With Donald Trump now on his way to winning the Republican nomination, I decided to read Margaret Atwood’s critically acclaimed The Handmaiden’s Tale, a thought-provoking dystopian novel, to gain potential insights into what another Trump administration might be like given his authoritarian inclinations.
The novel, which has won several literary awards and became a hit TV series, is about the overthrowing of the United States government by a band of religious zealots, and in its aftermath, descending into a theocratic totalitarian state based upon fundamentalist puritanical beliefs. (Interestingly, I’ve been told that The Handmaiden’s Tale was the background to the red uniformed women who participated in this past year’s judicial demonstrations in Israel.) The new regime, known as the Republic of Gilead, suspends the Constitution, shoots members of the Congress, and censors the press. After fully consolidating its power, a KBG-like force, The Eyes, is established to surveil the population to ensure that there’s no political dissent. If someone crosses the line, they are either banished or put to death and displayed on a hook on The Wall to stifle any opposition to the regime’s tightly controlled rule.
The result, not surprisingly, is that residents of this repressive reign have little or no freedom. But women come in for especially harsh and cruel treatment because of a distorted reading of a passage in the Book of Genesis in which Rachel offers her handmaiden Bilhah to Jacob. Consequently, to the leaders of Gilead their only value is as bearers of children. For example, in the novel Ofred, the narrator and one of the “prized” fertile handmaidens is enslaved, and forced, in a humiliating and degrading fashion, to have sex with the Commander of her household to help stem the decline in the birthrate, which has allegedly been caused by legalized abortion as well as deadly toxins and chemicals in the atmosphere. Gilead is also not a very welcome and friendly place for Jews. In the book’s telling, they only have two options: to convert or emigrate to Israel.
Inspired in part by the rise of the Christian right in America in the 1980’s, Atwood paints, in painstaking and meticulous detail, a dark and haunting picture of a liberal democratic society quickly plunging into and becoming like today’s Iran — or, in a more secular form, Russia. Given the current polarized and volatile political, economic, and cultural environment in the United States, could something like that happen here? Is this story a harbinger of what’s to come if Donald Trump is reelected?
Such a scenario is far-fetched but the prospect of Trump becoming president keeps me up at night both as an American and as a Jew. As an American, I am concerned that if he regains power there will be a further erosion of our democratic institutions, norms, and values. Indeed, a recent report issued by the non-partisan Project Democracy offers this stark and grave assessment: “As damaging as Trump’s first term was to American systems of constitutional government, culminating in his efforts to overturn an election and halt the counting of electoral votes by Congress, what he has promised in his own words to do if returned to office would be even more destructive to our Republic.” According to the report, there is a real chance that he could use the levers of government to pardon the January 6th insurrectionists, investigate and prosecute his alleged critics and opponents, limit freedom of the press, and use the police and military to quell dissent and lawful protest, among other anti-democratic maneuvers. While the constitutional guardrails held firm and ultimately prevailed the last time around, there’s no guarantee they will do so again, thereby posing a possible threat to the future of our democracy and to our basic liberties, including women’s rights, if he wins the presidency.
Similarly, as a Jew, Trump’s candidacy is no less, if not deeply, troubling. If reelected, he poses a potential danger to the future of Jewish life in America, where Jews have hitherto enjoyed unprecedented freedom and acceptance. In fact, historically Jews have thrived best in open, tolerant, and pluralistic societies, but Trump’s divisive, vitriolic, and hateful rhetoric could fuel a further increase in antisemitism (some claim it was unleashed and first given public expression during his term), which has already been disturbingly on the rise, making American Jews feel even more vulnerable, isolated, and alone than they do today.
Also alarming as a Jew is Trump’s isolationism, which is problematic from the perspective of Israel’s security. Indeed, Israel needs American support, morally, politically, and militarily now more than ever to destroy Hamas’s military capabilities – and if another front opens later in the Hezbollah-controlled north and elsewhere. The Trump administration did put the final seal on the Abraham Accords for which it deserves some credit but given Trump’s strong isolationist impulses, I fear that he will not come to Israel’s assistance, when necessary, as he clearly does not intend to do for Ukraine. He fails to understand that these regional conflicts are part of a global battle that America and other Western powers must wage against the nefarious axis of Iran, Russia, and China.
It is still early in the primary season, but Trump seems to be gliding to victory. If he eventually becomes the Republican nominee, there is a moral imperative for anyone who truly cares about the future of the United States, as well as the Jewish community and Israel, to do everything in their power to keep him from being elected. Otherwise, we may face a future situation resembling in some respects, although not completely or as horrifying but nonetheless disquieting, the one found in the Republic of Gilead. Presciently, The Handmaiden’s Tale teaches us of the need for constant vigilance because of how rapidly – and almost without notice – a democratic society can dangerously slide into authoritarianism. But in the Jewish tradition we are instructed to not fall prey to despair, so I am hopeful that with concerted and sustained activism, including a vigorous effort to get out the vote for President Biden, that potentially dreadful outcome will not occur.