Depending on how the next few decades of American life unfold, cultural historians will either look back on The Handmaid’s Tale as a prescient glimpse of the dystopian horrors that awaited American women in the dawning of a brutal totalitarian dictatorship or as an expression of the deepest, most intense political fears haunting liberals during the Trump presidency.
I'm betting on the latter.
The first possibility is exceedingly unlikely, and not only because if the U.S. comes to resemble the thoroughly misogynistic Christian theocracy portrayed in the gripping Hulu TV series, there will be no cultural historians around to freely study the American past. It’s also unlikely because, despite what a surprisingly large number of professional writers, ordinary viewers, and comedians appear to believe, this viciously tyrannical society (named Gilead) is light years away from early 21st-century life in the United States (yes, even with President Trump in the White House and Mike Pence wiling away his time in the Naval Observatory). That makes the series important primarily as an expression of anxieties rooted in the present, not as a plausible (or even possible) vision of how events will unfold over the coming years and decades in the United States.
As anyone who's watched or read about the show is well aware, Gilead is a terrifying place, conjured in the imagination of Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood in the early 1980s during the backlash to second-wave feminism, reimagined and expanded for television in the closing years of the Obama administration, and given added urgency and intensity by the surprise defeat of the first female major-party nominee for president at the hands of a flagrantly sexist right-wing populist who also enjoyed the fervent support of conservative evangelical Protestants.
The 2016 election took place while the first season of the show was being filmed, so any parallels viewers discerned between the nightmares endured by the women of Gilead and the those suffered by women living in contemporary America were purely coincidental. But the same cannot be said of season two, which is currently underway. Whether in the theocratic present or in chilling flashbacks to key moments in the transition to a world in which modern, liberated women (and homosexuals) were systematically stripped of their freedoms — with some (rare fertile women in a world plagued by infertility) turned into sexual slaves, systematically raped in order to become "handmaids," human incubators for Gilead's political elite — the show goes out of its way to imply connections to Trump-era America.
When the show's protagonist June Osborne / Offred (brilliantly played by Elizabeth Moss) hides out in the abandoned offices of The Boston Globe some time after government agents have used them as a slaughterhouse for journalists, we can't help but think of President Trump's venomous rants against the media. When a lesbian professor has her marriage and parental rights invalidated at the airport as she tries to flee the country with her wife and child, we notice that the pitiless bureaucrat who does the deed, along with numerous armed (invariably male) officers menacingly patrolling nearby, wears an ICE uniform. We also notice that when this officer nullifies the marriage, he does so by summarily appealing to the (divine) law that supercedes merely human laws (like those granting gays the right to marry), which echoes the rhetoric of some Christian conservatives in our own day.
What the creators of the series are attempting to suggest is that the Trump administration could well be the leading edge of a movement that culminates in the complete overthrow of liberal democracy and its replacement with a form of government straight out of the writings of Christian Reconstructionist R.J. Rushdoony, the theocratic Calvinist thinker who advocated the adoption of "Bible law" in the United States.
That is, quite obviously, ludicrous. Gay marriage is legal in all 50 states and supported by nearly two-thirds of the country. Abortion remains a polarizing issue, but only 18 percent of the country wants it banned, while 79 percent prefers it to be legal in some or all circumstances. Yes, right-wing provocateur Kevin Williamson seemed to be taking his cues from the government of Gilead when he suggested that women who've had abortions should face the death penalty by hanging. But his (inconsistently defended) view on the matter is almost universally rejected even by the pro-life movement. Yes, women continue to face harassment and sometimes abuse and even assault in the workplace, but almost no one thinks that the solution is for women to be confined to the home. Yes, a pair of terrorists in recent months appear to have been motivated by an especially virulent form of misogyny. But nearly everyone condemns and is appalled by their actions.
Yet that hasn’t stopped liberal commentators from playing along with the Handmaid storyline, insinuating that the Republican Party and its tens of millions of voters, if not under President Trump then almost certainly under a future President Pence, would like nothing more than to institute a misogynistic theocracy in the United States very much like Gilead.
What has led liberals to such an overwrought position? I suspect it's at least partly a product of trauma, which is precisely what Trump's triumph over Hillary Clinton amounted to for many on the left. For them, Trump's win wasn't just a disappointment and a significant if temporary setback. It was something far more ominous and world-historical in implication.
Progressivism is, at bottom, a philosophy of history, a faith in the providential unfolding of morality and human flourishing in the world. In the past, things were worse. In the present, they are better. In the future, they will be better still. The victory of a more moderate Republican after eight years of Barack Obama would have generated anger at the prospect of progress stalling for a time. But an overtly sexist and racist white man prevailing against a woman and then acting immediately to advance the policy priorities of the conservative evangelical faction that helped to make his victory possible? That isn't supposed to happen. It smacks not of a pause in the historical advance of morality but of its outright reversal.
For someone reared on providential thinking, it can be exceedingly hard to break the habit of thinking in terms of historical inevitability — even when faith in one's own side prevailing gets shaken by events that seem to falsify it. In such cases, the contrary evidence becomes the occasion for entertaining a narrative of anti-progress or decline in which the forces of darkness gain ground over time, eventually banishing the moral light altogether.
The Handmaid's Tale is gripping television, but that's not why it's become a cultural touchstone for our time. The show has touched a nerve because it speaks to the deep-seated need to hold onto a belief in one side triumphing providentially over the other, even when it might be more sensible to conclude that nothing in history is inevitable, that neither side in our partisan conflicts is likely to prevail absolutely, and that we therefore have no choice but to learn how to live with one another in the moral muddle of the present.