea of a Christian, but who's going to do their stuff for them.
Atwood: Not quite yet. The Constitution still stands, and does provide for the separation of church and state. The reason they put that in in the 18th century is that they had seen centuries of religions fighting each other in Europe. They did not want a state religion. However, this just in: Donald Trump has apparently given Jerry Falwell Jr.—who was a big campaigner for him — a commission to go into institutions of higher education and weed out stuff like rules about sexual assault on campus and things like that. So there it is, right in front of you.
Does Donald Trump pass your and Hannah Arendt's test for what constitutes a fascist or a totalitarian?
Berkowitz: First of all, those two are different. A fascist is a nationalist seeks to control the power of the state, and to do so with the use of force. Mussolini would be our typical fascist. A totalitarian is someone who doesn't want to control the state, but wants to overrun the state with a movement that's above the state and control people's thoughts. A fascist would let people be free at home as long as they are orderly and obey in the streets.
There's no way at this point you could think of the United States as either a fascist or a totalitarian country. I think that there are elements of both that send off warning bells. The movement element with Trump — like all movements — has to deny reality, because it provides meaning. Reality is always complicated and messy. So you create a fictional coherent reality, which gives people a sense that their lives are meaningful and that they are part of a truthful movement that will create great things. There's no doubt that the Trump movement is a reality-denying movement. But just to be fair, I should say that there are many reality-denying movements in the United States today, on the Left as well as on the Right. The difference is that the Trump movement has taken power.
But the big difference between a totalitarian movement itself and totalitarianism is whether this movement is willing and able to use force and violence to impose its pseudo reality on reality. Certainly at this point, that has not happened. The worry that many people have is that, in the wake of a terrorist attack or a crisis, there will be potentially an opportunity or a desire to do so.
Parry: I think that's true. One of the interesting things about Lewis' writing more generally is that many times he's kind of ambivalent. He sees both sides and he zeroes in on the American character in all its messiness.
Doremus Jessup stands for a lot of liberals and progressives who think, "well, the government is going along OK. So I'll vote but I'm not going to get very involved beyond that, because everything is kind of working out." And I think that he and people like him are horrified when they realize that the people that they've ignored or condescended to, there are more of them than they thought. And that if they if they band together, they actually are able to vote somebody into office that becomes a fascist.
So in a sense the novel is really a warning to people to stay politically and civically engaged. I think an unexpected byproduct of the election is that there's so many more people who are on the Left or Democrats that are involved in a much bigger way. I'm not sure that supporters of Trump expected that, but it may have a really interesting pushback when it comes to the midterm elections.
How accurate or how good of a guide to the future is the literature of the past? Is there a risk that we're going to look for things to confirm the narrative we already read, rather than looking for what's going on in front of us.
Atwood: No, it's not a prophecy. There is no "the future." There are many many possible futures, and I think we read these kinds of books so that we can at least attempt to avoid them — not so that we will make them come true.
Atwood: That is already happening to The Handmaid's Tale. People keep sending me pictures of women dressed up as them sitting in legislatures and doing demonstrations outside them, particularly when it's a bunch of men deciding about reproductive rights. So that's already happening.
Parry: I know in the case of It Can't Happen Here, I've talked more about Sinclair Lewis in the last couple of months than I have in the last 20 years. So I think that's true. And I think as Margaret said, these novels can give us a sense of what could happen but on the other hand also make us think. That's really the power of literature: to think and to say, "if I were in those shoes — whether we're talking about Gilead or 1930s America — would I have resisted, would I have collaborated, what would I have done?"
Berkowitz: I run a virtual reading group and we started reading The Origins of Totalitarianism on January 20th, on inauguration day. And we had the most number of people join in and read it that we've ever had. Great works of literature and philosophy are not political weapons; they're spurs to thinking. And there's no way that these books are supposed to be predictors or prophecies of the future. They're attempts to think deeply.
How much faith did Sinclair Lewis have in the democratic process and the strength of the institutions to withstand totalitarianism?
Parry: It Can't Happen Here is a sort of warning. He once rather famously said that I love America but I don't like it. He was very devoted to the goals of American democracy, but he was also very aware of the imperfections of Americans and how greed or ignorance can lead them in awful directions. You see that with other of his novels like Elmer Gantry and the rise of the televangelists. It's the ambivalence. A lot of his novels are a warning to say think carefully about what you're doing rather than just sort of amble through life.
How much faith do you have that the democratic culture in America now constituted will prevail?
Atwood: I have quite a lot of faith, because America is very diverse and has a long tradition of freedom of speech, speaking up, civic participation. I don't think people are just going to to roll over for this. I think it would be a lot harder to actually control all America in the way that Hitler controlled all Germany. It's not homogeneous in the way that Germany was. So I have faith in individual Americans to push back, and I'm seeing a lot of pushing back.
Let me be parochial for a moment. Could it happen here in Canada?
Atwood: People asked me that as soon as I published the book. It would be harder, because again Canada is so diverse. And I don't think Quebec would sit still for it, because they had a dose of that under Duplessis. That's my theory. I'm a screaming optimist as we all know.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.