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Space the Nation: What Donald Trump owes to science fiction

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Jan 29, 2019, 3:00 PM EST

From New York Magazine, “How Trump Offered NASA Unlimited Funding to Go to Mars in His First Term”:

As the clock ticked down, Trump “suddenly turned toward the NASA administrator.” He asked: “What’s our plan for Mars?”

Lightfoot explained to the president — who, again, had recently signed a bill containing a plan for Mars — that NASA planned to send a rover to Mars in 2020 and, by the 2030s, would attempt a manned spaceflight.


“But what if I gave you all the money you could ever need to do it?” Trump asked. “What if we sent NASA’s budget through the roof, but focused entirely on that instead of whatever else you’re doing now. Could it work then?”

Lightfoot told him he was sorry, but he didn’t think it was possible. This left Trump “visibly disappointed,” Sims wrote. “But I tried to refocus him on the task at hand. We were now about 90 seconds from going live.”

Donald Trump is our most science fictional president, and I only mean this in part regarding his ability to inspire years’ worth of jokes about “the dumbest timeline.” Trump exists in a science fiction universe, where the distinctions between reality and fantasy are permanently blurred, where absurd things can be spoken into existence and the most intractable problems of society and technology can all be solved with the application of enough money.

His easy adoption of fantastical ideas suggests, on the surface, a man of tremendous imagination: he seems to believe in the existence of invisible planes, the possibility of a “see-through” border wall, and border crossings that defy Euclidean geometry:

"They don’t go through your port of entry. They make a right turn going very quickly, they go into the desert areas or whatever areas you can look at, and as soon as there’s no protection, they make a left or a right into the United States of America."

Trump also lies a lot, and we generally presume lying to be an imaginative pursuit, story-telling. We call serial liars “fabulists” and describe them as “spinning yarns.” But what’s remarkable about Trump’s untruths isn’t that they are imaginative, it’s that they are so soddenly pedestrian. They aren’t original inventions but rather tired iterations of what Trump perceives as reality. Trump's most creative thought is his own belief that he is creative.

There’s a whole twitter subculture devoted to documenting how Trump’s startling tweets — his abrupt early morning declarations that appear to be birthed out of his head fully-formed, like white supremacist Athenas  — well, those are just the President live-tweeting Fox News.

Think about the lies he tells about brown and black people. They live desperate lives of unremitting violence, apparently, except if one of them is the President of the United States, in which case, as Trump has told visitors to the Oval Office, “He sat in here and watched basketball all day.” Don’t let the racism of his statements distract you from how they are also cliches. He’s not fabricating ideas, he’s copying them. Maybe less powerful liars have to think on their feet to keep from getting caught, but Trump lies in order to not think.

You could also think of the promises Trump has made to his supporters: A gigantic corporate tax cut will somehow “bring jobs back.” He will “drain the swamp.” These are both hoary campaign bromides as familiar and as empty as a small-town Main Street. And this is part of how I understand Trump to be science fictional. As in all B-grade horror movies, believing Trump’s projections requires the audience to do most of the imaginative work.

His ideas about science — and space in particular — have mostly been gleaned while channel-flipping between the hectoring pessimism of cable news and the credulous fanaticism of late-night infomercials, maybe a midnight broadcast of Moonraker mixed in as well. (I am certain that interview with the astronauts would eventually have gotten around to “so have you, you know, DONE IT in zero-g?” had he been given enough time.)

Trump’s biggest, boldest ideas — the wall, Space Force — are just gilded iterations of what’s gone before. Space Force is a hammy send-up of mid-century notions about interplanetary travel and laser gun battles, "the wall" is both a time-honored narrative trope and the kind of literalist solution to a made-up problem that is the basis for a whole subgenre of howlingly anti-science “science fiction” movies, from Armageddon to The Core

His vision for Mars isn’t an optimistic leap forward, but rather an adoption of yesteryear’s fears, the need to pursue manifest destiny into the stars mainly to make sure no one else gets there first. Trump isn’t interested in the avenues of scientific inquiry opened by space exploration, he just wants to scout locations for his first off-world hotel.

The administration is also apparently reviving Reagan’s “Star Wars” project of space-based missile intervention, which was itself the creation of science-fiction writers. If the project moves forward, it will be the perfect encapsulation of the Trump approach to policy: a copy of a copy, seen in a greasy rear-view mirror. These ambitions are suffocating rather than freeing. His utopia — America made great again — looks backward and exerts force downwards.

So when I say Trump is our most science fictional president, what I mean is that he’s a president who seems to have stepped out of a science fiction story. (Indeed, novelists proved better at predicting Trump than pundits were.) He’s a cardboard cut-out Bungling/Greedy Authority Figure who exists to tell the scientists to push on with their experiments despite clear indications of disaster; he’s the one to dismiss the protagonist’s warnings; he thunders orders to our heroes while exclaiming that their last-ditch efforts don’t stand a chance. In fiction, that character usually gets his comeuppance by early in Act Two, so no wonder so many people keep assuming this Presidency is about to end. But we’re still writing this story, we have no idea if we’re really half-way to the end or just beginning.

Trump’s ability to exist in a science fictional milieu means he’s probably the political leader most likely to deal with an actual alien invasion with something approaching calm. After all, he already thinks of immigrants as something other than human.

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