I came across a headline a while back that read something like “Schwarzenegger voters opt for Trump in California.” Wow, I thought. Imagine being in a coma for thirty years and waking up to that!
I doubt even Ballard could have come up with something so peculiar. I mean, when he wrote ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ in 1968, the eponymous anti-hero had already made the transition from Hollywood bit-part player to conservative icon.
Reagan had campaigned on behalf of Harry Truman immediately after the war, before shifting his attention to establishment Republicans such as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon in the 1950s. He also had the benefit of bureaucratic experience, having chaired the Screen Actors Guild twice during the period between 1947 and 1960. And in 1964, Reagan’s speech in favour of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, ‘A Time for Choosing’, had introduced him to a nationwide audience as a charismatic spokesman for rugged individualism.
Perhaps more importantly, a year or so before Unicorn Bookshop published Ballard’s controversial pseudo-pamphlet, Reagan was sworn in as the 33rd Governor of California, a position he used as a springboard to launch an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the 1968 Republican Party nomination.
So, yes—Reagan was in many ways a different kind of politician from what had gone before, but not so different. And besides, his ascent up the various rungs of the American political ladder was marked to a large extent by a willingness to compromise and work within the boundaries of the post-war consensus, which, though fraying at the seams, was still stronger than the centrifugal forces acting against it. Partisan aesthetics aside, I think it’s fair to say that Reagan was the John F. Kennedy of the late-1970s and 1980s, a silver screen salesman for Pax Americana and the American Dream.
Ballard’s vision of a slightly divergent present where scientists measured the psychosexual appeal of a pentagenerian presidential candidate was both plausible and funny because Reagan was part of the political furniture. He might have looked a bit out of place—a colour television in a tasteful study—but few people seriously questioned whether he belonged in the room.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, well, that’s a whole different ball game. The notion that this man—this demagogue—might end up leading the so-called ‘Free World’ would have struck most sensible observers as patently absurd just a few short years ago. But we live in absurd and surreal times, which as Ballard would have likely pointed out, is quite distinct from living in an age of Absurdism or Surrealism.
Celebrity, sex, class, consumerism, mass entertainment, collective resentment, and politics are all essentially indistinguishable in Trumpland. Fiction writers are behind the curve nowadays; they only wish they were as imaginative and ludicrous as reality.
Image by jbouie