What a different titanic force bestriding politics for a seeming eternity can tell us about the Trump years.
He dominated politics for what seemed like an eternity. Certainly nobody could remember what it was like before he came along. With his titanic presence, he forced public life to revolve around himself through sheer will and apparent omnipresence. His mere whims altered current events and made his personal life unpredictable. He seemed to sleep only rarely. He had a machine that was connected directly to his brain by which he could immediately transmit his thoughts, and he used it frequently. He had many devoted followers — and many enemies. But this latter group eventually succeeded in doing the unthinkable — ending the era of his dominance — by exploiting a key weakness that was an unforeseen consequence of his apparent strength. He had tiny hands.
I speak, of course, of Leto II Atreides, the God Emperor of Dune, not of Donald Trump, despite their similarities (and some important differences). The titular main character of the fourth book in Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi series Dune, the God Emperor is both a culmination of what came before and a complete separation from it. Herbert’s world was already fantastical before the God Emperor entered the picture: a vision thousands of years into mankind’s future, when it has become a spacefaring race but is trapped in a feudal empire dominated by contesting aristocratic families, all dependent on a single substance, the drug melange, to enable faster-than-light space travel via the prescient visions it enables. It is found on the desert planet Dune, a world that, after a harrowing trial, Paul Atreides, the scion of one of these families, conquers. From there, Paul unwittingly unleashes an intergalactic jihad (the book’s term) that subjugates the known universe, but still leaves mankind at risk of an extinction he can foresee but cannot bring himself through the agonies necessary to prevent. It falls to his son, Leto II, to gruesomely transform himself into a hybrid of human and sandworm, one of Dune’s fearsome fauna, rendering himself godlike, functionally immortal, and indestructible. So empowered, and both inheriting and expanding his father’s empire, he has the time and the capabilities needed to direct the course of human affairs away from the various dooms he foresees — that is, until his own doom, whose exact form he cannot foresee.
Given all this, one might think that the resemblance between the God Emperor of Dune and former President Trump is only superficial, or coincidental, and that other analogues are superior. Fair, but this essay is going to require you to walk with me, and I’m too invested in the premise to stop. So, if you will . . .
There remains a great deal we can learn about the Trump years from the God Emperor of Dune, in their similarities and in their differences. Indeed, such an analysis might even offer something of a glimpse into the future, refracted, that is, through the lens of a fantastical sci-fi landscape.
The surface-level overlaps above are hardly exhaustive; there are many others. For example, the God Emperor’s actions could appear inscrutable even to his intimates, who were frequently the subjects of his wrath. Even his most trusted advisers feared the appearance of “the Worm,” when Leto II’s human self-restraint lost out to the animalistic urges within him. As for those he distrusted, he could be swift and cruel in dispatching them. In a sometimes darkly humorous sci-fi conceit, Leto II constantly kills and then revives as a clone a reliable military adviser who, in each of his iterations, eventually comes to despise the God Emperor. In this we see a real-world resemblance to the erratic staffing of the Trump administration, whose constituent parts could fall unpredictably in and out of favor with its head.
We also see a bit of Trump’s own lack of self-control, unwillingness to change his ways, and quickness to anger. “The God Emperor’s moods are like a river,” one close associate says of Leto II. “Smooth where nothing obstructs him, foaming and violent at the least suggestion of a barrier. He is not to be obstructed.” Trump’s time in office provided many occasions of frustration for him; after the last of these, an election he lost, he lashed out in truly deleterious fashion, bringing chaos and disruption down upon a branch of government that he saw as thwarting his will. It was a spectacle unworthy of our nation, and against which we must now guard even more unceasingly than before, a dark precedent having been established.
But that was at the end. For four intervening years, Trump stood atop the American political system, not merely as president but as cultural totem. His supporters and detractors alike acknowledged this, the latter as they sought the end of this status quo. The God Emperor of Dune, having suppressed the development of technology and smothered any other forms of civilizational expression besides himself, brags, correctly, at his peak that he is “the only spectacle remaining in the Empire.” Even to the end of his time as president, Trump could make a similar boast. Would media outlets, with their legion of fact-checkers (hired in the Trump years), dare to contest it? Would the publications who went on hiring sprees from subscriber and advertiser gains gotten in vying with Trump? Would the networks who loathed the man but admitted he was good for their bottom line, and awarded him with airtime reflecting that fact?
The God Emperor of Dune had devoted followers, the priests of his religion. It is an obvious point that Trump has such people as well, a media and political infrastructure dedicated to his fanatical support. Far more interesting to consider is the parallel structure just as dependent on him, but in opposition. Much of Herbert’s novel takes place in a city on Dune that “has one primary purpose — public viewing of the God Emperor.” It is a fair description of Washington, D.C., during the Trump administration as well. And for all of Trump’s anger, his prevarication, his needless yet willful offenses against our political norms, his foes could respond by mimicking him. Describing a ritual he designed as part of the worship of himself (now the state religion), Leto II says that he has shaped it to resemble himself and to serve his purposes. Often without realizing it, Trump’s antagonists fell prey to this.
The most effective of his antagonists, Joe Biden, countered Trump not by partaking in these rituals but by seeing in Trump’s apparent strength a possible weakness. Trump’s omnipresence and domination of the news cycle created a temptation for many to counter him by entering the fray against him but on his own terms. And indeed, many careers and fortunes emerged from such forays. But Biden’s success was different in running against Trump to be president. To an almost parodic degree, Biden won not by trying to out-Trump Trump but by letting Trump be himself. With Biden as a virtual non-entity, Trump’s foibles filled the news, seemingly exactly what Trump himself wanted. All the while, Biden was free to let Americans associate all the chaos with the incumbent, and to let them imagine Biden as the generic, palliative alternative, however deceptive that ultimately proves to be (early signs are: very). It was a real-world equivalent of what enabled the God Emperor’s demise. Those seeking his destruction learn that his sandworm body, ostensibly the source of his incredible invulnerability, has also rendered him catastrophically susceptible to damage from something so simple as water.
The apparent ends of both God-Emperors were a seismic shift for each of their realities. On Dune, Leto’s end occasioned a great explosion of human activity and expression, so long suppressed by him. In ours, well, we’ll have to see what happens. On the right, it is a bit easier to see: As our Dan McLaughlin put it, it is now “possible to think, propose, plan, and promote conservative ideas without having to go through or around Donald Trump.” But the God Emperor wasn’t completely gone when he died. As he predicted multiple times, the specific manner of his death caused him to subdivide into multiple smaller entities, all of which would bear an imprint of his consciousness, yet “none of those knowing-pearls will be truly” him. These entities would continue to influence the world of Dune in unpredictable ways. Trump himself has gone (for now), but he has already left an indelible influence, and spawned a variety of imitators of varying degrees of success.
Here, however, the differences between Trump and Leto become of greater import. Even some of the similarities break down upon close analysis: The machine Leto II uses to transmit his thoughts is not a smartphone, nor does it produce tweets; they are, rather, entries in a secret journal intended only to be read by a far-removed posterity. And despite now seemingly ancient controversies that suggested otherwise, Trump’s hands are normal-sized, unlike Leto’s atrophying, no-longer-human limbs. Indeed, though some of Trump’s Internet fans have labeled him a God Emperor, the appellation emerges from a different sci-fi property (though one that owes a great deal to Dune).
The biggest differences remain far more instructive, however. It was often said, both in fawning praise and caustic mockery, that Trump was playing “4-D chess.” By this, it was meant that Trump’s actions were part of a design decipherable only to him, one that only much later would we mere mortals see unfold. With Trump out of office, unpopular, having presided over defeats for the party he led, with few legislative achievements to his name, it is hard to see much evidence of long-term strategy from him. Though in Trump’s most incontestable accomplishments, a tax-reform bill and a judiciary seeded with constitutionalists, one can see echoes of one of Leto II’s governing principles: “Control the coinage and the courts. Let the rabble have the rest.” Leto, on the other hand, truly was engaged in 4-D chess: With his prescient vision, and his access to thousands of years of history, he sought to guide humanity along a path to avoid its extinction. The tyranny of suppression he inflicted on the known universe was deliberate, and he in fact hoped for it to produce a reaction to the contrary upon his passing. A reaction, he further hoped, that would lead to an unprecedented flowering and expansion of civilization, one that would ensure no single threat could end the human race.
A related component of this lesson was to teach mankind that “in the wrong hands, monolithic, centralized power is a dangerous and volatile instrument.” Leto II hoped that the degree and extent of his tyranny would make him the last real tyrant ever to lord over mankind, that after him it would forever reject such governance. With the way that Trump’s opponents invoked limitations on government power and political norms during his presidency, one might have hoped they had learned a similar lesson about placing too much faith in centralized power. But now, with such power back in their hands, they have instead begun to wield it as though the last four years had never happened. Instead of seeing the danger of total adulation toward one figure, they seem to want instead to elevate other figures of their own choosing in his place. And so, improbably, it is the case that, in our reality, the idea of the God Emperor endures.