I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and looked again at Donald Trump’s latest tweet. I had read it correctly the first time. It was an unmistakable literary reference to authoritarian rule.
Trump’s warning seemed clear: Protest begets repression, and submission leads to strength. The heel of despotism will crush the divisions that threaten our great country and prostrate all of us under the weight of its boot.
This is what the Everhard Manuscript tried to warn us about: The return of the Iron Heel!
For readers unfamiliar with The Iron Heel, it’s the name of Jack London’s seminal dystopian novel about the rise of a tyrannical oligarchic dictatorship in the United States in the early 20th Century. First published 99 years ago, The Iron Heel is narrated by Avis Everhard, who chronicles the oligarchy’s violent rise to power in the years preceding the capture and execution of her revolutionary husband, Ernest, in 1932. Avis’ memory of those years was put into a journal, which later became known as the Everhard Manuscript after it was discovered by a scholar more than 600 years later, centuries after the fall of the Iron Heel.
Though London’s dystopian novel has been mostly forgotten over the years, it apparently has not escaped the careful eye and curious mind of Donald Trump, whom we know is a voracious reader and careful student of history, because he told us so.
“Well, you know, I love to read. Actually, I’m looking at a book, I’m reading a book, I’m trying to get started….I love to read,” Trump told Fox’s Tucker Carlson last March.
But Trump’s not reading just any books. After going back through everything Trump has said and tweeted over the past seven months, I believe his presidency is greatly influenced by the writings of Jack London. The president’s most memorable speeches on health care, immigration, and gang violence have echoed the central themes found in London’s Call of the Wild and To Build a Fire. The president’s views on the environment reflect London’s fascination with the timeless struggle between man and nature.
That’s why his latest tweet is so worrisome. Trump has clearly moved on from London’s earlier naturalist works to his later dystopian literature, and he may be drawing the wrong conclusions about the rise of the Iron Heel.
So I’d like to try to set the record straight about a few things that I learned from a recent reading of the Everhard Manuscript.
First and foremost, the rise of the Iron Heel was not inevitable; it’s an anomaly that can be prevented, and ultimately put down by revolution.
“In the orderly procedure of social evolution there was no place for [the Iron Heel]. It was not necessary, and it was not inevitable. It must always remain the great curiosity of history—a whim, a fantasy, an apparition, a thing unexpected and undreamed; and it should serve as a warning to those rash political theorists of today who speak with certitude of social processes.”
Secondly, the Iron Heel is vile, and oligarchs are only fooling themselves by trying to justify their despotism. The ends do not justify the means. No greatness is achieved through rule under the Iron Heel.
“The great driving force of the oligarchs is the belief that they are doing right. Never mind the exceptions, and never mind the oppression and injustice in which the Iron Heel was conceived. All is granted. The point is that the strength of the Oligarchy today lies in its satisfied conception of its own righteousness.”
Thirdly, the Iron Heel is an atavistic endeavor that is “doomed to perish as all atavisms perish,” Everhard says. So Trump’s plan to Make America Great Again is a nonstarter because “the tide of evolution never flows backward.”
What London is teaching us in The Iron Heel is that you can’t force things to return to a previous state of being any more than you can “make water run up a hill.” It’s simply against the natural order of things. And that’s something that Trump fails to understand in his reading of the novel because…oh wait a minute.
This is embarrassing. I just refreshed Twitter, and Trump has deleted his old tweet and replaced it with a new one. I guess he meant to say “heal” not “heel.”
That changes everything. I take back what I said about Trump being influenced by Jack London and modeling his government after the Iron Heel. Apparently he’s just a terrible speller.