When Kim Jong Un met President Donald Trump in Singapore last week, he said their meeting was like a science fiction movie.
You know it is strange days when even a murderous North Korean dictator thinks reality is out of whack.
Science fiction warps and distorts the world we know. In doing so, it comments on a reality that we are either incapable of seeing or that we voluntarily choose to ignore. It makes the unbelievable real, if only for a fictional moment to show us how close we are to the absurd.
Fiction is Fact and Fact is Fiction
But what happens when the unbelievable actually does materialize and when the absurd becomes commonplace and familiar? Does it become harder to recognize what is unacceptable, perhaps even illegal? Does it normalize what was once sensational? Does it dehumanize those who were once our neighbors and the recipients of our welfare?
In the Trump era, fiction is fact and fact is fiction. And while there’s no chance of human-looking robots, like the cylons in Battlestar Gallactica, trying to end our world, the administration is awfully close to cribbing from the scripts of dystopian movie thrillers, like Children of Men, where the British government imposes oppressive immigration laws, rounding up refugees and holding them in cages.
And what about Brazil, Terry Gillam’s dystopian satire probing the agony and buffoonery of a totalitarian and overly bureaucratic government? The treatment of journalists in the White House press briefing room comes to mind, as do the Trump administration’s attempts to identify civil servants that may be disloyal to its policies.
I wonder if Trump has seen the 2013 Black Mirror episode “The Waldo Moment,” in which a failed comedian runs for political office as Waldo, a cartoon bear he voices on a television show. In the election, Waldo spouts vitriol against the political establishment and publicly berates the candidates opposing him.
The writers of the science fiction anthology series did not anticipate being so prescient about America’s future. Rather, they attempted to channel a resentment in the United Kingdom towards established politicians who “seemed like an alien species that no one could relate to anymore. So the politicians that started gaining traction were these cartoonish buffoons like Boris Johnson, who was sort of the proto-Trump, and Nigel Farage. It felt like people just wanted authenticity, even if it was ugly authenticity, and that’s what that episode was about.”
The Rise of Ugly Authenticity
The rise of “ugly authenticity” politicians speaks volumes about how ordinary citizens feel the system is failing them.
According to a March 13 poll from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group,
“Trump was the candidate of choice for most of the respondents who doubt democracy and wish to have more authoritarian rule: Of Trump voters, 32% wish to have a stronger leader, and 23% don’t think democracy is always preferable.”
But the irony of such preference is inescapable. The most authentic of the “ugly politicians” are the ones that will use the system to consolidate their power and influence in unimaginable ways.
Think of Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy and his decision to separate children from parents crossing illegally at the U.S.-Mexico border.
And yet 46% of Republicans approve of Trump’s family separation policy.
Here, again, are those questions:
What happens when the unbelievable actually does materialize and when the absurd becomes commonplace and familiar? Does it become harder to recognize what is unacceptable, perhaps even illegal? Does it normalize what was once sensational? Does it dehumanize those who were once our neighbors and the recipients of our welfare?
“We Are Heading Into Dark Times”
Just after the 2016 election, author Sarah Kendzior wrote this:
“We are heading into dark times, and you need to be your own light. Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave – and it is often hard to be brave – be kind.”
This is the same advice I regularly give my six year-old daughter, whose inclination for kindness and sympathy far exceeds anyone on team Trump. Reduced to playground politics, where does America takes itself next?
The news was once a guide, providing a foundation for understanding where the country may go. But that, too, is just as unreliable as the ugly politicians.
I find myself questioning the better angels of my nature, wondering if they should be so stubborn with their lofty aspirations of America. Or should I just give in and accept America for what it has shown itself to be? It will be easier.
Lest you think I am being overly dramatic, I should say that it has always been my goal to stay rooted in reality in my criticism of the Trump administration. For one, previous American presidents, while less bigoted and offensive, have managed to create their fair share of controversial and questionable policies. While the Obama administration did not separate children from parents, it did place families in detention centers for indefinite periods of time while their cases were being processed. George W. Bush has the blood of thousands of Iraqis on his hands. I could go on.
Let’s Be Dramatic
Leaders are neither perfect nor do they represent all that is morally responsible in the world. But attempting to rationalize Trump’s policy failures along the lines of Obama, Bush, and the others before him is simply a weak attempt to rationalize the ugliness of the Trump presidency.
It is in fact Trump’s particular style of leadership and his manner of policy implementation that makes dramatization unavoidable. After all, he is hosting a four-year long reality show, isn’t he? It seems inevitable that we should respond in kind.
Here, again, science fiction can guide us. I think of the gangly, tortured, and complicated Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time. As Meg searches for her missing father in different layers of time and space, she faces several manifestations of evil, from something called “the black thing” to the totalitarian “IT” in a place called Camazotz.
Throughout her journey, Meg navigates complicated emotions about who she is. Self-loathing and confused, she is also powerful and stubborn. Her fight against “the black thing” is just as much a struggle to preserve what she loves – her family – as it is a cosmic battle between good and evil.
In that cosmic battle, let us hope that we as a nation find ourselves on the right side of history. I would have thought the bond between parent and child was something that transcended political boundaries and partisan sensibilities. Yet I still hold out hope that this most absurd of absurdist policies could be the tipping point for what Americans will accept as fact and that which should be fiction.
Unfortunately, we haven’t reached that point yet. In the struggle to preserve what is loved and what is sacred, the outcome of that remains to be seen. Perhaps we should all go read A Wrinkle in Time again.