America’s slow, scary transformation into “The Handmaid’s Tale”

By Joe Berkowitz

Godwin’s Rule, coined in 1990, submits that the longer any topic is discussed online, the more likely it is that someone will invoke comparisons to Hitler. It’s a rule lately cited to dismiss claims of encroaching fascism as merely the inevitable overreaction of so many Chickens Little. Of course, the creator of Godwin’s Rule himself weighed in last August, following Donald Trump’s failure to denounce a lethal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, and confirmed that his rule does not apply to the current administration.



On Tuesday, however, CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter offered another comparison-point that alarmists would do well to abandon: The Handmaid’s Tale. While in my opinion, the only book that should be retired from comparisons to the Trump era is Harry Potter, Stelter’s beef is with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian touchstone. After author Amy Siskind tweeted that the presence of aggressive border patrol agents in New Hampshire and Maine are a sign that we’re “a few steps from The Handmaid’s Tale,” he responded: “We are not ‘a few steps from The Handmaids Tale.’ I don’t think this kind of fear-mongering helps anybody.”

His tweet was quickly ratio’d to shit, with droves of women explaining the absurdity of a man deciding that Atwood’s famously reality-based female subjugation opus was the stuff of outlandish fantasy. Lucky for those women, strictly in terms of this argument, everything else that happened during this hellish week made Siskind’s assessment feel especially prescient.

Stetler’s decree, which he soon doubled down on, already felt null and void when the Supreme Court decided that very same day to back anti-abortion pregnancy centers’ right to lie to women. (It was also the same day SCOTUS upheld Trump’s Muslim-oriented travel ban.) The following day, however, was one many had been dreading since the 2016 election: It was when Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his impending retirement. The swing-voting conservative justice’s replacement by someone more in the Gorsuch mold is bad news for everyone left-of-center, but it’s especially bad news for women. Donald Trump, who appears to make decisions based on whatever will hurt his ideological opposites the most, long ago promised to appoint a judge who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Soon after Kennedy’s announcement, SCOTUS expert Jeffrey Toobin predicted that within 18 months, abortion will be illegal in 20 states.

By Thursday, as acceptance set in, the mood in America felt particularly more Gilead-like: There would be no way for Democrats to block Trump’s SCOTUS appointment, the way Mitch McConnell blocked Obama’s. Later in the day, however, things somehow took a turn for the worse. A shooter opened fire on the newsroom of the Capital newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, killing five people. While Americans have gotten tragically used to mass shootings on school campuses and in public places, this was something new–with dark new implications.

Donald Trump has an antagonistic relationship with the free press. Any outlet that accurately covers his vast array of misdeeds and fuckups is dismissed as either “fake news” or unfair. (The sycophants at Fox News, meanwhile, get top marks.) Trump even declared the media America’s “biggest enemy” recently, after his glorified photo-op with Kim Jong-un earned a lackluster press response. That rhetorical escalation lingered in the air as everybody waited to find out the shooter’s motive on Thursday. All I could think about, though, was a scene from a TV show: a woman happening upon what remains of the Boston Globe newsroom, where a bunch of reporters were executed by a far-right regime. It was a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale.


Eventually, it turned out that the shooter’s motive was unrelated to Trump’s ongoing war with the media. At first I felt a little guilty for projecting that motive onto him. I was doing Fox News’s work for them! However, I was soon relieved of any sense of wrongful inference when I saw how some of Trump’s biggest fans were celebrating the shooting as some kind of victory.

Sure, the people who frequent The_Donald subreddit don’t represent all of Trump’s followers, but they’re not to be discounted. Neither are the legions of random Twitterers making death threats against reporters. And neither is former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who recently commented, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” In the aftermath of the Capital shooting, Yiannopoulos claimed his comment had been a joke, but that’s the problem with being an ironic Nazi: Nobody can tell the difference.

The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t happen overnight. Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn’t happen overnight. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution didn’t happen overnight. It’s a slow, incremental slide, soundtracked by the people who guide and abet it denying what’s happening. America’s slide into fascism may have begun before Trump got elected, but the descent ever since has been rapid. The only thing preventing us from continuing it is paying close attention to what has happened before elsewhere and calling it out when we see it happening here. It should be perfectly fine if one of those places is fact-based dystopian fiction.

It might seem alarmist, but in an America where women’s bodily autonomy hangs in serious jeopardy, the president’s fans embrace the concept of murdering the press, and dissent looks increasingly headed toward becoming illegal, being alarmist is merely a means of survival.



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