Column: We are living in a dystopia we can’t escape with Trump as president

Jude Law wears protective gear in "Contagion."
Life imitates art? Jude Law in “Contagion.”
(Claudette Barius / Warner Bros.)

We live in an increasingly dystopian society. I hate to sound hyperbolic, but I see more and more similarities to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to “Contagion,” to “Elysium,” to “Children of Men.”

Americans are hidden behind masks, or in many cases confined to their homes, to avoid a deadly pandemic. The economy is in sweeping decline. Dark conspiracy theories are taking root. Spiraling income inequality has left cities like L.A. with billionaires living in $100-million homes while tens of thousands of homeless people are sprawled out in Dickensian disorder on the sidewalks.

The national government, under the control of a rich and irresponsible TV reality show star with authoritarian tendencies, is in over its head. Congress is dysfunctional, and the people its members represent are deeply polarized. Elements of the left and the right, meeting at protests around the country, are turning increasingly to guns or other violence. Police fire tear gas and swing batons. The president, instead of standing for unity, begs to send federal troops into “Democrat-run” cities.


Oh, and did I forget to mention that our country is being slammed by record-setting hurricanes, burned by record-setting wildfires, imperiled by rising oceans and invaded by disease-carrying mosquitoes that could never live in our climate before?

That’s the straight-from-Hollywood backdrop against which the hugely consequential 2020 presidential election campaign is unfolding.

Of course the movies and television shows listed above are fictional. We’re not there. We don’t have dead bodies in the streets like the ones Matt Damon faced in the pandemic in “Contagion.” Our rich are not living in a separate space habitat from our poor, as in “Elysium.” We don’t live under totalitarian control, as Elisabeth Moss does in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

But am I wrong to think that just a decade ago, the conditions under which we’re living today would have been unthinkable?

Our friends and allies around the world are asking what has happened to the United States and what can be done to fix it.

And that’s why Joe Biden’s speech Monday in Pittsburgh, was so heartening: He held out the hope of normalcy to those of us who fear dystopia.

I’m not a particularly big Joe Biden fan, but I was so relieved to hear him talk about turning down the temperature, rather than turning it up. I was especially pleased that he found the proper (and relatively obvious) middle ground when calling for racial justice, defending peaceful protest, speaking out against violence on all sides, and stressing the need for safety. Was that really so hard to do?

Of course, we’d be nuts to think that simply booting out Donald Trump and voting in Joe Biden will be sufficient to solve our country’s problems. Our divisions and dysfunctions predate our current president. From the Bork nomination fight to Bush-vs.-Gore to the Merrick Garland fiasco and the repeated government shutdowns of recent years, it is obvious that Trump is as much a reflection of our existing problems as he is a creator of new ones.

But his removal is absolutely essential for any kind of progress. Because, as Biden said Monday, Trump “sows chaos” and is a “toxic presence” who has “forfeited moral leadership.” If anything, those descriptions were understatements. Trump is an unmitigated catastrophe, and all Americans must rouse themselves from their slumbers to vote him out on Nov. 3.

No moderate Democrat will be able to wave a wand and wish away problems of the size and scope of climate change or racial injustice. The COVID-19 pandemic won’t go away just because Democrats hold the White House. We’re in for hard times and hard choices in the years ahead.

But problems of this magnitude require deliberation, they require compromise, they require straight talk rather than lies and obfuscation. They require leadership and, yes, empathy. They require more than simple assertions that the virus will go away or that the economy will rebound bigger and better and more beautifully than ever — they require actual policies and plans created in consultation with experts.

Donald Trump is not up to the task.

And since Matt Damon’s not in the race, that leaves Joe Biden, who I suspect will do a far better job than the current president.