Dystopic déjà vu: Trump and the resurgence of cataclysmic classics


They’re back. Once immensely popular, classics of dystopian fiction have seen a significant resurgence on bookstore shelves and online orders – particularly in the months that followed the election of U.S. President Donald Trump last fall.

Since November, George Orwell’s classic, 1984, a book in which thought is suppressed under totalitarian rule, saw a 9,500 per cent sales increase, topping Amazon’s bestseller list and necessitating at least two publisher reprints. Other classic dystopian novels, including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, have seen a similar resurgence in popularity.

What does the renaissance of these old dystopic stories tell us about current times? And what can today’s readers gain from these narratives?

For one, the dystopic narrative is as old as America, said English and Writing Studies professor Bryce Traister, who has taught courses in American Studies in the past.

“One reason the dystopic narrative is a popular genre south of the border has something at least to do with this history of America as this quest for a (Puritan) religious utopia. The problem with searching for utopia – and there are a number of things – is you set your ambition really high, if you are striving for this perfect place and social structure to call your own,” said Traister, who is originally from California.

“If you don’t get there – and of course, you never do – the kind of experience of failure and disappointment is that much more palpable. The dystopic imagination is the expression of that sense of failure, of not finding the perfect union.”

And while dystopian narratives don’t owe their popularity to Trump, it’s this sense of a failed utopia that Trump has capitalized on in his campaign. This might explain why these types of books have resurfaced in large quantities on bookstore shelves in recent months.

“The trend in the output of dystopic narratives preceded the rise of Donald Trump; it’s been around a lot longer, which is to say Trump is a symptom of a wider sense of malaise, a sense of America having lost its purpose,” Traister noted.

“The whole slogan of the Trump campaign – Make America Great Again – is premised on the idea of the United States being the most perfect nation in the world, and that it used to be (perfect) and now it isn’t, and that a vote for Trump means a vote for a vision of regaining that ‘City on the Hill,’” he continued.

Trump’s America is much closer to a dystopic state today, Traister added, and this is part of his argument and part of his appeal. The dystopic novel is both a reflection and a critique of that attitude, he explained. The longer one stays in the utopic state depicted in these narratives, the more apparent problems become.

“Most dystopic narratives are critical of the authoritarian personality, and critical of the idea if you follow an authoritarian leader, you will be able to realize your dreams of a perfect state,” Traister said.

Trump’s echoing messages of the Cold War could also have something to do with the recent popularity of dystopic novels, he added.

“People have said of the Trump presidency that he wants to bring back the America of 1957, which for a certain generation of Americans, was a kind of pinnacle of American civilization. A lot of that was organized around the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, and the rise of communism – itself a utopian movement,” Traister explained.

“In the critique of the Soviet Union, what was constantly being revealed was the dystopic interior of the Soviet Union – Stalinism, Leninism, tyranny and so on. A great deal of the American response to that particular version of utopia was to point out how much of a failure it was, and how the United States was a great alternative to it. What Trump (is doing) is recycling that story of the Cold War as the best expression of his ambition to Make America Great Again – to basically win the Cold War, all over again.”

What’s interesting to note about the types of dystopic narratives that have resurfaced since the election of Trump is, unlike some dystopian fiction, they offer no hope, added Miranda Green-Barteet, who is jointly appointed in the Departments of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and English and Writing Studies.

Dystopic fiction, particularly for young adults, was immensely popular in recent years, she said. Think of The Hunger Games and Twilight series. While these books flew off the shelves a few years ago, they aren’t joining the more pessimistic ranks of Orwell and Atwood’s texts.

“There is an implicit message in YA (young adult) literature of hope – there is no hope in 1984 and there is no hope in The Handmaid’s Tale. That’s important to take into context. YA literature doesn’t necessarily have happy endings, but the endings are hopeful,” said Green-Barteet, who has taught a course in YA dystopic fiction.

“It is a particularly distressing period (in the United States) now. With these books, instead of art imitating life, it’s life imitating art. And in some ways, people are turning to books, perhaps, in an attempt to make sense of it. Unfortunately, they’re not going to get much. These books aren’t hopeful; they’re not inspirational,” she added.

“I actually think people are going to the wrong dystopian novel. 1984 has gone through at least two printings since Trump was elected. But I think Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower has more to teach us about the kind of world that Trump envisions, especially if we pay attention to his emphasis on privatization and his tendency to corporatize everything.”