There is a charismatic man running for president with the slogan, “Help us make America great again.” He calls his enemies rapists and destroyers of the country. His opponent calls him a demagogue, a rabble-rouser, and a hypocrite. His supporters have been known to form mobs, get violent and burn people to death. He condemns the violence but “does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear.”
Meet Texas Senator Andrew Steele Jarret, the fictional presidential candidate in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents, published in 1998.
Yes, two decades before Trump swept the Republican primaries, black science-fiction writer Octavia Butler wrote about a terrifying politician, “a big, handsome, black-haired man with deep, clear blue eyes that seduce people and hold them.” (So her crystal ball wasn’t entirely accurate; he didn’t have Trump’s red-orange hair.)
Trump’s campaign did not respond to a media inquiry about the origin of the “Make America Great Again” slogan, but Trump has insisted before that he made it up, getting mad when other Republican presidential candidates started using the same phrase last year.
“The line of ‘Make America great again,’ the phrase, that was mine, I came up with it about a year ago,” Trump said in 2015, as quoted by The Hill.
Butler’s book is set in 2032, in an America where resources have become incredibly scarce and the government has all but collapsed with law enforcement looking out only for itself. People live either in walled-in towns, constantly fighting off attacks from drug addicts, religious fanatics and the poor, or live in fear on the open road, trying to make their way to a safer place: Canada or a company town, where they’ll live in safety but as a de facto slave to a corporation. It’s a dystopian primitive future, and the book’s protagonist fears that Andrew Steele Jarret’s election will make it worse.
There are certainly other differences between Jarret and Trump. Jarret’s beef is with Canada instead of Mexico. Instead of business acumen as his main credential, religion is Jarret’s stump. He’s the head of a group called Christian America, which is intolerant of any other religious views, and whose supporters burn “witches”—meaning Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists—at the stake.
It may seem uncanny that Butler predicted the slogan nearly 20 years before Trump literally trademarked it. But that’s because Trump’s slogan isn’t an original one. As Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone last year, saying Trump “must never have heard of Google,” President Ronald Reagan “made ‘Make America Great Again’ a backbone of his campaign.”
Butler was likely aiming her criticisms at Reagan, whose presidency had recently ended, when she started her Parable series in the early 90s. Unfortunately, I can’t chat with Butler about this because the gifted writer died in 2006.
Instead, we can turn to Butler’s writing to see why she hated the slogan, as it was used then. I suspect she might feel the same way about how Trump is now using it:
Jarret insists on being a throwback to some earlier, “simpler” time. Now does not suit him. Religious tolerance does not suit him. The current state of the country does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, worshipped him in the same way, and understood that their safety in the universe depended on the same religious rituals and stomping anyone who was different. There was never such a time in this country.
In the book, despite being down in the polls, Jarret is elected and his supporters feel empowered to declare martial law, enslaving people who are not Christian Americans. Jarret starts an ill-fated war with Canada, and is not ultimately re-elected.
“The book illustrates what happens when people are emboldened by a demagogue,” said Shawn Taylor, a Butler scholar. She portrayed a “charismatic figurehead who ignites something in people. Trump activated something in people, too. They get permission to act on their worst impulses.”
“The already weakened country all but collapsed,” writes Butler of her future world. Instead of making America great again, Jarret was “bad for business, bad for the U.S. Constitution, and bad for a large percentage of the population.”