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Reading The Handmaid’s Tale in the Year of Trump

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Michelle Anne Schingler, a former librarian and Hebrew school teacher, is the managing editor at Foreword Reviews. Her days are books, books, books; she knows how lucky that makes her.  Twitter: @mschingler

2016 has been a frightening year. Refuge is slight: I have my one vote, my one push against it. I have wine. I have books.

Or I had books. Escaping into literature has not been as easy lately, either.

I keep thinking Margaret Atwood. Offred. The Republic of Gilead. It’s a natural enough connection. The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopia steamed by backlash against women’s independence. This year, the backlash against feminism and women’s voices has been severe–have we ever had a candidate so quick to denigrate women who speak than now? And the Supreme Court is at stake. This could take root.

His Court would overturn Roe, he says. The women whose lives are saved through Roe haunt me; I feel responsibility toward them. Fear and anger, when Trump signs pop up despite his misogyny. Fear for those who he’s grabbed, and who he’s threatening to sue because they named that handsiness for what it was: Assault. We want a man who feels entitled to women’s bodies in the White House?

I keep thinking of the Colonel. Of Offred. Of I agreed to thisthere weren’t other choices.

It’s not just women, though, who keep Gilead in my mind. It’s Muslims, my neighbors, those who have already become scapegoats, whose religion or being becomes the shorthand excuse for waging war and stripping rights at home: “They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time…That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary.”

Look out, said Moira….here it comes.”

Here what comes? Offred thinks. The vise. The trap that is sprung before you understand it fully.

Look out.

I go to sleep too late–The Handmaid’s Tale beside me; I couldn’t keep from finishing it tonight. I’m pulled from sleep in the still dark, with the echo of jackboots trailing me out of uneasy dreams. Out, I sit uncomfortable with those who rush to minimize our fears: checks and balances, they say. No one president can do anything alone. He’s a businessman, not a totalitarian, even if he sounds a little like one now.

But no one starts out as a totalitarian. No one wins the electorate over by flaunting the worst they can do. What we know is what we hear: that he talks deportation forces. Registering Muslims. Punishing women who seek abortions. Bombing countries on a whim. That he has a razor-thin temper. That he ridicules those on the other side; that he encourages and applauds violence at his gatherings.

It’s warning enough. I think: Gilead.

I hear duel rumblings: 1933, yes, but those dystopias, too. Offred’s words keep running through my mind: “We lived, as usual, by ignoring…nothing changes instantaneously. There were stories in the newspapers, of course….we lived in the gaps between the stories.”

You ignore. You wait. It becomes too late to change it.

I wear my support of the feminist candidate proudly, but also selectively. No bumper stickers this year. I go to rub a Planned Parenthood sticker on my back window, but think twice, worrying about vandalism, or tracts slipped beneath my wipers–the only kind of reading I cannot stand. Or worse: what if she doesn’t win? Does supporting an organization that he’s said he’ll fight leave me vulnerable, then?

Offred, again: We lived as usual…the stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams, dreamt by others. I will be Offred’s age when I vote. And Offred vulnerable if she loses?

I always wonder if Atwood centered Gilead in Cambridge for a reason—in that place where you are tempted to think, yes, that all you know is insulation. That knowledge and discourse is always something that even the opposition can respect. That the gates around the Yard couldn’t be turned into a dark site. That you’ll see it coming.

No one appreciates it when you turn the conversation to Gilead; no one wants to entertain these possibilities. No one thinks it will get that bad. And Hillary’s not perfect either, right?

But Offred is with me in these last few days before we vote. I’m still conscious of the fact that our comfort—and we’re feeling it, we are, we don’t see how he can win, not after he’s dragged the conversation so low, who supports him now?–can betray us. That he COULD win. That people might not vote, or might choose not to vote against him.

538 vote in Florida: that’s all it took in 2000. 538 people might have been counteracted by 539 not “living as usual,” not disregarding warnings as someone else’s dark dreams.

We thought we could do better, the Colonel says to Offred. No apologies come with this; just the excuse. “Better…always means worse for some.”

It can change so quickly. Atwood is not light pre-election reading, but I’m still carrying Offred with me. And I’m hope I’m wrong, I hope he loses, I hope we don’t have to see what a man who parades his ignorance around with fascist undertones as fuel can do, given room enough. I hope.

Election day is coming; those troubled by his threats, I hope they vote accordingly. I hope we never have to look up, turn on the news, and say “here it comes.”

Gilead is still a fiction. Let’s keep it there.