by Richard King
I'll say one thing for the Cheeto Jesus: he's done wonders for the journalistic trade in specious literary comparisons. In the year or so since Donald Trump became the GOP's presidential nominee, I must have read hundreds of articles comparing his rise and behaviour in office to dystopias and alternative histories such as Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. It's almost as if this presidency comes with its own reading list. “Okay guys, that's it for today. Next week we're going to look at Orwell, so please bring your copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four …”
I mean, it's all a bit predictable, this stuff about novels predicting Trump. It's the kind of thing a weekend editor, under orders to go “behind” the headlines, is almost duty-bound to publish. But now we are offered another novel with which to dissect the current regime, and this one seems to have set the minds and hearts of the commentariat racing. I refer of course to Margaret Atwood's dystopia The Handmaid's Tale (1985), which imagines a United States under ruthless puritanical rule, subject to a religious caste system, and officially misogynistic, homophobic and cruel. Yes, apparently Donald Trump – Trump the bumptious billionaire; Trump the carrot-coloured conman; Trump the very essence of late capitalist trash – is now to be seriously and solemnly compared to a council of puritanical commanders who enforce gender conformity through the barrel of a gun and punish deviations from it through the bowline of a rope. Seriously? Apparently.
As I probably don't need to tell 3QD readers, the occasion for this outbreak of It Can Happen Here-ism is the recent adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale for the subscription video-on-demand service Hulu. Starring the excellent Elisabeth Moss, whose stints as a Democratic president's daughter and a young, determined secretary in the world of 1960s advertising have forever endeared her to progressive viewers, this adaptation has proven hugely popular with critics and TV audiences alike, gaining scores of 100% and 93% (from critics and audience, respectively) on the review-aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. It has thirteen Emmy nominations, and has sent sales of Atwood's novel through the roof. It's even popped up in a speech by Hillary Clinton, who now has lots of time to watch TV.
And good luck to it, too. Like my fellow Aussie Elle Hardy, I have a few issues with the Hulu production, but there's no doubt Moss turns in a great performance as the novel's eponymous handmaid, Offred, and that her on-screen struggle with Yvonne Strahovski, who plays the sadistic Serena Joy, is affecting and believable. There's no question that Hulu's Handmaid is well made. The question is whether it's prescient – whether Gilead is to Trumpland as Oceania is to North Korea. And on that I have to differ, strenuously, with many of my Grub Street colleagues.
True, there have been some significant victories for the religious right in recent months. The appointment of Mike Pence as vice president, for example, is a source of no small anxiety to those of us who think the Earth came into being about four and a half billion years ago and that life on it evolved according to a process of natural selection and evolution, and not according to the whims and fancies of a Sky-Daddy tinkering in His cosmic shed. Moreover Trump's garbled and cynical adoption of a pro-life position in the election campaign, his reinstatement of the “global gag rule” and attacks on family planning services are of deep concern to pro-choice advocates, and to a great many women in the US and beyond. These things need to be opposed, and it was both striking and witty when Planned Parenthood and its analogues began to protest these illiberal moves in scarlet cloaks and stiff white habits – the designated uniform of Atwood's handmaids, whose fertility has been co-opted by the state. I have no problem – no problem at all – with calling out the Pussy-Grabber in Chief on these and other encroachments on women's rights, and making the best of such cultural memes as come to hand to drive the point home.
But is it really true to say, as countless reviewers and commentators have, that Atwood's book is more relevant than ever – a nightmare into which we are about to awake? The suggestion sounds preposterous on its face, and yet that has been the tone of many, if not most, of the pieces to have been published on the subject. We are told of “frightening parallels” (Hollywood Reporter) and invited to regard Hulu's adaptation as “especially current, cutting, and vital” (Vanity Fair), as “an entirely possible preview of what's to come” (Entertainment Weekly), as “cautionary, and more than urgent” (Wall Street Journal), even as bordering on “too relevant” (Deadline Hollywood). Rebecca Traister, writing in The Cut, sees Gilead at every turn – in a lawyer's description of women as “hosts”, in the reading of the Lord's prayer at a Trump rally, in Mitch McConnell's Senate run-in with Elizabeth Warren – while Jessica Valenti, writing in The Guardian, muses on the deep misogyny of modern society and how it chimes with Atwood's vision: “It isn't just that we can't trust the government to treat us as full human beings – it's that oftentimes we don't know if we can trust the men in our lives, either.” “Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too” wrote Sarah Jones in The New Republic. That claim did raise one or two eyebrows.
But not many, and even Margaret Atwood, whose eyebrows are well known for their quizzicality, saw fit to describe Hulu's adaptation of her novel as a “documentary” on Trump's America. Possibly she was thinking in part of the royalties that are sure to flow from the ten-program series, and there's nothing wrong at all with that. But still. I mean, come on …
So what, sisters and brothers, is going on? How does a novel from the Reagan era written in the shadow of Cold-War “deterrence” and family-first conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly come to be associated with the gaudy illiberalism of Donald Trump? And what does such a comparison tell us about the kind of people that make it?
One of the things it tells us is that the Hulu adaptation is in many ways a conscious intervention in contemporary US politics. In all key respects the series is faithful to Atwood's original dystopian vision, including the bible-inspired ceremony in which the commanders rape and attempt to impregnate their handmaids in the presence of their wives. But the action of the story has been updated. In the many flashbacks that pepper the series, and at some times threaten to overwhelm it, it's made clear that Gilead is in our future – that the women and so-called “gender traitors” suffering at the hands of the Gilead regime are the contemporaries of Lil Wayne, not Live Aid. The main characters have Tinder accounts and complicated coffee preferences, and this serves as an open invitation to the more suggestible, excitable viewer – perhaps buzzing from a tall non-fat latte with an extra shot and caramel drizzle – to compare the degradations of Trump to the commander and his sinister circle. (It also serves, as Hardy argues, to unbalance the show dramatically, in that the regime still relies, as it does in the novel, on spooks and heavily armed police to keep the population in order, and not on the mass surveillance techniques that would surely be employed in such a scenario.)
So, yes, that's part of it. But my sense is that the asserted “relevance” of Atwood's 1980s dystopia, the adaptation of which was commissioned before Trump got his little hands on the codes, is founded on a narrow and wrongheaded understanding of what the new administration represents, the historical forces out of which it arises, and what it is likely to lead to in the future. As both Jessa Crispin and Helen Razer have suggested, the debate reveals the nature and limits of contemporary liberalism. It is the thought-reflex of a knowledge class whose power is suddenly under question, not always for idiotic reasons.
The point is of fundamental importance to our current, and changing, political landscape. Out of the great transition from a largely industrial to a largely post-industrial economy has emerged a very different pattern of class, which is in turn falling out into a very different pattern of political affiliation. As Thomas Frank has shown in Listen, Liberal, the winners from that epochal change are now at the heart of the Democratic establishment and the liberal milieu more generally: knowledge-class professionals (academics, journalists, policy and culture producers) whose politics is less and less about issues of material redistribution and justice and more and more about issues of identity, gender, sexuality etc. Their politics is rights-based, abstract, global, and often quite alien to many of the people whose lives and livelihoods have taken a hammering from off-shoring, precarity, financialisation, debt, and all the other goodies we associate with neoliberal globalisation. Those are the people who switched to the Republicans and they did so for a number of reasons: xenophobia and misogyny, in part, but also exasperation with a consensus that has consigned them, and their life-worlds, to history's dustbin. They were voting against a “centre” that no longer holds, or no longer holds their loyalty, having turned its back on them long ago.
The rejection of so-called “political correctness” – by which Trump and his drongos seem to mean respect for women and disabled people, and not treating people from foreign countries like something you found on the sole of your Gucci – is a part of that political earthquake: in rejecting the technocratic centre many voters have rejected too the rights-speak with which it congratulates itself on its inclusivity, diversity, and all-round niceness. But to imagine that it was the central thing – that what Trump and his politics bring into prospect is some kind of genocidal assault on the rights of women and LGBTI people – is to miss the point all over again, which is that a liberalism that allows people's wages to stagnate while making nice noises about inclusivity is a liberalism, comrades, that ain't gonna last. Yes, the “alt-right” trolls are disgusting; yes, the president is disgusting. And a tax-cheat and a fricken moron. But these people are now on top of the pile, not because they channelled a deep, elitist hatred of women and gays, but because they challenged, or affected to challenge, an essentially liberal status quo that combines a socially progressive ethos with an embrace of neoliberal capitalism – emphases far more compatible than some on the left would like to believe. The idea that a near-future US regime would adopt as its organising principle the subjugation of women and gays thus strikes me as preposterous. There is more truth, frankly, in the dystopian visions of Snowpiercer and The Hunger Games – movies the writers and makers of which intuit that the great divide of our time – the divide that is deepening and likely to deepen further – is the divide between the rich and the poor, and who tend to draw their ruling castes as wealthy, buff, and sexually free.
In the characterisation of Hulu's Handmaid as “cautionary” or “frightening” or “relevant”, then, we hear an echo of those who could only think of the (sizeable) female vote for Trump in terms of “internalised misogyny” and who dismissed the insurgency of Bernie Sanders as a testosterone-fuelled tantrum, as “brocialism“. It is a politics that, to paraphrase Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, looks at the new historical reality and reflexively translates it back into an old one, much as a person learning a new language translates it back into the one he knows. It is the sound of the knowledge class consoling itself that it, and only it, has the answer to the rise and rise of the populist right, and that the “resistance” must necessarily channel the decades of identity politics on which Clinton failed so spectacularly to cash in. In short, it's a form of political narcissism.
Which assertion probably won't endear me to the many lovely people I know who think that Hulu's Handmaid is a smash, the best thing since barista coffee. Nor will it console the transgender men and women who've just been informed – via fricken Twitter! – that they're no longer welcome in the US military. But I'm convinced that if progressives continue to treat the crisis of Trump and his analogues as a manifestation of brute intolerance, and not a crisis for which the liberal establishment bears as much responsibility as anyone, the crisis will deepen, and deepen quickly. Remember that Orwell's key imperative was to look unpleasant facts in the face.
Now who's seen Game of Thrones?
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