Donald Trump was hardly into his first full calendar year as president before a chorus of critics and pundits began to use the word “dystopian” to describe his administration and the social milieu that it seemed to precipitate. In March 2017, novelist John Feffer wrote, “Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.” Months later, Entertainment Weekly ran an article with the hypertext title, “How the Trump era made dystopia cool again.” The A.V. Club and Vulture both proposed that we had reached “peak dystopia.” Writing for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore described our era as “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction.” (Not of, but “for.”) In early 2018, when the internet was briefly galvanized by talk of Oprah Winfrey running against Donald Trump in 2020, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane described that potential contest as “troublingly dystopian.”
What a curious, discomfiting situation we find ourselves in when the buzzword à la mode is 130 years old, and the literary genre we once relied on to explicate life behind the Iron Curtain is now apparently reflective of contemporary America. But what exactly is it about the Trump administration that makes us reach for such specific literary terminology? Is it the sudden resurgence of white supremacy and fascist sympathies in the American heartland, providing a speculative path toward American authoritarianism? Perhaps, but neither racism nor fascism are requirements of the genre. Are we terrified that this administration will instigate a world-ending nuclear conflict with North Korea, and/or Russia—and/or a devastating economic war with China, and/or Europe? If so, the relevant literary genre would be apocalyptic, not necessarily dystopian. Or do we say “dystopian” hyperbolically—reflecting our anxieties about a nightmarish social sphere of distress, confusion, and disorientation? That might be better described as surreal, or absurd. Are we alarmed by the hard pivot away from professionalism, decency, and decorum? Issues like these are more at home in the novel of manners, such as Pride and Prejudice. Or are we simply dismayed and alarmed by the convergence of an outrageous, semi-competent administration and a general mood of anti-intellectualism? That would be a job for satire. Trump himself—bumbling, bombastic, egoic, unaware, unpredictable, unread—would be more at home as the quixotic protagonist of a picaresque, or as a delusional child king in a fairy tale.
It is my suspicion that we call some things “dystopian” for the same reason we sometimes abuse correct usage of “gothic,” “ironic,” or “Kafkaesque”: We like the sound of it, and we enjoy invoking its vaguer associations. But if we’re going by conventional definitions, it is arguable that there was nothing specifically or egregiously dystopian about the Trump administration until last April, when the administration announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossing, becoming the first White House in memory to implement a standing procedure for separating migrant children from their parents, even as they attempted to surrender themselves legally in a plea for sanctuary.
Dystopia is a rich, heterogeneous, and dynamic category of film and literature. However, when we look at the most successful, enduring works of this genre, we find the same institution caught in the crosshairs of various fictional totalitarian regimes, again and again: the independent and autonomous nuclear family.
Dystopian fiction was preceded by utopian fiction, beginning in 1516 with Thomas More’s novel Utopia. (The synthetic Greek toponym “Utopia” was simply More’s joking name for his setting—an invented South American island—as the word literally means “no place,” or “nowhere.”) Utopian novels were immensely popular in 19th-century England, as humanist philosophies and medical and industrial technologies at the tail end of the Enlightenment combined to suggest a better and brighter tomorrow. Theoretically, a fruitful Eden was almost within reach. Yes, dystopia is commonly described as the opposite of utopia, but this obscures a common trope in which dystopic future societies are presented as the aftermath (or consequence) of failed attempts to bring about an actual utopia.
Perhaps the precursor to dystopian fiction is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s anti-utopian novel Notes from the Underground, published in 1864. Dostoevsky’s skeptical narrator monologues at length on the preposterousness of the idea that science and Western philosophy were ushering in a radical new era of human progress: “Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne.” Dostoevsky’s intention, partly, was to deride and pick apart Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utilitarian, materialist novel, What Is to Be Done?, in which characters make grand, romantic statements about the joyful founding of an eternal, collectivist utopia. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man sees two major flaws in this thinking. First, if given the opportunity to submit to rational prescriptions for a better life, people would rather be free to suffer. Second, idealism—when taken too seriously—tends to breed dissociation, distortion, and interpersonal alienation.
Today we associate a handful of qualities with the concept of dystopia: governmental overreach, unnatural social configurations, paranoia, state-driven propaganda, digitally panoptic surveillance, and other alienating technologies. However, none of these characteristics are intrinsic to the genre, just as dystopian fiction isn’t necessarily satirical or allegorical, regardless of the popularity of Black Mirror. Dystopia is such a diverse and mutable canon overall that there are no essential commonalities—with one possible exception: a significant distortion of family relations.
Nearly all landmark works of dystopian fiction feature an oppressive governmental order that interferes with what we might term the “natural” process of family-making: choosing a partner and raising a family freely and relatively unencumbered by external power structures. This is observed from the outset in the seminal dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, published in Russia in 1921. Set in the walled-off, hyper-rational future society One State, in which sexual liaisons are overseen by the government, the conflict in We is precipitated by a moment of illicit flirtation, and the principal transgression upon which the plot later hangs is an unlicensed pregnancy.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, fetuses gestate in artificial wombs and are raised by the state. Here, too, an illegal pregnancy is a major plot point, and the word “father” is an epithet. In 1984, George Orwell’s Oceania allows marriage but prohibits divorce, as well as non-procreative sex. Winston Smith’s central offense is his illegal affair with Julia, and it is her whom he must betray to restore his safety and good standing. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag’s unhappy, alienating marriage is the consequence of an illiterate, spiritually unwell society. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, infants are not raised by their biological mothers but are assigned to families—if they are not summarily euthanized. Even in the bubblegum dystopia The Hunger Games, the action commences with Katniss’s motherly intervention on her little sister’s behalf, sparing her from certain death, allowing her to continue to have a childhood.
The most influential dystopian novel of this moment is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, thanks to the Hulu miniseries adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss, previously a different sort of feminist icon in AMC’s Mad Men. In Atwood’s novel, a near-future United States is replaced by an Old-Testament Christian theonomy in which healthy young women are forced to bear children for high-status men and their infertile wives. This feature of Atwood’s world-building can’t exactly be chalked up to pure fantasy crafted in the welter of creative genius. To borrow a phrase, we’ve seen this before. In an essay for Glamour last year, Jenae Holloway writes that she is “frustrated and jealous that [her] white feminist allies are able to digest The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of a fictitious foreboding”—in other words, that the show does not strike them as it strikes her: with a sense of “déjà vu.” Holloway’s essay reminds us that an even cursory look into slavery in the Americas reveals separations of children from parents, forced adoptions, and rape as standard to the experience. Breaking up families is not simply a systematic and normalized aspect of state control; it is a requirement to maintain the system itself.
Historically, human slavery may have been a relatively limited phenomena in Atwood’s Canada; however, indigenous families were routinely shattered by administrative bodies between 1944 and 1984, including 20,000 children in the “Sixties Scoop” alone. Conventionally, the non-academic reader or viewer only associates these phenomena with science fiction when the writer works in this palette explicitly—Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred and her short story “Bloodchild” come to mind—but once one considers the potential for reverberations of chattel slavery in literary dystopias, one begins to see them everywhere: in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” wherein a teenage übermensch is taken from his parents, who later witness his televised execution; in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where citizens of an agrarian community cannot protect their spouses or children from ritualized public execution; and most obviously Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which depicts a perfect society enabled by the unending agony of a single imprisoned, tortured child.
None of this is to say that participation in a family is categorically “natural,” or what legitimizes one’s existence. The world has more than enough space for people who abstain from family-making. Nor does this observation require us to attempt to define what a family is. What is important is to note that our most successful, compelling, and enduring literary dystopias consistently present antagonists to the nuclear family dynamic. They create rigid legal frameworks around everything from sexual union to rearing of children. This is the dreaded commonality at the root of mainline dystopian fiction: the simple formula, “government authority > family independence.”
Whether you were raised by biological or adoptive parents, older siblings, or more distant relatives—or by a foster parent, or some other surrogate or legal guardian—what you share with the vast majority of humans is that you were once the object of a small, imperfect social unit responsible for your protection and care. This is the primary social contract, based not on law or philosophy, but on love and trust. For better and worse, our bonds to our families pre-exist and preponderate the accident of our nationality. Accepting this truth may be the first test of a legitimate state. It is the illegitimate, insecure regime that seeks to disrupt and broadly supersede the imperfect moral authority of reasonable, well-intended parents—in all of their many forms and situations.
In separating migrant families seeking amnesty, President Trump brought us into dystopia at last. It is a small comfort that he clearly knew from the outset that this action was morally untenable. He told reporters that he “hated” the policy of family separation, claiming that it was “the Democrats’ fault,” the repercussion of a do-nothing Congress. In reality, neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush separated migrant children from their parents as a standard practice. There is no law or settlement that requires detained families to be broken up, and the general legal consensus was that if Trump were being honest—if family separation had actually been an unwanted, pre-existing policy—he could have ended it, overnight, “with a phone call.”
As usual, executive dissimulation instigated bizarre performances lower down the chain of command: On June 18, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held an extraordinary press conference in which she denied the existence of an official family-separation policy while simultaneously arguing for its legitimacy. Nielsen’s denials were particularly astonishing as two months before her press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced—publicly and on camera—the instigation of family separation as a deterrent to improper border crossings. In fact, the DHS had already published guidelines explaining the system of family separation and admitted to detaining approximately 2,000 migrant children. The truth was that the institution of a heartless, zero-tolerance border policy was a calculated effort led by administration strategist Stephen Miller, who was also a key architect of the travel ban in 2017. Writing for The Atlantic, McKay Koppins characterizes Miller’s push for this policy as overtly xenophobic and intentionally inhumane, designed to appeal to Trump’s base while also sowing chaos among his opponents.
To our nation’s credit, outrage was abundant and came from all corners. Evangelist Franklin Graham said that family separation was “disgraceful.” Laura Bush wrote that the policy was “cruel” and that it broke her heart. Even former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci described the policy as “inhumane” and “atrocious.” Governors from eight states announced they would withdraw or deny National Guard troops previously promised to help secure the Southwest border. Even Ivanka Trump, who has yet to be accused of hypersensitivity, allegedly asked her father to change course on family separations at the border. Condemnation also came from both houses of Congress, with Senate Republicans vowing to end family separations if Trump did not. On June 20, after repeatedly claiming that only Congress could end family separations at the border, Trump reversed course, signing an executive order that would ostensibly keep migrant families together during future detentions. Technically, this order allowed family separations to continue as a discretionary practice, until the ACLU brought a lawsuit before Judge Dana Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego, who issued an injunction that temporarily halted family separations and required all separated migrant children be reunited with their parents within 30 days—a requirement that was not met.
As far as steps down a slippery slope toward totalitarianism go, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border policy has been significant. Nearly 3,000 migrant children were traumatically separated from their parents, with some flown across the country. In Texas, children were routed to a detention facility in a converted Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville and a tent-city detention center near the border station in Tornillo—where summertime temperatures regularly approach 100 F. Some migrant children and babies were kept in cages—a term the administration resisted but could not deny, just as the smiling image of Donald Trump in the converted Walmart cannot be reasonably considered anything other than gloating propaganda.
For many migrants, significant emotional and psychological damage has already been done. Recently, dozens of female migrants in a Seattle-area detention facility were separated from their children, having to endure hearing them crying through the walls. One such detainee informed U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal that she told a Border Patrol agent she wanted to see her children, to which the agent replied, “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here.” That same week, a Honduran man named Marco Antonio Muñoz, who had been separated from his wife and toddler after crossing the Southwest border, hanged himself in his Texas holding cell.
Not only has the executive branch of this government launched an assault on the dignity and sanctity of the family; they have simultaneously begun work to erode the permanence of citizenship, through a process of “denaturalization”—an action not attempted since the paranoid 1950s of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. This would transfer the authority to strip citizenship from the court system to law enforcement agencies, such as DHS, or ICE, who would presumably go looking for naturalized Americans who may have misrepresented themselves in some way during their application for citizenship. This situation would subject naturalized citizens to the paranoia and potential exploitation of an East German-like police state, in which they are under warrantless surveillance, threatened by informants, and potentially expugnable for nothing more heinous than a paperwork error. Simultaneously, conservatives such as Tucker Carlson have argued for a referendum on birthright citizenship, the foundation of the equality Americans purport to enjoy. This fits with the administration’s pattern of using diverse methodologies to thwart and rescind legal and illegal residency alike, in what has increasingly come to look like a new front in the multi-pronged effort to alter the racial and cultural demographics of the electorate. This, too, conforms to the genre of dystopia: the existence of a large and oppressed underclass living adjacent to privileged elites, who are sometimes floored to learn that not everyone perceives the status quo as the next-best thing to a true utopia.
If given even tacit approval, policies like separating families at the border will lead to an open season on immigrants—legal residents and undocumented migrants alike—as well as millions of other natural and naturalized citizens who are not both white and perfectly fluent in English. We will see an emboldened expansion of unconstitutional checkpoints at places like airports and bus depots. We will see the normalization of racial profiling. Our children will see their friends taken out of school without warning. They will be disappeared.
But if we’ve read our dystopian literature, we are prepared. To a degree, we are insulated. We can understand this moment in history, and how comforting it must feel to curl up inside the illusory sense of security offered by an impenetrable border, or a leader who boldly intones our weaker ideas and more shameful suspicions, or some fatuous, utopian aphorism about making a nation great again. We will remind ourselves and each other what is at stake. We will remember that the only thing we need to know about utopia is that nobody actually lives there.
Image: Flickr/Karen Roe
M. Ryan Calo is a residential fellow at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet & Society. He frequently appears in radio, press, and online to discuss new technology.Everyone knows Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. First published in 1953, Bradbury imagined a world in which government “firemen” could enter your home at any time and burn your books “for the good of humanity.” This deeply dystopic vision has, thankfully, not come to pass. Nor could it. In the U.S., the First and Fourth Amendments project against unreasonable government intrusion, especially where it implicates ideas. The state will never be able to enter your house and burn your books, even in an age of terrorism. I really believe that.That’s why I was so disturbed to learn that Amazon has managed to “burn” two other famous dystopias, these ones by George Orwell, without implicating the Constitution. According to reports, people who had purchased Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm for the Kindle woke up to find that Amazon had erased the ebooks remotely.Jonathan Zittrain has warned about this phenomenon – which he calls “software as service” – wherein people no longer own what they buy. Digital products become evolving and hence unstable services that a company may alter or even destroy at whim. Like many things that happen first on the Internet, the death of ownership is also happening offline, as when car dealers leave GPS devices in vehicles so as to make it easier to repossess the vehicles later.Ebooks evoke dystopian novels in a second way. It is rapidly becoming impossible to peruse or buy a book without leaving a digital trail. Law enforcement has already reportedly asked Amazon to hand over customer purchase history; it is a matter of time before the government approaches Google Book Search. It is no accident that common to practically every dystopian novel is the abrogation of privacy. This is clearly true of Bradbury and Orwell. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the buildings are all made of transparent glass. In Huxley’s Brave New World, the biggest taboo is solitude. Bernard Marx tells us that an aversion to being alone is, of all state messages, repeated the most times during sleep conditioning.I don’t mean to overstate. In many ways we live in a historic zenith of freedom. And Amazon zapping books for business reasons is a far cry from state sanctioned book burning. But we nevertheless must get a handle on the issues of ownership and privacy that ebooks raise, lest we wake up one day to find they have disappeared.