The United States of Dystopia

by Edwin van Meerkerk

French
philosopher Jean Baudrillard once described America as Europe’s ‘future
catastrophe
’.
With the election of Donald Trump, this description aptly describes the feeling
of many Europeans, especially where new elections are due and populist
candidates appear strong in the polls. Baudrillard is known for his
introduction of the notion of the simulacrum,
the sign without reference, as emblematic for the postmodern society. In this
‘hyperreal’ world, there is no reality, only images. With a president elect who
oftentimes seems to exist mainly in and through his twitter account
@realdonaldtrump​,
the hyperreal seems to acquire a new momentum.

image

The slogan
that won Trump’s election more than anything was his assertion that he would
‘make America great again’. This expression is a direct, albeit most likely
unconscious, quotation from J.G. Ballard’s 1981 novel Hello America, in which a future president of the United States
uses the very same line. Ballard (1930-2009), whose work is
often typified as science fiction, but is better described in Margaret Atwood’s term
‘speculative fiction’, has had a love-hate relationship with America throughout
his life. His fascination with American technology (especially cars) and
celebrity cult, went hand in hand with his rejection of American politics and
media.

In Hello America, the protagonist, Wayne,
is on a quest to find his father. After a soul-searching journey through a
future America, which has turned into an uninhabitable desert due to climate
change, he ends up in Las Vegas, the only remaining city. The United States
have become the embodiment of the simulacrum: an artificial reality. Here, he
meets the new president, Charles Manson:

‘I was very
impressed by Manson. For all his weirdness, he has the old Yankee virtues. He
wants to see America great again
, and becoming president is little more than
the decoration on the cake.’

Manson, an
obvious reference to the assassin and cult leader still serving a life time
sentence
,
is a superstitious and narcissist man, who, in Wayne’s words ‘has every right
to call himself the forty-fifth President.’ (Hello America, p.140) – the number seems prophetic. Manson is
convinced that Europe is trying to break his ascent to power: ‘I see it waking
now like an old dog, smelling us here and trying to get its snout into this new
America I’ve built.’ As a response, Manson starts bombing cities on the eastern
coast of America, to create an impenetrable nuclear wasteland. Wayne naively believes
everything Manson says, despite the numerous warnings he is given.

Finally, Wayne meets
his father, the cliché mad scientist dr. Fleming, who spends most of his time building robot avatars of previous
presidents, as well as a fleet of solar power aircraft. Dr. Fleming, unlike his son Wayne,
does not believe in America any longer, wondering

‘what exactly we signify by
the term “America”. It’s an emotive symbol, Wayne, went out of
fashion in the 1980s and 1990s, somehow lost its appeal…’

America as an
emotive symbol, American power residing in Las Vegas, Charles Manson as its
president, all of whose predecessors are mere robots: it may seem a harmless joke, but
the stakes become real when Manson aims the last of the nuclear missiles at
himself, seeking to destroy his own capital. Making America ‘great again’ for him
means to utterly destroy it.

J.G.
Ballard’s view on American politics has always been quite unambiguous. This was
never as acutely expressed as in his pamphlet ‘Why I want to Fuck Ronald Reagan
(1967, also included in The Atrocity
Exhibition
, 1970),
the immediate cause for his American publisher to withdraw Ballard’s manuscripts from
distribution, and the reason why Hello
America
wasn’t published in the US until years after its initial publication date.
The pamphlet is Ballard’s reaction to Reagan’s election campaign as governor of
California in 1967. In this campaign, Reagan widely used television
advertisements and other visual campaign strategies, all of which showed a
stark contrast between the image of a friendly and benevolent candidate and the
conservative programme with which Reagan ran for office.

It seems to
be more than ironical that the next political candidate to revolutionize the use of modern media, in
this case Twitter, in a campaign that overturns the order of fact and image, is
destined to become the real 45th
president of the United States. His name is not Charles Manson, even though he,
too, claims to want to ‘make America great again’.

Photo:
collage of portraits (Reagan, Trump, Manson, Orwell, Huxley, Ballard) by author from public domain.
J.G.
Ballard ([1981] 1985) Hello America.
London: Triad/Panther.

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