How science fiction warned us about the Capitol siege
Toward the end of “Logan’s Run,” Michael York and Jenny Agutter, escaping from a future society that murders people when they turn 30, enter an ivy-strangled rotunda and are soon amazed.
Hearing a noise in the ostensibly empty building, York reaches down and pries off the arm of a chair on the ground. Slowly, he approaches a parted door. A cat scurries out. Coming in closer, he finds something he’s never seen before: an old man. Dressed in ragged clothes, the man sits at a desk, cracking walnuts with a hammer. Or gavel — the Senate gavel.
This feral-looking older gentleman made a home for himself, and his many cat companions, in the wreckage of the Capitol Building.
It’s a lot like what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, and also not at all. The pro-Trump protester who sat in the president of the Senate’s chair for just a short while, comes from our reality, where our republic is not some relic of the past.
Only in the realm of science and speculative fiction has contemporary America come close to the scene of the Capitol siege. Extremists have a long history of invading government buildings, but the Capitol, rightly or not, was thought to be a symbol so sacrosanct as to be a bulwark. It wasn’t unimaginable that protesters would storm its halls, but it was unthinkable that a president would encourage the trespass.
In Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!” alien ambassadors zap lawmakers in session. In Amazon’s “The Boys,” a rogue, super-powered congresswoman pops their heads. In one installment of “The Purge” film series, Capitol Hill is the backdrop for acts of legalized carnage. There is a whole genre of films where the White House is breached and the president comes under attack. All are attacks from without. On Jan. 6, the call to march on Congress was coming from the Ellipse outside the White House, with Trump separated from his votaries by a plastic shield. He vowed to march with them. He didn’t.
The likes of a President Lindbergh didn’t go so far. Sinclair Lewis’ fascist President Windrip dissolved Congress, but didn’t order his goons to attack the chambers willy-nilly. Not even fantasy commanders in chief have been quite so hasty in disposing of our norms. But in some sci-fi parables of our forgotten principles, the American public is more than willing to.
In the far-flung future, on an episode of “Star Trek,” Captain James T. Kirk and his crew pay a visit to a violent people called the Yangs, pelt-togged natives of the disease-riddled planet Omega IV. They’re dressed a bit like that horn-wearing guy in face paint spotted on the mall the day the election was certified, who is presently being unfairly likened to the noble Wookie Chewbacca.
During a victory ritual, Kirk discovers that the Yangs (their name is taken from Yankees) come from an alternate version of the United States and have made a prayer out of a garbled Pledge of Allegiance. Their warrior culture, fueled by hatred of a rival tribe and susceptible to human gods and Vulcan devils, mistakes a trapping of patriotism — a hymn of allegiance — for the whole of Americanism. Kirk sets them straight, insisting on reading a sacred, obscure document reserved for priests.
“This was not meant for priests,” Kirk insists, and reads the three opening words on the faded parchment: “We The People.”
Kirk says the text must apply to everyone — even the enemy tribe of the Kohms (communists).
It’s a bit of Cold War-era, peacenik chest-thumping delivered by a Canadian with a sort of Reformation impulse surrounding our founding document. But had Kirk not stopped at the Preamble and gotten to the meat of the document, he would have set a better example for how this superstitious group might commence the American experiment. The Yangs need more than the lofty platitudes they’ve distorted just as Trump’s mob needs to acquaint themselves with Article II of the Constitution.
The end of Burton’s “The Planet of the Apes” (yes, Burton, again) suggests that gorillas might do a better job of governing than we do, ending with a Lincoln Memorial bearing a benign, chimpanzee visage. It’s a cheap sight gag, a substitute for a sand-sunken Statue of Liberty from the original film, but it nonetheless sends a warning.
Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” which sees President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, strutting into the House chamber for the State of the Union to fog machines, strobe lights and the other pro wrestling-style effects, resembles the manner in which the pro-Trump mob treated the People’s House. Watching footage of their vandalism, Confederate banners in the Statuary Hall and outlandish garb equal parts WWE and Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” felt like a foretaste of this promised future. The seers of sci-fi seem to agree about the path that leads there. They’re not so subtle.
The dangers in these works echo the concerns of the founders who warned against cults of personality, partisanship and, with no small hint of elitism, a superficial understanding of our Constitution. The movies and shows aren’t so much prescient, then, but show that the threats to our democracy are as durable as our institutions.
Benjamin Franklin, a scientist and author, if not of science fiction, said our government was a republic, if we could keep it. It’s a heavy lift, and bad actors are only adding more weight. But if we treat the events of Jan. 6, not as a dispatch from an unrecognizable future or a remote past, but a real and challenging present, America may stick around long enough to meet Jim Kirk’s stardates — or to keep that ivy from clinging to the Capitol dome.
We can keep our republic, and leave the scenes of its destruction to fantasists.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.