Thursday, May 8, 2014

The American Principate Or, The Right-Wing Dystopia That Wasn't

Writing stories in order to play on present-day political issues is walking a dangerous road, since the stories will lose much of their urgency if the political winds shift. This is especially dangerous if they're set in the present day, or in the very near future, since current events can render them obsolete. Let the following be a lesson to you...

One of my unfinished novels--which will almost certainly never see the light of day--is called The American Principate. The Principate refers to the early Imperial period in Rome. The Republic still survived--on paper--and the emperor was referred to as princeps or "first citizen." Instead of being a monarch, he just happened to have hold multiple Republican offices at the same time and command the majority of its military. However, the wider culture was so anti-monarchical that even the emperor couldn't openly call himself king.

How does this apply to the American context? Well, those of you who were politically aware during the presidency of George W. Bush will surely remember there was a lot of fear in certain circles of creeping dictatorship due to things like the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, etc. Things like Muslims being put in internment camps were bandied about as if they were plausible. This was mostly on the left (in particular on sites like DemocraticUnderground), although some Libertarians and dissident conservatives got in on it too. This supposed quote from Julius Caesar made the rounds on the Internet. That was when I started writing the book, to tap into that zeitgeist.

My scenario begins in 2007 with an Iranian nuclear test. The United States under a president who is not George W. Bush (cough) and Israel jointly raided the Iranian nuclear facilities. The Iranians retaliated by sinking the carrier USS Ronald Reagan (symbolizing the later repudiation of Reagan's ideals in his name by men who claim to revere him) in the Persian Gulf using a nuke modified to fit on one of their Sunburn missiles, although in retrospect I would have simply had them use "missile spam" to do it, with the nuke appearing later on. The United States nukes Tehran and launches another war of "regime change."

(If I were writing this now, the nuke would be a giant land-mine, since fitting a big first-generation atomic bomb onto a cruise missile and hoping it gets through a carrier battle group's defenses is REALLY hard to swallow. The nuking of Tehran would come in reprisal for the Iranians detonating said nuke under a large number of US ground troops during the actual invasion, delaying the pivotal events in the United States by weeks.)

This kicks off a massive antiwar movement in the US that the administration uses the Patriot Act and other ostensibly anti-terrorist measures to suppress. Protesters are interned in Guantanamo alongside real or alleged al-Qaeda members. The Secret Service assassinates Not-Bush for this (acting under the orders of dissident members of Congress) and Not-Cheney becomes president. He uses a combination of regular US Army units (most of whom follow his orders) and "Red State" National Guards to defeat Congress's forces (some regular troops but mostly "Blue State" National Guards) in a yearlong civil war. Most countries begin selling off American assets and calling in US debts as soon as the mayhem begins and it's the Chinese that save the Not-Cheney regime's bacon with some large loans--in exchange for a free hand against Taiwan and later the extradition of Chinese dissidents in the U.S. to be executed. The prologue depicts the destruction of the last major Congressional military force and the battlefield execution of Not Ron Paul, who was retreating with them to the Congressional strongholds in New England for a last stand.

Once firmly in power, Not-Cheney federalizes the electoral system in order to ensure that both major parties' delegations to his puppet Congress are sympathetic to his aims (i.e. Republicans like Ron Paul would be excluded and Democrats like Joe Lieberman permitted) and third parties are excluded entirely. When Islamists take control of Egypt and Saudi Arabia U.S. forces repress them and occupy those countries. Domestically the regime uses a guest-worker program to ensure it has adequate soldiers for the wars without a draft (that would risk popular discontent), buys off unions with an equipment-heavy military buildup that generates manufacturing jobs, and throws some bones to the Christian Right. The most notable is the suppression of pornography and even artistic nudity using the "erotoxin" argument (this to keep the appearance of legality, since explicitly doing so on Christian grounds would fail the "Lemon Test").

(The story itself takes place in 2015 and involves a college student given the choice between jail and the military who goes on the run and join a resistance group.)

Those of you reading this may be surprised I plotted this out, given how conservative I am on most political issues. However, most right-wing dystopia novels (think The Handmaid's Tale or the relatively new Christian Nation) are written by leftists and REALLY implausible. Although The Handmaid's Tale is a very well-written book, the back-story--the US military launching a coup and imposing a Christo-Taliban regime in which an obvious 1980s televangelist is a major figure and women are forbidden from reading and writing--is, simply put, not going to happen.

And Christian Nation, which depicts Sarah Palin (and more importantly, her successor) establishing an overt Christian theocracy, doesn't even have the quality-writing defense. The one person I've spoken to who thinks the book is remotely plausible is basically a Christian fundamentalist's straw-man of an atheist--he claims not to believe in the Christian God but pretty obviously hates Him. This is exemplified by how he kept a thread on my alternate-history forum on the movie Noah going for weeks asking questions about the film to obviously reinforce his own views--i.e. he asks if Noah's daughters-in-law are different races or is non-whiteness depicted as a punishment for sin, are the deaths of children depicted, etc.--rather than seeing it himself.

Although I have too much respect for Bush and Cheney as people (even if I disagreed with many of their actions and policies) to think they'd ever, EVER actually do this, my intention was to write something more subtle as a cautionary tale. The power of the Executive Branch, in particular in the realm of war, has been growing unhealthily over the last few decades. Our government becoming a a de facto presidential regime with representative government as window-dressing is a lot more realistic than the U.S. becoming an overt Christian theocracy or even a president declaring himself President-for-Life or even Emperor. It's easy to write off ridiculous scenarios like the other two books I've mentioned because they're implausible, but something subtle will make you think.

From a writing POV, if I'd sent this to publishers in 2004, I'd have good odds of selling it if it were good enough. However, once 2007 passed and Iran doesn't test a nuke and Bush leaves office like every other president before it, it would have been good only for the landfill.

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