As the 2016 election progressed, we were informed that a “new study finds that Harry Potter readers are more likely to dislike Donald Trump.” Harry Potter, a Guardian headline screamed, “could stop Donald Trump.” J.K. Rowling, the grande dame of wizarding novels herself, chimed in, tweeting that the study in question “made my day.”
Despite the constant invocations of a Potter Patronus, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. The Potternistas gnashed their teeth and rent their garments, reaching back to the world of childish literature, announcing the formation of Dumbledore’s Army, reminding their friends that “even Hogwarts fell to Voldemort,” pleading for the Order of the Phoenix to “mount up.” And to this day — to the very moment you are reading this sentence — you can likely find Potterheads comparing our moment to the world of wizarding.
Now, look: I’m not above using popular culture to help explain the political moment. Far from it. But there’s something tacky about the near-universal retreat by adults into children’s literature to voice their concerns.
Perhaps you could read another book?
For instance, if you’re tempted to argue that Trump’s victory resembles the rise of Voldemort insofar as it was enabled by those in power burying their heads in the sand and refusing to recognize what was happening, consider citing Albert Camus’s “The Plague.”
Using a stark metaphor for the rise of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, Camus’s book tells the tale of a French Algerian city overrun by plague. At first, the authorities refuse to understand what is happening — “the really remarkable thing,” one of the characters notes, “was the way in which, in the very midst of catastrophe, offices could go on functioning serenely and take initiatives of no immediate relevance.” The bureaucracy of Oran, like any ministry in any town, rumbles on, unperturbed. Once the bodies begin to pile up and the disease spreads like a wildfire, it is too late. The germ of fascism rests in all of us, dormant, idle. “No one on earth is free from it,” one of the characters says near the end of the novel. “And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves, lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him.”
Fake news is all the rage these days, and you may feel tempted to tweet that what you’re seeing at Fox News reminds you of the misleading stories promulgated by the Daily Prophet after the Ministry of Magic fell to the Death Eaters. Resist temptation! There are better options.
You could, for example, reach to Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel of Fleet Street’s shoddy journalistic practices, “Scoop.” In a few pithy lines of dialogue, Waugh helped relay the absurdity of the news business and the ways in which competing views of the world vie for supremacy on the wires. “But isn’t it very confusing if we all send different news?” a novice war correspondent naively asks, wondering how each service can provide a different angle from the same front line. “It gives them a choice,” his confidant replies. “They all have different policies so of course they have to give different news.”
To drive that point home, here’s the telegram the aforementioned naïf receives from his bosses when the scoops fail to pile up: “CONFIDENTIAL AND URGENT STOP LORD COPPER HIMSELF GRAVELY DISSATISFIED STOP LORD COPPER PERSONALLY REQUIRES VICTORIES STOP ON RECEIPT OF THIS CABLE VICTORY STOP CONTINUE CABLING VICTORIES UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE STOP LORD COPPERS CONFIDENTIAL SECRETARY.”
If you’re tempted to argue that Trump is Voldemort — a genocidal maniac who murdered countless individuals — perhaps take a step back and consider that there are other, better options. For instance, you could compare him to President Johnny Gentle from David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”
“Infinite Jest” is, at heart, a story about addiction and the ways in which we self-medicate to hide ourselves from reality — drugs, TV, whatever. One of the manifestations of this decadent reliance on cheap and easy entertainment is the election of third-party (the Clean United States Party) surprise candidate President Gentle. He’s “the first U.S. President ever to swing his microphone around by the cord during his Inauguration speech,” a fourth-rate entertainer most comfortable in Las Vegas known for gaudy glitziness who also happens to be a renowned germaphobe.
Seems familiar! Doubly so when we read of the forces that led to Gentle’s election:
“[T]he C.U.S.P. suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reaction voter-spasm that made the U.W.S.A. and LaRouchers and Libertarians chew their hands in envy as the Dems and the G.O.P.s stood on either side watching dumbly, like doubles partners who each think the other’s got it, the two established mainstream parties split along tired philosophical lines … and also, recall, a post-Soviet and –Jihad era when—somehow even worse—there was no real Foreign Menace of any real unified potency to hate and fear, and the U.S. sort of turned on itself and its own philosophical fatigue and hideous redolent wastes with a spasm of panicked rage that in retrospect seems possible only in a time of geopolitical supremacy and consequent silence, the loss of any external Menace to hate and fear.”
Gentle isn’t evil; he’s just a buffoon manipulating social undercurrents while being manipulated himself by far more devious individuals. Seems a far closer, far subtler parallel to our current moment than “Literally Evil Genocidal Noseless Magic Man,” but what do I know?
None of these recommendations are staggeringly unique (though I hope you find them a bit more unusual than the standard “1984” / “Brave New World” / “Fahrenheit 451” troika). But they’re all deeply human — and humane — in their own distinct ways. Crucially, they’re all books about adults coping with the world as it is (or, in the case of “Infinite Jest,” plausibly could be) rather than mere wish-fulfillment intended to buoy the spirits of children. Dumbledore’s not coming to save you; you can’t just shout “Trumpius Impeachum” and wave a twig at the White House and expect Hillary Clinton to appear. A higher class of literature might better prepare you for dealing with reality — and preparation for the vagaries of the real world is far more important than cocooning oneself away in the world of fantasy.