Whose Dystopia Is It, Anyway?

The Handmaid's Tale feels more plausible than ever, but with the right-wing media in free-fall, the path to getting there feels rockier than it did.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Courtesy of Hulu)

Donald Trump changed everything, but one axiom remains true: The president of the United States is a mendacious liar who should never be trusted.

It’s not just liberals and Chris Christie who have grounds for thinking so. From his once-bellicose stance toward China to his guarantee of “renegotiating” NATO and NAFTA to his assurances that he’d “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption, Trump has reneged on a number of campaign promises directed at the downwardly mobile white Americans whose votes boosted him to that narrow victory on technical grounds he’s still bragging about. Even on the causes that absolutely no one should celebrate — the Muslim ban, Obamacare repeal — the president grossly over-promised and under-delivered. And it’s the people who cheered him on who ought to feel the most betrayed.

After 100 days of face-palms, we haven’t lurched toward dystopia in quite the ways we were promised. We certainly aren’t on the path toward a militarized theocracy that forbids women to read or hold property, as in the book (and now TV show) The Handmaid’s Tale. White supremacists online might be the most disappointed Trump fans. (So many sad Pepes after the GOP failed to defund Planned Parenthood Sunday night!) But the laws of political physics that govern our new alternate reality never behave quite as we expect. Among his core supporters, the president remains hugely popular, with almost 90 percent of Republicans experiencing no apparent buyer’s remorse. That’s dizzying on the merits — seriously, what’s it gonna take, people? — but it’s all the more remarkable given the other phenomenon afflicting our alternate reality: the ongoing collapse of right-wing media.

It’s been swift, and it’s been severe. Glenn Beck and former protégé Tomi Lahren went to war after Beck’s outlet The Blaze fired her, ostensibly for her tepid support of reproductive rights. Milo Yiannopoulos was brought down not by a blizzard of snowflakes, but by offending conservatives with his arch, winking defense of pederasty. Alt-right grandaddy Alex Jones was humiliated in a messy child-custody battle when his lawyer, using a last-ditch attempt to grant his client some semblance of parental visitation rights, claimed the virulently insane Jones is merely “playing a character.” Even the fearless Ann Coulter couldn’t muster the energy to taunt Berkeley over the weekend, and ended up hosting a rally for the faithful in the right-wing cocoon that is Modesto.

But the biggest fall from grace was that of serial sexual harasser Bill O’Reilly, and the timing was no coincidence. It took a number of lawsuits and a damning New York Times exposé to pry him loose after 20 years of railing against secular progressives and mollycoddled nincompoops. If less high-profile, the subsequent ouster of long-time Fox executive Bill Shine was no less significant. Right-wing luminary Sean Hannity said Shine’s leaving would be the end of Fox News, although he swatted down rumors that he, too, might slither toward the door.

Fox News is still reeling from last year’s loss of its paranoid, ass-grabbing CEO Roger Ailes. Meanwhile, a proxy war between Rupert Murdoch’s two sons, James and Lachlan, appears to be shifting the overall structure of parent company News Corp. away from tabloid sensationalism that riles up retirees. (They don’t want Fox News to become the Nickelodeon for seniors, left on in nursing homes to keep the residents placid.) Trump rails all the time against the “failing New York Times,” but it’s Fox News that’s disintegrating.

Even if one writes off all these incidents as merely battles among big egos, there’s one glaring incident that’s all about institutions: The Standing Committee of Correspondents’ refusal to grant Breitbart News press credentials to cover Congress. That wasn’t because Breitbart’s rampant sexism was too offensive for them even to report on Ted Cruz — it was because the company cross-promotes its own editors’ outside commercial endeavors. In other words, it’s because Breitbart is fake news.

Perversely, the one place where the right-wing has advanced and not retracted might be The New York Times itself — or sort of. Witness the mass outcry when its newest op-ed columnist, the warmed-over neocon Bret Stephens, wrote a dubious defense of climate skepticism that amounted to little more than “What is knowledge, really? What do we even, like, know?” That made even Marco Rubio’s “I’m not a scientist, man,” dodge look noble.

In a sense, it’s not surprising. Republicans are very good at winning elections, but terrible at governing. Repealing Obamacare was a raison d’etre for the right for more than six years, yet not once during the dozens of entirely symbolic votes to repeal it did anyone in the GOP leadership consider what would happen when they brought such a bill to the desk of a president who wouldn’t veto it. The same goes for right-wing media, always eager to play victim and wholly unaccustomed to accountability. The conservative echo chamber excelled at convincing people that Barack Obama is a Muslim, but they can’t shepherd the undoing of his signature legislation.

At the same time, we have Hulu’s take on Margaret Atwood’s speculative-fiction classic, The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in a near-future when terrorists have overthrown the government and installed a military dictatorship vaguely rooted in Old Testament moral precepts, its first three episodes depict a mode of oppression that hasn’t felt this plausible since the book was written in 1985.

On the show, women can’t own property, vote, or read. Their names are erased. Lesbians are banished to “the colonies” to clean up toxic waste, and only the rich and the fertile have any semblance of status. This is all done in the name of security and order, the same creepily ordinary-sounding values that normalized the vicious discourse surrounding our current xenophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria.

But in real life, we’re only where we are because of a decades-long campaign of misinformation designed to whip up white resentment against phantom threats. That took discipline and coordination. Under a power-hungry authoritarian president who wants to rewrite the First Amendment, it’s hard not to feel like we’re one terrorist attack — or North Korean provocation — away from the total suspension of civil liberties. But the vast apparatus of lies and distortions that aided and abetted the rise of Donald Trump is crumbling more quickly than the retail sector. Meanwhile, the institutions of the left, from the Times to the ACLU to our ability to get out and make noise, appear to be holding.

Not to gloss over the frightening erosion of constitutional democracy in America, but right now, the most dystopian vision appears to be the future of right-wing media.

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