Montag walked from the subway with the money in his pocket . . . and as he walked he was listening to the Seashell Radio in one ear . . . “We have mobilized a million men. Quick victory is ours if the war comes . . .”
“Ten million men mobilized,” Faber’s voice whispered in his other ear. “But say one million. It’s happier.”
I thought about this passage from the novel Fahrenheit 451 today as I contemplated the state of our politics. It describes the protagonist of the dystopian story, Guy Montag, as he embarks on a spying mission to assess the weaknesses and undermine the strength of his fire department. That institution, rather than being charged with quenching infernos, is tasked with burning books, which have been outlawed. As he begins his espionage, Montag communicates via a miniaturized walkie-talkie with an unemployed professor who is aiding him in his anti-establishment crusade, a professor who informs him that a government newscast is lying about the number of troops that have been called up.
My meditation on this selection was prompted by an interview I heard Ezra Klein conduct with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which they discussed Clinton’s new book and the dynamics of the 2016 presidential race. In the interview, Clinton described the challenges she faced in both the primary and general elections. In particular, she described how her opponents would often make pie-in-the-sky promises because they sounded good and would get gullible people excited.
Politicians regularly promise to do things that have no feasible chance of materializing, but I think the 2016 elections witnessed Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders guiding their followers on “trips” that would have made Timothy O’Leary green with envy. For example, Bernie promised free college for everyone, without ever specifying how he was going to pay for such an ambitious project. He also promised to implement a single-payer healthcare system (Republicans called the market-based Obamacare program “socialism” – can you imagine how they would have described Bernie’s plan?) and expand Social Security (even though, under current projections, the program is expected to be insolvent by 2035). Trump wasn’t any better – he promised to repeal Obamacare while also ensuring that no one lost coverage (that’s going nowhere fast), to end illegal immigration “immediately” (good luck with that), to bring back manufacturing jobs lost to automation (maybe he should ask the Luddites how that worked out for them), and, most outrageous of all, to slash tax rates while somehow tamping down the deficit (can George H.W. Bush give me a “voodoo economics” shout-out?).
Clinton also made promises that would have been difficult for her to fulfill, but none of her pledges verged on the Pollyanna-ish, utopian nonsense that her opponents spewed out. Instead, most of her proposals called for the kind of incremental, cautious change that usually succeeds in the notoriously sclerotic halls of American government. Defying classic gender (and sexist) stereotypes, Hillary was a realist – Bernie and Trump were hopeless romantics.
What does this all have to do with Fahrenheit 451? In the world of the book, the American people swallow blatant falsehoods (like the one about troop mobilization) from their government because they sound good –they are much less worrisome than the truth. Unfortunately, in 2016, many Americans on the left and the right chose to put their faith in far-fetched promises because they offered a rosy, reassuring view of the years to come. To put it bluntly, while Fahrenheit 451 prophesied some far-off dystopia, history may judge 2016 as the year when the horrors of a future fiction started to become the terrors of a present reality.