How I Became A Prophet
And how you can become one too—by not really trying, using your imagination, paying attention, and getting old
The last few years, and the last few weeks—QAnon cultists entering Congress as both invaders and members, the GameStop madness—have made me feel prescient and even, occasionally, megalomaniacally, I must confess, prophetic.
In the beginning was Trump. The satirical magazine Spy, which I co-founded, covered him a lot. As part of our 1988 election coverage, we commissioned a poll asking “Who are you most disappointed isn’t running for president?” In addition to legitimate politicians, we offered Trump as a choice, and 4% picked him, about as many as picked Joe Biden. “In terms of level of education, the voters who most favored a Trump candidacy—9%—were those whose minds remain uncluttered by any education beyond junior high school.” “We’ve come to believe,” we declared, mock-seriously, “that a Donald Trump candidacy is viable,” and what’s more, “we already have Donald Trump’s personal guarantee that if he did run for president, he would win.”
Right after that we started always referring to him in the magazine as “short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump”—and then, voilà, 28 years later, there he was running for president, and after one of his opponents joked in 2016 that “his hands are the size of someone who’s five-two,” Trump complained at the next debate that “he hit my hands, nobody has ever hit my hands, I have never heard of this.”
In my first novel, Turn of the Century (1999), when one of the main characters reads an item in a gossip column—“WHAT distinguished casino mogul and real estate genius arranged to get which liberal newspaper columnist reprimanded after the writer unfairly attacked him?”—he “wonders how many items Trump must offer to ‘Page Six’ that they decline to run.” Then in 2016, as the real Trump was making attacks on the press a centerpiece of his candidacy, we learned in the press that for years he had phoned reporters posing as his own publicist.
Turn of the Century was set in the present, but it had a science-fictionish quality because I wrote it in the late 90s, when the present suddenly seemed futuristic—the digital revolution still new and exciting, the lines between reality and entertainment blurring like crazy. One of my main characters runs a computer-game startup that Microsoft is trying to acquire—even though in real life Microsoft had not yet gotten into the gaming business or introduced X-Box. Apropos the GameStop episode 22 years later, I have a group of young online mischief-makers intending to embarrass the Man and screw around with Wall Street post a fake news story that dramatically moves Microsoft’s stock price—which a hedge fund character uses to make millions. Survivor and Big Brother and all the resulting reality TV hybrids hadn’t yet come along, but the gaming entrepreneur’s husband has created a cop drama that incorporates scenes of real police policing and a news show featuring scenes of the anchors’ and reporters’ private lives. Another character, prominent in the TV business, is embarrassed after he’s accidentally recorded masturbating to live online porn.
As soon as Trump became president, I wrote (with Alec Baldwin) a fictional memoir called You Can’t Spell America Without Me (2017). I had him planning to fire James Comey and the White House butler, but then when he actually did so I had to cut those passages. In the book I have him hoping the Dreamers’ lawsuit would be assigned to “that judge who extorted me for $25 million in the Trump University case, the Mexican”—and then Judge Gonzalo Curiel actually got the case. “I was in the presidential chair behind the big desk,” I have him saying of a meeting with the Speaker of the House and his chief of staff, “with Ryan and his pal Reince sitting on the other side. Ryan and Reince, Ryan and Reince, Ryan and Reince. ‘If we pull the health plan now I’m going to look weak,’” he says. Some time after that The New York Times reported that in real life, “the president had adopted a practice of merging the two men’s names into one long ‘Ryan-ce.’ ‘Don’t you have health care to take care of?’ Mr. Trump asked Mr. Priebus at one recent meeting around his desk.” I had fictional Trump tell his Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch that “quite frankly you look great, too, not just the white hair, distinguished, like Mike Pence…you’re a very good-looking guy. Central Casting!” Later, in real life, as he was explaining to an Economist reporter how he’d appealed to the right by making Pence famous, the vice-president entered the room and Trump interjected: “Central casting!” After my fictional Trump fires Michael Flynn, I have him muse that “he looked so much like Fredo right then. Even though I wasn’t actually having him ‘killed,’” and later wonders, “is Jared a Fredo? I’m starting to worry he’s a Fredo who thinks he’s a Michael.” Two years later in real life, Trump repeatedly referred to CNN anchor Chris Cuomo as “Fredo.” By the way, the novel ends with the president going mad.
Then there’s the two histories I published, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (2017) and Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America (2020). The first is about how selling and believing exciting falsehoods—such as preposterous conspiracy theories—has defined America for its whole 400 years and lately spun dangerously out of control. I finished it before Trump was nominated for president, and it came out before QAnon existed. Central to Evil Geniuses is the story of how manic and senseless financial speculation and stock-price obsession became the tail wagging our economic dog, turning America into a crooked casino where the house always wins; the GameStop episode was a perfect example of history repeating, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.
So how do I do this party trick? One reason, I think, is that I’ve never tried to predict the future. It’s also because the fiction I write is realistic and socially rooted, and conversely I approach non-fiction books partly as a fiction writer and satirist, giving myself license to connect dots oddly and change lanes at will. And because I’m not young: after four or five decades, if you’ve paid attention, you can really start seeing historical arcs, like when an airplane reaches the altitude where the curvature of the Earth becomes visible.
I have no idea if it’ll keep happening. But now when I find myself thinking about new projects I might undertake—for instance, wondering what it might be like if the United States broke up—it comes with an extra helping of heebie-jeebies.