Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump, Part 4: ‘The Dead Zone’
Welcome to the fourth part of our ongoing series, examining all the ways that the artistic and entertainment communities have been trying to warn America that Donald Trump (or someone like him) was up to no good.
Stephen King is the author responsible for such dream-haunting creations as a memorably pissed off telekinetic prom queen, a denim-clad dimension-hopping deity, a temperamental train engine with a poor sense of humor, a murderous St. Bernard, and a burial ground that takes recently deceased loved ones and spits them back to Earth as feral butchers.
But his most terrifying invention may be something much closer to home — a coarse, unstable demagogue who enters the political arena seemingly out of nowhere, rides a wave of populism to an unlikely White House victory, and raging with messianic self-regard incites a nuclear apocalypse.
This is Gregory Ammas Stillson, the antagonist of King’s 1979 novel The Dead Zone, and he’s as frightening as anything cooked up by the prolific novelist’s imagination. This year in particular, Stillson seems an eerily prescient portent of our current political climate.
“I’ve seen the comparisons drawn between Trump and Stillson on Twitter — always makes me smile,” King said in an email.
In The Dead Zone, an unassuming New England schoolteacher, Johnny Smith, survives a brush with death, and awakens from a seven-year coma with the power to see future catastrophic events. After some early successes with his new skillset — saving various lives from disasters, closing the case on a stubbornly uncatchable serial killer — Smith comes to realize that an ascendant wild-card candidate for the House of Representatives, a combustable, egomaniacal political newcomer named Greg Stillson, will one day take the Oval Office and bring about World War III.
King introduces the character as the sort of carnival sideshow that can enliven a political campaign, but one that cooler heads could reasonably expect to fade away before any votes are cast: “First,” King writes, “Greg Stillson shouldn’t have been able to get elected. His campaign promises were, by and large, jokes.” Sound like anyone we know? A fictionalized Walter Cronkite explains that he may be running an “eccentric campaign,” but nevertheless has a comfortable lead over more established candidates.
Another character is more frank: “He’s as crazy as a rat in a drainpipe. But I do believe the sober-sided electorate…is going to send him to Washington this November. Unless he actually falls down and starts frothing at the mouth. And I wouldn’t completely rule that out.”
King’s description of a Stillson rally may have read like satire in the late-70s; now it seems to eerily prefigure the reality-show hijinks and circus theatrics that have become hallmarks of The Donald’s campaign. Stillson takes the stage to John Denver’s “Thank God, I’m A Country Boy,” wearing a “hi-impact construction worker’s helmet cocked at an arrogant, rakish angle on his head.” Why the helmet?
“You wanna know why I’m wearin this helmet, friends n neighbors? I’ll tell you why. I’m wearin it because when you send me up to Washington, I’m gonna go through em like you-know-what through a canebrake! Gonna go through em just like this!”
And before Johnny’s wondering eyes, Stillson put his head down and began to charge up and down the podium stage like a bull, uttering a high, yipping Rebel yell as he did so.
He closes the rally by tossing fistfuls of freshly boiled hot dogs into the crowd, screaming, “Hot dogs for every man, woman, and child in America! And when you put Greg Stillson in the House of Representatives, you gonna say [sic] HOT DOG! SOMEONE GIVES A RIP AT LAST!”
Like Trump, Stillson peddles promises, not plans, and he’s expert at spackling over his ignorance with a loud voice and the canny use of adjectives like “greatest.”
Stillson declares that he will put his seasoned experience as a bonafide rainmaker to use: “If he’s elected,” one observer wryly notes, “we’ll have rain whenever we need it.” Not entirely unlike the way Trump promises that, under his presidency, America will win so much that her citizens will “get sick of winning.”
Trump vows to build a continent-spanning wall and somehow get another sovereign nation to foot the bill. Stillson has an improbably grandiose public works project of his own: He’s going “to send all the pollution right into outer space! Gonna put it in Hefty bags! Gonna put it in Glad bags! Gonna send it to Mars, to Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn! We’re gonna have clean air and we’re gonna have clean water and we’re gonna have it in SIX MONTHS!”
Rather than inducing bewilderment and skepticism, Stillson’s fans — like Trump’s — respond to such manias by erupting into “paroxysms of joy,” and the ones who aren’t unironically delighted are “killing themselves with laughter.” In short, the wrong people are taking these candidates seriously.
As with Trump, in the early stages of Stillson’s campaign, his explosive language and dramatic temperament deflect critical attention. “His colorful, controversial personality seemed to stir only amused admiration from the national press,” King writes.
A recent Vox post soberly articulates our own national press’s collective mea culpa for the attitude of charmed dismissal that characterized so much of the early coverage of Trump’s candidacy. (Guilty as charged.)
King artfully depicts how Stillson’s charisma doesn’t simply mask his malevolence, but feeds off it. Like Trump, an inextricable part of his appeal is his apparent capacity for violence, his implicit promise of restitution, his knack for making the powerless feel powerful again, and his obvious willingness to shoot first and ask questions never. Where Trump applauds his fans for roughing up a Black Lives Matter protestor, Stillson draws supporters who come to his rally armed with sawed-off pool cues (à la Hell’s Angels), and brandishes violent campaign slogans like STILLSON’S GOT ‘EM IN A FULL-NELSON and LIVE FREE OR DIE, HERE’S GREG IN YOUR EYE!
Like many a pundit who saw Trump’s imminent implosion with each new extension of the tycoon’s contempt and violent rhetoric — whether it was directed toward Mexicans, veterans, or Muslims, Johnny Smith at first sees Stillson’s undisguised fascistic impulses as sure sign of his limited political prospects. Entering a rally, he witnesses “a wild mix of horror and hilarity,” and appraises the raging throngs of Stillson fans as “Brownshirts…. Brownshirts is all they are.”
Well, so what? Maybe that was even good. Americans had a rather low tolerance for the fascist approach — even rock-ribbed righties like Reagan didn’t go for that stuff […] Stillson couldn’t be a few paces from overstepping himself. If it wasn’t quite so weird, it really would be funny. [emphasis in the original]
In David Cronenberg’s successful 1983 film adaptation, the role of Stillson was portrayed with grinning menace by Martin Sheen (the antimatter to his performance as Jed Bartlett). Sheen’s Stillson is a more well-scrubbed, less visibly volatile character than the one depicted in King’s novel with his “faded jeans and a two-pocket Army fatigue shirt with the words GIVE PEACE A CHANCE embroidered on one pocket and MOM’S APPLE PIE on the other.”
When Trump’s sanity gets called into question, the illustration almost everyone uses is the “red button” — could we trust Trump with the nuclear codes? No less an authority on sanity than Bobby Jindal, onetime amateur exorcist and Trump’s bested Republican rival, said America couldn’t have a “egomaniacal madman” sitting on the nuclear trigger.
When asked at Tuesday’s debate which part of the nuclear triad was most important, Trump responded: “For me, nuclear, the power, the devastation, is very important to me.” Trump was so caught up in his visions of glorious carnage he apparently forgot that the “triad” actually refers to the three methods of nuke delivery — via bombers, ICBMs, and submarine-launched missiles.
A spokesperson for the Trump camp clarified his position a few days later on The O’Reilly Factor: “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?” she asked. The power and the devastation will be yuuuuge.
In the following clip from the movie, we see Johnny’s premonition of a future President Stillson, whose campaign-trail charisma has curdled with power into something far more alarming — an unshakeable conviction that the American people speak through him, and they’re telling him to bring about nuclear Armageddon.
King noted that Stillson has literary and historical forbears, among them Willie Stark, the “Boss,” from Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, who in turn draws from Huey P. Long, the Louisiana governor and U.S. senator who was assassinated in 1935.
“Trump is an American ‘Tell it like it is’ populist in a long tradition of them,” King said. “Although [Trump] came from money rather than sharecropper poverty, people vote for [people like him] because they speak in the vulgate of the common people, and because they want to paste mainstream politicians in the eye. Trump is the voice of anger and racism. The anger won’t get him in trouble, but the racism guarantees he won’t be elected.”
President Trump is a horror story even King can’t entertain.
This is the fourth in our new series “Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump.”
Screengrab: Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson from The Dead Zone (1983), Dir. David Cronenberg