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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is What Normalizing Trump Could Look Like


The resistance remains strong in these first 100 days. But as the Hulu adaptation of Atwood’s dystopic novel warns, there always remains the risk of submitting to fascism.



The first few weeks of the new administration—100 days, perhaps—passed with something approaching normalcy, though recent history suggests that the groundwork for people’s acquiescence to the changes, large and small, began years before, as many became disillusioned with the personal responsibility and possibility of failure concomitant with having choices. (Racialized fear played a role, too, as did the perception, both by those in power and by some in the grassroots, of physical insecurity driven social and religious differences.)

In the end, it took a crisis of the leaders’ own making to provide those who craved the power to “destroy all of today’s establishment” with the ability to implement their new order. But the usurpers knew that they had to start slowly; they couldn’t simply force through a series of new laws limiting people’s rights immediately without risking what would’ve been for them a catastrophic backlash.

And so, as Margaret Atwood tells in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale—which premiered as a small-screen series on Hulu this week—the men of the conservative, religious Sons of Jacob think tank, which engineered a theocratic coup against the government of the United States to form the nation of Gilead, didn’t make too many controversial moves … at first.

Oh, wait. Did you think I was talking about the Trump administration? Context, I guess, is everything.

Atwood’s novel—notwithstanding the protestations of the Hulu show’s cast and the careful phrasing of Atwood herself—has always been seen as a sort of feminist parable (if not a feminist warning about the ultimate desires of the religious right), but it’s also a sympathetic look at how easy it is to relax into fascism, at least at first, to maintain one’s own personal comfort.

In other words, as annoying as the phrasing has become to some people, it’s about how people normalize change until the unthinkable becomes the new normal. Or, in Atwood’s words, “Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will be. It will become ordinary.”

In the novel, following the assassination of the president and most members of Congress, Atwood’s narrator Offred recounts that the army blamed the violence on “Islamic fanatics,” declared a state of emergency and “temporarily” suspended the Constitution. But few people did anything to protest the coup, even in the narrator’s liberal enclave in Cambridge, Massachusetts: “People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction.”

Recall, then—if you will—the rushed efforts of Trump’s January immigration ban, which an Appeals court ruled was unconstitutional because it singled out Muslims as, in the president’s words, a way to keep out “radical Islamic terrorists” by imposing a religious test on would-be immigrants, refugees, and visitors from seven majority-Muslim nations. Here, in the absence of an immediate and direct threat, people began protesting at the nation’s international airports; it is not, however (at least for people who remember the aftermath of 9/11) difficult to imagine that, in other circumstances, even more Americans would have indeed stayed at home, glued to their televisions.

The “temporary” government of the Sons of Jacob then censored some newspapers and shuttered others (Trump has called the media “the enemy of the American people” and threatened to change libel laws in an apparent effort to ensure less unfavorable coverage) installed security checkpoints (Trump has promised to build a wall on our southern border, which would as effectively keep us in as it would keep would-be immigrants out), issued every citizen a new national identification card (Trump has reportedly had talked about this as well) and eliminated the openly functioning sex industry (Trump pledged in 2016 to consider a pornography crackdown despite his own history with Playboy, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions pledged pornography prosecutions at his confirmation hearings). The latter two met with the apparently explicit approval from the populace. The leaders promised new elections, when things settled down, and they continued to reassure everyone: “The thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual.”

Thus, people continued on as usual: They went to work, went shopping, listened to the radio, took their children to daycare. Until the day, some weeks in, when the Sons of Jacob sent out their new military forces and made it illegal for women to work or own or have access money or credit in their own name.

Notably, until 1974, it was perfectly legal to deny an American woman access to credit unless a man co-signed. Atwood’s novel, set in the not-so-distant future, came out a mere 11 years later; Offred, the 32-year-old narrator, though, seems unaware that her own mother might well have been subject to such restrictions.

(Offred’s mother likely was subject to such restrictions: The year in which the novel is set could be as early as 2015 or as late as the 2030s. Offred mentions seeing a video, implying that the event was newsworthy enough to film, while at the Rachel and Leah Center of a Take Back The Night rally featuring her young mother—the first such rally in the Boston area, which was not a campus project at its outset, was in 1978. Thus, her mom could’ve been as old as, say, 32 or as young as 18; Offred says her mom was 37 when she gave birth. Given Offred’s own age, and that her narrative was preserved on cassette tapes which are in increasingly short supply today, that suggests that today is a more likely moment for the novel to take place than ten years from now.)

Only after the restrictions on women’s access to the labor market and money did some people try to protest the new government in earnest: “There were marches, of course,” explains Offred, who avoided them herself, “a lot of women and some men. But they were smaller than you might have thought. I guess people were scared.” And, after the new government’s armed enforcers began cracking down, the protests seemingly stopped.

It’s easy, even today, to get people to attend a one-off march and call their members of Congress in protest at the beginning. But it’s unclear if you even need guns to get them to slow and then stop, if that’s your preference: You need time, and a little patience, a reliance on the human tendency to surrender to routine and comfort, their feelings of futility and numbness, plus perhaps the merest shadow of a threat to their lives as they stand currently, and most people will go about as much of their lives as they can, retreating—as the Sons of Jacob hoped—further and further into the private sphere.

They will, essentially normalize the extraordinary until it is ordinary enough to survive.

You can’t, the thinking goes, protest all the time (at least, in the absence of personalized funding from George Soros). We’ll have to see if fired-up progressives can prove that thinking wrong; it’s a long four years ahead.

 

 

 

 

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