NOTE FOR 2018 READERS: This is the first in a series of letters to mark a little-known chronological milestone. According to UN data, average life expectancy at birth in 10 countries now exceeds 82 years — meaning babies born in 2018 will likely live to see the 22nd century.
What will the world look like at the other end of these kids' lives, in that not-so-far-off year of 2101? We can glimpse it in today's scientific discoveries, Silicon Valley visions, and even science fiction. But in these letters to the next century, a kind of internet time capsule, we also recognize that our hopes and fears ultimately shape what the future becomes.
Dear 22nd Century,
Greetings from America, halfway through 2018. If that location in space and time instantly sends a shiver down your spine, then bravo — it probably means you were paying attention in history class. (Are there still such things as history classes? Lordy, I hope there are.)
Scrolling through the media of our year, I often find myself wondering what you'll make of us. We must look like we've lost our minds: obsessed with a vain man who loves nothing more than being talked about, spreading his self-promoting fantasies even as we laugh at them, filling our articles and memes and feeds with pictures of the same old smarmy face that makes our blood boil. Then doing it again.
Where does this roller coaster ride end? (Seriously, if you have time travel yet, please reply on this point.) Currently, even in this presidency's quieter moments, we have no earthly clue. How do you remember him? In my more charitable moments, I can imagine the possibility that President Trump is remembered in your time as a wild-card peacemaker whose approach to North Korea somehow worked and defused one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints.
More likely, I imagine you are more outraged than we are at the children ripped from their parents at the border, the ridiculous trade wars, the failure to denounce Neo-Nazis, the constant, casual disregard for democracy.
Or maybe you don't remember him at all, despite my irritating older generation doing its level best to remind you until our dying breaths.
Here's the disturbing thing about writing to a future more than eight decades hence. First of all, many of my contemporaries would call me optimistic for thinking there are any humans still left in 2101 to receive this message. But if you do exist, and you're doing fine despite it all, it follows that Trump was not the world-ending threat we feared. From a safe distance, if we're lucky, we may seem like nervous alarmists.
As great as that prospect sounds to us (ah, the bliss of a world that doesn't have to think about Trump!), and as much as I would love to have my first letter to you concern our hopes for a high-tech future of equal opportunity amidst gleaming spires -- some kind of real-life Wakanda, a dream city that is apparently closer to reality than we think -- we have to talk about this elephant in the room first.
My modest utopian hope, then, is that you remember our time as a cautionary tale. Oh [insert your most popular deity here], those Trump-era [insert your most popular curse word here]! How could they even come close to electing the least competent leader of what [was/is] the most powerful country on Earth, and at the worst possible time?
Science-denying just when climate change started to bite, tyrant-loving just when democracy needed a boost, race-baiting at a time of growing diversity, truth-shredding back when social media was too dumb to stop amplifying lies -- all these traits in an egomaniacal septuagenarian game show host? And 63 million of us gave him the power to fire off nuclear weapons at will? What were we thinking?
(What indeed. Let me be the first to answer what I think will become a common question: hey old-timer, what did you do during the 2016 election? To which I'll reply: I didn’t do it! It wasn’t me! I sounded the alarm about him winning a year before the election, and I have the receipts!)
It feels odd, aiming to be remembered as a relic from an age that will live in infamy. It isn’t what we would have asked for. But the alternatives are worse.
One very dire scenario is that America in 2101 is a Trumpocracy, a banana republic presided over by a hopelessly corrupt government passed down from generation to generation; a monarchy in all but name. In this future, thanks to Betsy DeVos and her successors, the education system has been dismantled. History is whatever Dear Leader Barron Trump the Second says it is in his daily tweetstorm, and 2018 is remembered merely as Year Two.
Call this the Idiocracy scenario, if you know that old movie. (If not, fire it up immediately on your favorite neural search engine. And let us hope you still enjoy it as parody, rather than a prediction.)
Personally, I don’t buy any future scenario that relies purely on diminishing intelligence. There's a trend of year-on-year growth in our average IQ scores. It's called the Flynn effect, it appears to be constant, and it would be tough to reverse, even for a committed kakistocrat like DeVos. Consider: clear majorities of Americans, both in 2016 and 2018, oppose Trump. The gaslighting is constant, but it is not working.
We may have been temporarily blind-sided in 2016 — partly by old media eager for Trump ratings, partly by a new media landscape where not enough people knew which news websites they could trust. But we're smarter and better informed than one flukey electoral college victory makes us appear, and to change that would require government censorship of media beyond the dreams of Trump.
We may get that in a second scenario that sees a darker future based on Trump's fundamentalist following. Let's say Vice President Mike Pence takes over and is able to keep this white evangelical base fired up. But he adds to that the style of a folksy preacher, a televangelist, and he's better at soothing the fears of a nation that doesn't like to be embarrassed in front of other countries.
America could be so grateful for that — the gift of not having to pay attention, the feeling of having an adult at the wheel — it might not notice itself slipping into a theocracy, slowly banishing alternate points of view under the banner of God. (Here is where DeVos' mania for religious homeschooling could come in handy.)
And at that point we're basically in the timeline foreseen by the 20th century's foremost future historian, science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. In 1953, Heinlein described a folksy, racist, populist TV preacher winning the White House with a minority of the popular vote — in the election of 2012. (What's four years' difference at that many decades' distance, right?) This president then "needed stormtroopers" and so "revived the Ku Klux Klan in all but name." America's economy stagnated, and elections soon became a thing of the past.
"The capacity of the human mind for swallowing nonsense and spewing it forth in violent and repressive action has never yet been plumbed," Heinlein warned. His theocracy's control was so complete that the Resistance didn't overturn it ... until the 22nd century.
The title of Heinlein's book? Revolt in 2100.
Trouble is, the Trump family can’t go eight minutes without tripping itself up, let alone eight decades. Pence may be more subtle, but he too has made a lot of unforced errors. My guess is that sheer incompetence, that inability to reach out beyond their base, will turf them out of power much sooner than later.
And that leads us to the scenario where you've forgotten the lesson.
Let's say the system works. We remove the bull from the china shop before he can do too much damage. The courts overturn his cruel whims towards immigrant families; The Congress we elect this November subpoenas his tax returns, investigates the hell out of every quid pro quo arrangement with a foreign government, and lays the groundwork for impeachment. Or maybe we have to work a little harder, but with a steadfast coalition of the majority, we finally get rid of him via the ballot box in 2020.
From your perspective, it doesn't really matter which year we oust him. Either way, for you, it’s ancient history. With the benefit of hindsight, he becomes more of a joke — or for the conspiracy-minded, a martyr. Perhaps that wholeStormy Daniels affair will make for a heck of a Hollywood historial comedy one day, if Hollywood is still a thing.
The worst of all possible timelines will come if nothing changes about the system that allowed Trump to rise in the first place. Because if the danger doesn’t seem real to you, it will eventually happen again.
History tends to work in cycles, and next time we might not be so lucky. The next charismatic populist demagogue to successfully exploit the electoral system, to command global media attention with shocking statements, may not be as old as Trump, or as batshit incompetent.
Today, with Trump tearing up international agreements left and right, the possibility of his future irrelevance is hard to fathom. We take it for granted that the world will long remember his blundering decisions — pardoning political allies, maybe even pardoning himself; making shady and still unclear deals with foreign powers; endangering a hard-won deal that prevented nuclear proliferation; planning to quit a crucial climate change club that contains literally every other country on the planet. That all of this could seriously affect the lives of future generations seems self-evident.
By the dawn of your century, our experts project sea levels will rise anywhere from 0.6 to 6.6 feet and displace or drown millions, while extreme weather across the globe will ravage untold millions more. The greenhouse gases we emit, the carbon dioxide that Trump is happy for the world to emit in ever greater amounts, you will pay for. As I wrote this, scientists revealed the ice of Antarctica is melting twice as fast as we previously thought, and the previous rate was already alarming. Has any generation in history seen more clearly the disaster that was about to unfold for another?
Yet for all his bluster, Trump may be just a blip — even when it comes to the climate. As you can see in the chart above, we're still in the early days of 21st century carbon dioxide emissions. So much depends on what happens in November 2020, which will see not just the next presidential election, but the U.S. potentially leaving the Paris Climate Accord. While Trump announced the exit in 2017, it will take four years to officially untie the knot.
Depending largely on his 2020 opponent, we could rejoin the Paris Agreement a couple of months after it expires. And you may know the name Trump about as well as today’s kids know the name of another (relatively less) corrupt president, Warren G. Harding — who is about as far in our past as you are in our future. Heck, some of them don’t even recall what George W. Bush did. (That’s a whole other letter.)
Now, future irrelevance would be the most fitting fate for an ego-driven buffoon who is only happy when he’s being talked about. But it would also mean we haven’t done enough to break the cycle of corruption and idiocy/
I’m far from the only one wondering about Trump’s long-term meaning to future generations. Last month we learned about Trumpmore, a science/art project in Finland. It’s currently raising money to carve Trump’s face into a 115-foot-high Arctic iceberg. “Let’s build the biggest ice monument ever to test if climate change is real,” reads the intentionally ironic statement on the project’s website. “Will it melt, or last a thousand years?”
You know better than I whether this was actually constructed and how long it survived. I suppose if by some miracle it didn’t melt, if our settled science of CO2 and climate change has missed some key long-term factor, having a thousand-year Trump ice sculpture in the Arctic would be a small price to pay for a more stable world.
But, spoiler alert: It’s going to melt. You’re probably not able to book an arctic vacation and snap a holographic selfie with it, sorry. We can predict the climate of the 22nd century with far more confidence than we can predict how many more wheels will come off the presidency next week. (Not even the most foolhardy forecaster would take that commission.)
And that leads me to wonder what longer-lasting public monuments we should leave to remind you of this guy and all the ills he intended (whether or not he was ever punished for them.) Obviously Trump’s own suggestion that he be placed on Mount Rushmore -- likely a joke, but who knows? — is a non-starter. But maybe there’s something to the idea of a smaller-scale statue, one that the public is allowed to deface as it sees fit.
I’m reminded of the protege of media expert Marshall McLuhan, a guy who once suggested that atomic warheads should be placed in town squares around the world as a constant reminder to humanity of its common enemy, the thing that might destroy it. (Nothing could possibly go wrong with that plan, I’m sure.)
Should we place statues of Trump in every town, as a warning? Here, world, remember what happens when enough of us are fooled by a charismatic grifter. Remember what happens when we prize outsider status and bomb-throwing comments, and forget things like temperament and intelligence.
Not to draw a direct comparison here — do you still have a thing called Godwin’s law? — but I remember the first time I saw the waxwork of a certain German dictator in Madame Tussaud’s in London. It had been placed at the entrance to the dungeon inside a perspex case. Which was necessary, I discovered, because every other tourist wanted to spit on him.
This was a key childhood memory; I knew the basics about that period of history, but this was the first time I’d seen the emotional legacy; the unbridled, universal disgust, especially on the faces of those old enough to have fought him. Whatever that man represented, I understood, that’s what we don’t want to be.
In a country currently removing monuments to a hated Confederate past, however, a statue might send the wrong message. What would tell a more unambiguous story, I wondered? Then it hit me.
Raging, destructive, orange, consumed by its own short-term desire for oxygen, and in the long run, something that forces nature to fight back.
As it happens, former FBI director James Comey compared Trump to a fire at the end of his book, A Higher Loyalty. “Yes, the current president will do significant damage in the short term,” he writes:
“Important norms and traditions will be damaged by the flames. But forest fires, as painful as they can be, bring growth. They spur growth that was impossible before the fire, when old trees crowded out new plants on the forest floor. In the midst of this fire, I already see new life — young people engaged as never before, and the media, the courts, academics, nonprofits and all other parts of civil society finding reason to bloom. The fire also offers an opportunity to rebalance power among the three branches of our government, closer to the model the founders intended. There is reason to believe this fire will leave the presidency weaker and Congress and the courts stronger, just as the forest fire of Watergate did. There is a lot of good in that.”
Surely fire is the appropriate metaphor, then. We need some sort of fire-based monument to make sure 22nd century Americans stay engaged with politics, too. Something that will remind us: no more Watergates, especially not the stupid version.
I’m not suggesting anything like the John F. Kennedy eternal flame in Arlington National Cemetery, but its polar opposite. Something far more appropriate to the subject. Something that will remind us of what is probably the most-used GIF of the Trump age.