Octavia Butler’s 1998 Dystopian Novel Features a Fascistic Presidential Candidate Who Promises to “Make America Great Again”


Image by Niko­las Couk­ouma, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

The Inter­net has been abuzz and atwit­ter these past few months with sto­ries about prophet­ic pre­dic­tions of the rise of Trump, buried in ancient texts like Back to the Future II, and an episode of The Simp­sons from 2000. Then there’s Mike Judge’s now ten-year-old satire Idioc­ra­cy. While not specif­i­cal­ly mod­eled after a Trump pres­i­den­cy, its depic­tion of the coun­try as a vio­lent, back­ward dystopia, armed and cor­po­rate-brand­ed to the teeth, sure does resem­ble the kind of place many imag­ine Trump and his sup­port­ers might build. These allu­sions and direct ref­er­ences don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly pro­vide evi­dence of the writ­ers’ clair­voy­ance; after all, Trump has threat­ened us with his can­di­da­cy since 1988, with most­ly unse­ri­ous state­ments. But they do show us that we’ve seen this ver­sion of the future com­ing for the last thir­ty years or so.

One pre­dic­tion you may have missed, how­ev­er, offers us a much more sober take on the rise of a fright­en­ing neo-fas­cist dur­ing a time of fear and civ­il unrest. As Twit­ter user @oligopistos point­ed out, in the sec­ond book of her Earth­seed series, The Para­ble of the Tal­ents (1998), Hugo and Neb­u­la-award win­ning sci­ence fic­tion writer Octavia But­ler gave us Sen­a­tor Andrew Steele Jar­ret, a vio­lent auto­crat in the year 2032 whose “sup­port­ers have been known… to form mobs.” Jarret’s polit­i­cal oppo­nent, Vice Pres­i­dent Edward Jay Smith, “calls him a dem­a­gogue, a rab­ble-rouser, and a hyp­ocrite,” and—most presciently—Jarret ral­lies his crowds with the call to “make Amer­i­ca great again.”

butler tweet
Though Trump has trade­marked it, the slo­gan did not orig­i­nate with him, nor even with Butler’s Jar­ret character—the 1980 Rea­gan-Bush cam­paign used it, as Matt Taib­bi point­ed out Rolling Stone last year. (His­to­ri­ans have even shown that anoth­er of Trump’s slo­gans, “Amer­i­ca First,” was used by Charles Lind­bergh and “Nazi-friend­ly Amer­i­cans in the 1930s.”) Again, pro­to-Trump­ism has been in the zeit­geist for a long time. While But­ler may have used “Make Amer­i­can Great Again” from her mem­o­ry of Rea­gan’s first cam­paign, the way her char­ac­ter employs it speaks to our moment for a num­ber of rea­sons.

It’s true that Sen­a­tor Jar­ret dif­fers from Trump in some sig­nif­i­cant ways: “Jarret’s beef is with Cana­da instead of Mex­i­co,” writes Fusion, and “instead of busi­ness acu­men as his main cre­den­tial, reli­gion is Jarret’s stump. He’s the head of a group called Chris­t­ian Amer­i­ca, which is intol­er­ant of oth­er reli­gious views, and whose sup­port­ers burn ‘witches’—meaning Mus­lims, Jews, Hin­dus and Buddhists—at the stake.” Our cur­rent can­di­date may have co-opt­ed the reli­gious right, but he doesn’t speak their lan­guage at all. Nonethe­less, he has made promis­es that give sec­u­lar­ists and non-Chris­tians chills, and reli­gious intol­er­ance has formed the back­bone of his cam­paign and of the rhetoric that has dri­ven his par­ty to the far right.

Jar­ret and the fanati­cism he inspires become cen­tral the nov­el­’s sto­ry, but the cru­cial back­ground in Butler’s 1998 depic­tion of a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic 2032 are the con­di­tions she iden­ti­fies as giv­ing rise to the Sen­a­tor’s rule (and which she described in the first book, Para­ble of the Sow­er). In Tal­ents, the narrator’s father Tay­lor Franklin Bankole writes,

I have read that the peri­od of upheaval that jour­nal­ists have begun to refer to as “the Apoc­a­lypse” or more com­mon­ly, more bit­ter­ly, “the Pox” last­ed from 2015 through 2030—a decade and a half of chaos…. I have also read that the Pox was caused by acci­den­tal­ly coin­cid­ing cli­mat­ic, eco­nom­ic, and soci­o­log­i­cal crises. It would be more hon­est to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvi­ous prob­lems in those areas. We caused the prob­lems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises.

In Butler’s fic­tion, the rise of Sen­a­tor Jar­ret and his mobs is an out­come of the same kinds of impend­ing crises we face now, and that far too many of our lead­ers duti­ful­ly ignore as they stage increas­ing­ly acri­mo­nious and bizarre forms of polit­i­cal the­ater. Butler’s indi­rect warn­ing to us in Para­ble of the Tal­ents may be less about the dem­a­gog­ic leader and his cult—though they pose the most dire exis­ten­tial threat in the book—than about the caus­es and con­di­tions that cre­at­ed “the Pox,” the kind of social col­lapse that Kurt Von­negut warned of ten years before But­ler in his time-cap­sule let­ter to the peo­ple of 2088, vague­ly iden­ti­fy­ing sim­i­lar kinds of “cli­mat­ic, eco­nom­ic, and soci­o­log­i­cal” crises to come. Would that we could aban­don emp­ty spec­ta­cle and heed these Cas­san­dras of the near future.

via The Huff­in­g­ton Post

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1988, Kurt Von­negut Writes a Let­ter to Peo­ple Liv­ing in 2088, Giv­ing 7 Pieces of Advice

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts in 1964 What the World Will Look Like Today

Noam Chom­sky on Whether the Rise of Trump Resem­bles the Rise of Fas­cism in 1930s Ger­many

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Nathan Hardy says:

    Please try and refrain from re-link­ing the trite drib­ble that comes from hyper­bol­ic opin­ion diaries. I enjoy Open Cul­ture dai­ly in order to avoid the tem­po­rary cor­re­la­tions that have become so glar­ing­ly pre­dictable as to lose all nov­el­ty.

    Mr. Jones, you are cross­ing into the super­sti­tious land of con­fir­ma­tion bias.


  • Josh Jones says:

    Thanks for shar­ing your thoughts, Mr. Hardy!

  • A. says:

    Thank you for draw­ing these con­nec­tions.

  • sth_txs says:

    Only an idiot could call Trump a fas­cist when we already have many aspects of fas­cism in place already. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment buys infor­ma­tion col­lect­ed by pri­vate com­pa­nies. The IRS can seize your account any­time with­out any due process. Try not pay­ing your prop­er­ty tax­es and find out who owns your prop­er­ty. Look at the effort to reg­is­ter gun own­ers. The com­put­er dri­ven col­lec­tion sys­tem would have de Fuhrer and Uncle Joe green with envy.

  • Gary Denton says:

    Robert A. Hein­lein beat her to it — Nehemi­ah Scud­der, “If This Goes On”


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