It started in August 2015, two months after Donald Trump officially launched his candidacy for President of the United States. Jon Lovett, who spent three years as a speechwriter in the Obama White House, wrote a “dispatch from the future” for The Atlantic on what President Trump’s election might look like, detailing “the budget crisis, President Trump’s impeachment, Vice President Cruz’s inauguration, the second budget crisis. It’s all pretty straightforward. It was a painful and frightening time, to be sure.”
Since then, many more writers have been compelled to sketch out their visions of a Trump presidency, and while their scenarios have differed when it comes to specifics, all of them fit neatly into the category of dystopian fiction. From mass deportations to child soldiers fighting wars with Mexico to a nation whose only news source is the Trump Network, these speculative portraits of the future take the candidate’s documented policy proposals and consider what they might actually look like if enacted. That the results are so grim, so Orwellian even, seems to reinforce how unique this election is, and how far Trump’s language and pronouncements have deviated from the norm of politics in the U.S.
Dystopian stories, Laura Miller wrote in The New Yorker in 2010, have one ultimate purpose: “to warn us about the dangers of some current trend.” Books like Brave New World and 1984, she explains, “detail the consequences of political authoritarianism and feckless hedonism. This is what happens if we don’t turn back now, they scold, and scolding makes sense when your readers have a shot at getting their hands on the wheel.”
In that sense, speculative fiction provides a framework for mapping out the future. And it resonates particularly in a moment when reality already seems to be pervaded with a sense of fear, with everything from police shootings to cyber warfare to climate change tainting hopes for the future. In April, The Boston Globe surprised its readers with a mock front page dated April 9, 2017, that laid out some potential news items from a Trump presidency. “Deportations to begin,” read the top story, followed by smaller headlines about Trump’s attack on libel laws, his trade war with China, his orders to kill the families of ISIS members, his appointment of Omarosa Manigault as education secretary, and his renaming of Yellowstone as Trump National Park. “This is Donald Trump’s America,” an editor’s note read in the bottom left corner. “What you read on this page is what might happen if the GOP front-runner can put his ideas into practice.”
That’s what makes the Globe’s front page so disturbing—it’s simply a manifestation of policy proposals the candidate has actually made. Fusion’s vision of “Trump’s American Dystopia,” published a few days after the Globe mockup, does the same thing. It imagines what the candidate’s statements regarding Muslims and undocumented immigrants might look like in practice. On January 21, 2017, it details, Trump signs an executive order banning Muslims from the U.S., prompting unprecedented antagonism and terror threats from the Middle East, a flood of lawsuits, and the cancellation of 10 percent of flights to the U.S.
In Fusion’s story, this soon leads to mandatory national identity cards for Muslims, followed by #DeportationNation, in which Trump begins to round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants. There are public raids across the country, and 2,400 new facilities are established where undocumented residents are detained. “The Times reports that many of the camps lack sufficient food and medical care,” the story explains. An organized resistance forms, called the Mockingjay Alliance, presumably in homage to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy—the most influential work of dystopian fiction in the past decade.
It’s hard to consider what’s more realistic: that a resistance group in the U.S. would name itself after a resistance group made immortal in a Jennifer Lawrence movie, or that President Trump might move forward with his professed intention to deport every single undocumented immigrant in the country. Either way, the nods to popular culture add a sense of absurdism to a bleak vision of America. This mashup of surreal humor and plausibility also permeates “The Arctic Lizard,” a short story by the Israeli author Etgar Keret published by BuzzFeed in October. In Keret’s story, set an unspecified amount of time after President Trump’s third term, a bloody war with Mexico has led to the founding of the 14+, a unit of the military staffed with soldiers aged 14 and over. One of its key recruiting tools is the game Destromon Go (based on Pokemon Go), which offers special collectors’ characters only available to people fighting in war zones.
Keret’s vision of the future is the most outlandish, the most stylized, and the most explicitly dystopian. By contrast, the Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott is much more measured in his speculative essay about what President Trump might mean for the arts in America. It starts quietly, with some characteristic outrage from the new President when a sculpture of him sitting on the toilet is unveiled in a gallery in Chelsea. Trump derides the artist as lazy, and “a loser.” But then he launches hearings on public funding for the arts, threatening to withdraw funding for the Smithsonian Institute and the National Gallery of Art. Soon, major organizations sanitize their offerings so as not to offend President Trump. By the summer of 2018, the biggest cultural draw of the year is Death Wish VII: Border Wars, a remake of the Charles Bronson series that coincides with mass deportations in Texas and Arizona. Libel suits are filed against a publisher that prints works of satire based on the Trump presidency, creating new questions as to whether works of fiction can be legally libelous.
Kennicott’s scenario speaks to the ways in which art plays a vital role in a democracy, and to a large extent, these fictional accounts of America under Trump’s rule act as works of protest. But they’re also thought experiments that pay considered attention to the proposals of a candidate who’s frequently attracted more attention for his personality than his policies. “Dystopian literature lets us simulate our worst imaginings from the privacy of our own homes,” the author John Scalzi wrote in an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times on November 4:
No need to actually live in a world where overpopulation has crashed the planet when Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! shows it’s not something we’d want. No need to live in a world of biological terror when Stephen King’s The Stand already lets you tour the carnage. Nuclear annihilation, the collapse of society, religious or political tyrannies — whatever you fear, science fiction gives you a chance to see it followed to its logical and horrible extreme, so you can say, “Well, now I know I don’t want that.”
In that sense, each of these works has offered Trump’s own visions for his presidency rendered in different scales of realism. The question now is how speculative they’ll be allowed to remain.