CBC election politics science fiction war

Robert Heinlein’s nightmare vision. The US elects a dictator in 2016.

Robin Rowland 
The battered cover of my 1965 vintage issue of Heinlein's Revolt in 2100, showing a big screen of the "Prophet" who ruled the United States in his dystopia.
The battered cover of my 1965 vintage issue of Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100, showing a big screen  broadcast of the ” First Prophet” who ruled the United States in his dystopia.

In the year AD 2100, an evil Dictator rules the United States. He maintains power through the clever use of advanced science and pyschology. And he is backed by a dedicated military clique….
From Robert A. Heinlein, the dean of space-age fiction, comes this thrilling novel of a soldier who dare to defy Authority who risks his life to overthrow tyranny.

Back cover blurb for Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100, paperback 1965

Th copy of Revolt in 2100 I bought when it came out in 1965.
The copy of Revolt in 2100 I bought when it came out in 1965.

When American (and conservative) science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein was crafting his “future history” in the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, the timeline had a nightmare. In one of the presidential elections in the second decade of the 21st century, the voters of the United States elected a president and Congress that turned the land of the free into a religious dictatorship.

Barack Obama, of course, took the 2012 election.   Wikipedia says that the election that brought the Theocracy was the 2012 race but the actual timeline graphic as published, first in the original 1953 hardcover of Revolt in 2100, is more ambiguous, just putting the event in our current decade.

Now as the race for 2016 becomes overheated 11 months before the vote, the candidates on the Republican side, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio would all in someways or another, “fit the profile” of Heinlein’s greatest villain, Nehemiah Scudder, the man who destroyed American democracy in the name of God. Although Donald Trump is far from devout, his support does come from the same demographic base that Heinlein  speculated could end American, democracy. Polls continue to show that the Republican base, primary voters, support Trump because, as the New York Times reports, the “most important quality in a candidate is strong leadership, which eclipses honesty, empathy, experience or electability.”

The original magazine version of the Second American Revolution. "If this goes on...." 1940
The original magazine version  in Astounding Science Fiction of the novella about the Second American Revolution. “If this goes on….” 1940

Heinlein outlined just how the United States would become a dictatorship in an essay in Revolt in 2100. The bulk of the book is taken up with “If this goes on….” originally published in 1940, Heinlein’s first long form work. It tells the story of the “Second American Revolution” when elements of the United States Army mount a coup (or perhaps counter coup) to overthrow the Fundamentalist Theocracy and restore the old, abolished Constitution.

(The marketers at the publishers give it the catchy title Revolt in 2100, Heinlein’s timeline actually calls for the counter revolution to take place around 2075)

Donald Trump was denounced across the United States and around the world on Monday after saying he would bar Muslims from entering the country.
Trump was mildly criticized by his Republican opponents but more strongly even by Conservative voices such as the former Vice President Dick Cheney (whose irresponsible policies helped give birth to Daesh in Iraq) and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention  although Moore’s position on what he calls “religious liberty” could  protect Muslims in America but also be used to block rights of minorities, which is  what Heinlein feared from the Evangelicals.

None of this criticism, so far, seems to have given any of Trump’s supporters second thoughts. The New York Times, noted that some conservative pundits and radio hosts supported and his rival for the nomination Ted Cruz “pointedly declined to join in the scolding. ‘I commend Donald Trump for standing up and focusing America’s attention on the need to secure our borders.’”


His popularity appears to be growing. Although the loudmouth Trump makes the most news with his vicious racist and outrageous statements, he is tapping into an undercurrent of rage among some, mostly white,  Americans, the very thing that Heinlien feared. The other Republican candidates are also campaigning for the same voting bloc. How big is that bloc? Polls differ so what happens in the next few months must be watched closely.

Everyone assures themselves, there is no way that Donald Trump could ever become president of the United States. There are already predictions that if nominated, he would lose in a landslide probably to Hilary Clinton and with that the Republicans could also lose control of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

A later Signet edition of Revolt in 2100.
A later Signet edition of Revolt in 2100.

Heinlein’s nightmare scenario may just be possible, so it is time to look closely at what the Grand Master of Science feared so much that he never actually wrote the stories of the collapse of American democracy, which is why he called the essay “Concerning Stories Never Written.”

Heinlein cautioned that his stories “were never meant to be a definitive history of the future (concerning I know no more than you do).”

He was wrong on specifics. The timeline called for colonies on Mars and Venus ( which science fiction authors of the time hoped would be habitable) by the new millennium. “They are just stories, meant to assume and written to buy groceries.”

Heinlein explained that he would probably never write the two novels about the collapse of democracy in the United States (he never did but he did make passing references in some later novels) because “they both have the disadvantage of being ‘down beat’ stories; their outcomes are necessarily unpleasant,” adding there was already enough tragedy in the headlines of the mid-1960s. “I don’t want to write tragedy just now and I doubt if you want to read it.”

The first of the two “missing” novels was The Sound of His Wings that told the story of the rise of Reverend Nehemiah Scudder, “the ‘First Prophet,’ President of the United States and destroyer of its Constitution, founder of the Theocracy.” The second, The Stone Pillow, takes place in the period between the establishment of the Theocracy and the revolution that ends it. That downer novel would have been about “the slow build-up of a counter-revolutionary underground” whose members “rested their heads on pillows of stone—in or out of prison.”

Robert Heinlein's science fiction "future history" which showed that there would be a "Religious Dictatorship in the United States beginning around 2016.
Robert Heinlein’s science fiction “future history” which showed that there would be a “Religious Dictatorship in the United States
beginning around 2016. (click to enlarge)


So how did the United States become a theocracy? Heinlein wrote:

[T]he idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture, it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times with us in the past. It is with us now; there is has been a sharp rise in evangelical sects in this country in recent year, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific and anti-libertarian.
It is truism that any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young and by killing, locking up or driving underground all heretics…It is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.

A later redesign of the cover.
A later redesign of the cover.

That statement certainly describes the Islamist fanatic Daesh, al Qaeda, Boko Haram and the others. It could also, if unchecked by mainstream values and America’s ingenious system of checks and balances describe the religious right and the Tea Party in the United States. Heinlein was optimistic, noting “The country is split up into such a variety of faiths and sects that a degree of uneasy tolerance now exists from expedient compromise; the minorities constitute a majority of opposition to against each other.” It was that kind of coalition that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Then Heinlein asks, could that theocratic dictatorship actually happen? This is the frightening part, a science fiction writer in the mid-1960s describing America in 2015 the time he predicted problems would mount.

[A] combination of a dynamic evangelist, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s (link) effort look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck. Throw in a depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth and a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism , anti-Negroism and large dose of anti-‘furriners’ in general and anti-intellectuals here at home and the result could be something quite frightening—particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington.


Compare  that with what Doug Saunders writes in the Globe and Mail about Trump.

The United States is discovering, very quickly, that a charismatic single-issue candidate whose single issue is bigotry and intolerance can attract significant support, and possibly even seize control of a major party…no mainstream candidate in recent history has used discrimination and racial fear not as a means to power but as an end in itself, as a chief policy goal.

Heinlein imagined that Nehemiah Schudder was “backwoods evangelist” with elements of John Calvin, Savanarola, Judge Rutherford (founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses ) and Hughy Long.

I wrote a review of  a long lost Heinlein novel, For Us the Living for CBC News back in 2003. In the 1930s Heinlein briefly supported the Social Credit movement. That means he may have also been thinking of Baptist  Alberta premier  William “Bible Bill” Aberhart who took power in that province using some of the techniques that Heinlein feared Scudder would use.

The 1953 hardcover edition of Revolt in 2100, with a figure with a Klan-like hood tapping a man on the shoulder.
The 1953 hardcover edition of Revolt in 2100, with a figure with a Klan-like hood tapping a man on the shoulder.

In Heinlein’s unwritten novel, Scudder inherits millions from a widow he converted, a widow who also owned a television station. Scudder then teams up with an ex Senator, co-opts a major advertising agency and needing “stormtroopers” (the Nazi kind not the Stars Wars soldiers) enlists the Ku Klux Klan. The result is “Blood at the polls and blood in the streets, but Scudder won the election. The next election was never held.”

Heinlein then wrote: “Remember the Klan in the Twenties—and how far it got without even a dynamic leader.” He adds: “The capacity of the human mind for swallowing nonsense and spewing it forth in violent and repressive action has never yet been plumbed.”

The televangelists of the last four decades had the media, their own television networks and the nationwide reach but something was missing, fear and xenophobia.

Donald Trump is certainly coming close to Scudder. He spews nonsense in a violent manner and advocates repressive action. He’s not the only one, his Tea Party rivals for the Republican nomination aren’t far behind. Trump may not be an evangelical (although some evangelicals seem to love him) but Ted Cruz is an evangelical and Marco Rubio is a conservative Catholic.

The Tea Party is anti-intellectual, anti-scientific and (and despite claims to the contrary) anti-libertarian.

Trump has “enough money” and, so far, has used “modern techniques of advertising and propaganda” to spread his message and increase his popularity. Today’s techniques include social media, which Heinlein and the writers of science fiction’s Golden Age never imagined.

Whether or not Trump is the Republican nominee or whether it is another Tea Party conservative ignorant of international relations and “furriner” culture, all it might take would be another major attack on the United States, either by a home grown radicalized nut case or something organized by Daesh to set off the “hysteria” that Heinlein feared and possibly send a Tea Party Republican into the White House—which, of course, is just what Daesh wants to further their narrative the Islam is under constant attack from the West. (The New York Times reported a NYT/CBS poll on December 12, 2015 “Forty-four percent of the public says an attack is “very” likely to happen in the next few months, the most in Times or CBS News polls since October 2001.”)

Could the United States then fall into the dictatorship Heinlein feared? He never goes into detail about how the dictatorship would overcome the checks and balances of the Constitution. But the Tea Party now controls the House of Representatives, if the hysteria meant that that Republicans took the Senate, the president and his allies could control appointments to the already conservative Supreme Court.

Most observers say the demographics are against Trump, He is aiming at one constituency, as Saunders describes it, an older, disaffected,almost all white, mostly male, by and large poor, those who have lost it out in the rapid economic and technological changes of the last few decades, Heinlein was probably right with his description “The country is split up into such a variety of faiths and sects that a degree of uneasy tolerance now exists from expedient compromise; the minorities constitute a majority of opposition to against each other.”  The majority of opposition that would probably elect Hilary Clinton would be liberal whites, Hispanics, blacks, Asian Americans and, of course, Muslims.

But if a conservative Republican administration, one that tended toward fascism, was actually elected there would likely be widespread resistance within the law which was how many Canadians opposed the recent Harper government through the courts and by other means without resorting to violence.

On the other hand, the reach of the 21st century surveillance state is overwhelming, something that even the prescient Heinlein did not envision. The surveillance state could mean that the revolt in 2100 would be crushed and the dictatorship would continue.

In Heinlein’s fictional timeline, after the revolution, the United States recovered from the theocracy, “The First Human Civilization” began and returns to space. Like Margaret Atwood’s similar fundamentalist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale, in Heinlein’s novel, Canada is the refuge, the first country to diplomatically recognize the new and renewed United States. Heinlein writes little of what else was going on in the world during the seven or eight decades that US cut itself off from the rest of the planet, presumably the rest of the world sat and waited for the Americans to lead them back into space.

Today, of course, Daesh and other Islamic movements are a major danger, a threat that to be defeated needs really intelligent leadership and cultural awareness which is absent from even the mainstream Republican Party.

There is the overwhelming threat to our civilization from climate change, which the writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction never imagined.

That means that the climate deniers of the Republican party and a United States led by a “know-nothing” president could be a threat to human civilization, if that president doesn’t also get the country involved in an unwinnable war in the Middle East.

Of course, Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 was “just stories, meant to assume and written to buy groceries.”

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