The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion All the ways America could come to an end

(Washington Post illustration by Kat Rudell, iStock)

It’s no exaggeration, and perhaps even something of an understatement, to say that America is in a bad place right now. We have a national crisis of confidence in the criminal-justice system, a presidential election that has pulled once-marginalized ideas back into the mainstream of public discussion and a growing sense that the wealthy live in a different country from anyone else. And we’re headed into two weeks of national political conventions that seem likely to put these tensions on visceral, widely televised display.

So this week on Act Four, as the Republican and Democratic conventions approach, we’re going to do something special: Every piece we publish this week will look at the end of America in fiction, and I’m bringing in some special guests to help move our discussion along.

From Stanley Kubrick’s warning about a nuclear apocalypse in “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” to Richard Kelly’s nightmare of a societal breakdown in “Southland Tales”; from the “Fallout” video game series to 2000 AD’s wicked skewering of American law enforcement in the Judge Dredd comics; and from the religious fantasies of “Left Behind” to fantasies about the end of the world in children’s and young adult literature, we’ll look at a whole range of ways artists imagine that the United States might come to grief.

Some of the scenarios might seem a little dated. The fall of the Soviet Union has replaced the Cold War of “Dr. Strangelove” with a much more unpredictable nuclear environment. But some of the work we’ll be looking at this week has come to feel eerier and more unnerving with time. Kelly’s portrait of a country bogged down by expanding wars in the Middle East, entranced by reality television stars and desperate for tech innovators to save us feels far more prescient than it did when “Southland Tales” was booed at Cannes in 2006. And Judge Dredd has been casting a critical eye at American policing for decades, as national attention to police brutality has waxed and waned.

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None of this is to say that America is in imminent danger of a coup by the Justice Department — though partisan gridlock has left the Supreme Court one of the few bodies capable of getting things done in Washington — or a nuclear war or zombie invasion. The United States has survived invasion in the War of 1812, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the disastrous war in Vietnam and the crisis of Richard Nixon’s presidency. We’re not about to cease to exist as a nation.

But as has happened before, we might be experiencing the death of a certain American idea, a sense of what the country stands for. Fiction can’t save black boys and men killed by the police, stanch the ugliness unleashed by Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency or eliminate widening income inequality. By pondering through fiction how we might fall, maybe we can recognize the very real dangers that threaten what it means to be American, if not America itself.

How ‘Dr. Strangelove’ taught us to stop worrying and love the end of the world

• ‘Southland Tales’ plunged us straight into a post-apocalyptic mental breakdown

• How zombies became a uniquely American horror

• ‘The Hunger Games’ warned us that reality TV would take over our politics

• The ‘Left Behind’ series was just the latest way America prepared for the Rapture

• The police dictatorship of ‘Judge Dredd’ feels frighteningly real

• In the ‘Fallout’ franchise, the essence of America survives the apocalypse

• In ‘Motel of the Mysteries’ America falls — and it doesn’t actually matter