Novelist and screenwriter Aleksandar Hemon on the "magnitude of catastrophe" facing America

"Matrix 4" writer on the clash between Trump's right-wing revolution and the Democrats' "wishful thinking"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 3, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

A torn and burnt upside down American flag hangs, as protesters march through the streets (SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images)
A torn and burnt upside down American flag hangs, as protesters march through the streets (SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images)

The American people are in pain. There have been days of protest and civil unrest in many American cities following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by the Minneapolis Police Department on Memorial Day.

These convulsions in the American body politic are not just the result of one more murder of an unarmed, surrendered black man by a white cop, televised before the world like a New Age lynching. America's problems are vast.

The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 108,000 people in the United States, with the total number of cases now approaching 2 million. Donald Trump and his administration have responded with malevolent indifference. These deaths are but another entry in a social Darwinist ledger where the "useless eaters" are being left to die for "capitalism" — and in service to Trump's 2020 re-election campaign.

Now the American people are struggling through a second Great Depression, in which tens of millions cannot pay their rents or mortgages, or feed their families. Republicans have only offered a pittance for ordinary people amid this global economic disaster — a onetime payment of $1,200 — while giving big corporations and the richest citizens trillions of dollars of the American people's money.

Overall, there is a sense that something is deeply wrong in this country and this society, which elevated a racial authoritarian demagogue and avatar of corruption to the presidency. Many Americans feel ashamed by how their country now appears before the world. There is great potential for positive change in America, but to this point no great hero or leader has emerged. That vacuum is what makes Trump's power so great. Even though he lacks a great mass movement after the model of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, he commands cult-like followers who will carry out his every wish.

Trump is an authoritarian and neofascist, who only knows how to destroy and not create. He is not a unifier but a divider. Like other leaders of that ilk, Trump uses violence, chaos and pain as a primary means of expanding and securing power.

For Trump and the Republican Party, America's pain is a target of opportunity for their gangster capitalist agenda.

Trump has used "stochastic terrorism" to encourage violent threats by his followers and enforcers against prominent Democrats like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump has also targeted nonwhite people, Muslims, immigrants and "liberals" in general with violent threats. 

Trump has made reference to "Second Amendment solutions" as a way of inspiring right-wing militias and other paramilitaries to attack his perceived enemies. As seen with his recent declaration of "MAGA Night," Trump would like to mobilizes white supremacists and other right-wing terrorists as his street hooligan enforcers.

Trump has urged his armed followers to threaten or perhaps overturn the governments of Democratic-led states and cities if they do not bow to his will by ending public health measures designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. To some extent, they have been successful: The Michigan state legislature was recently forced into recess by such threats of violence.

This week, Trump has threatened to invoke a 200-year-old law called the Insurrection Act to crush the protests and civil unrest which has burst forth in response to the killing of George Floyd. This is one more step in Trump's effort to create an autocratic pseudo-democracy where he rules indefinitely. Martial law would be the most efficient way for Donald Trump to use a "state of emergency" — his personal Reichstag-fire moment — as a way to end America's constitutional democracy and the rule of law.

Donald Trump has his knee on the throat of American democracy, just as surely as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had his on the throat of George Floyd. 

In a recent article for the Intercept, Bosnian-born novelist Aleksandar Hemon — also the co-writer of the forthcoming "Matrix" sequel — warns that the United States is careening towards ethnic violence, civil war and self-destruction under Donald Trump. The "most important and troubling symptom," he writes, is the rising atmosphere of conflict "meant to culminate in transformative, cathartic violence; this marks the beginning of collective self-actualization." Hemon continues:

As we bear witness to armed white American militias storming or protesting outside government institutions, it is clear that the chaos and tragedy of Covid-19 are being used by Trump and the GOP to enhance the conflict and accelerate the birth of a new, greater America. At the heart of every nationalist mythology is some kind of a rebirth, usually bloody and requiring sacrifices, preferably of the weak and the doubtful. ...

For many of my fellow ex-Yugoslavs, it was instantly clear that once the GOP and Trump committed to conflict and destruction, they could never afford to quit, for that would constitute a tactical error leading to an irreversible defeat. They now have no choice but to follow their trajectory to its logical extreme, which must be victory and rebirth at all cost. They will kill if they have to, or at least let Covid-19 do it.

When armed Trumpists pretend to be a happening of good people who demand the end of the lockdown, anti-fascist ex-Yugoslavs don't necessarily see an American version of murderous Serbian paramilitaries. What we see with heart-clenching clarity is that the familiar nationalist strategy of perpetually inciting conflict is advancing along a predictable trajectory.

In our recent conversation, Hemon warned that Donald Trump and the far right are engaged in revolutionary politics where compromise is not possible because they are preparing for armed conflict, while Joe Biden and the Democrats are only worried about the normative strategy and tactics of electoral democracy. Hemon also described Trump as leading a death cult organized around white supremacy and the related existential insecurities of the white men who are attracted to such politics. Like other death cults, Trump's supporters are willing to kill and die in his name, believing it will lead to personal rebirth and glory.

Hemon also shared details on a proposed project he developed with Lana Wachowski and David Mitchell in 2017, about a United States ruined by Trump-like demagogues, civil war, environmental disasters and — believe it or not — a pandemic. As usual, our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

So many people are in a state of terror and fear right now. From my perspective they should have been afraid at least four years ago in response to Trump. Why were so many people in denial about the dire dangers of Donald Trump and what he represents? Why are they so late in realizing the reality of the situation? It was all so obvious.

The fight is not over. This moment with Trump, the other members of the global right-wing and the virus is going to have consequences across many areas of our lives. We are struggling just to stay alive right now. There are going to be severe consequences from all the forces coming together that no one can quite predict.

The virus allows Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán and other authoritarians to accelerate a total reconfiguration of their respective societies. Such leaders are not fighting the virus so much as they are fighting to radically change society to serve their far-right agenda. That goal and agenda is not always visible to many people.

Donald Trump keeps saying that he is a "war president." That claim is being misinterpreted by most observers in the mainstream news media. What Trump really means is that he is an authoritarian and the rule of law does not apply to him. Trump is able to hide his true intent because he floods the zone with chaos, distractions and lies. In most important ways, Donald Trump is open about his plans.

This is part of a strategy. The global right and its leaders want to make everything meaningless. They want people to "fish in murky waters," as the saying goes back in my home of Yugoslavia. One headline by itself would stand out and the public would understand the danger. People either understand the entirety and wholeness of this dangerous situation or they choose not to. If the public cannot see the big picture, they will also not be able to see how the smaller parts fit together as a whole. It all seems like one isolated series of events after another. For those who cannot see the big picture, it is a maelstrom and they lack perspective to make sense of it all.

Another element of Trump's authoritarianism — and this is why the mainstream media is still unable to effectively grapple with this crisis — are the threats against reporters and journalists, where he calls them "fake news" and "human scum". Journalists have also been attacked and killed in America under Trump.

There is an inability to grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe. Before the war in Bosnia, in the former Yugoslavia, the catastrophe of war was so huge that people were too fearful to imagine what was happening because that would have meant — as turned out to be the case — that their entire way of life, the very structure of life, would be destroyed. If the people in Bosnia or the former Yugoslavia were then to have acknowledged or understood the magnitude of the catastrophe it would have meant making choices about changing their lives. This would have helped them to keep their agency. But too many of them waited, therefore losing their agency, and the catastrophe of the civil war and ethnic cleansing made the decision for them.

This is a frightening proposition to a lot of people. That meant, in case of their war, they would have to get up and leave their lives and not take much for themselves. And so one finds oneself in a situation where you see that there is a catastrophe unfolding and say, "But what am I going to do now?"

Difficult decisions must be made. And it's terrible. It is a horrible proposition. People start negotiating with reality to avoid the catastrophe and the real possibility of death. In this country at present that looks like, "Maybe it's not that bad? Maybe Biden is going to fix it? Maybe somehow Trump is going to turn presidential all of a sudden? Maybe the Republicans actually do love this country? Maybe I should wait to see what happens, and decide in a month?"

With Trumpism the news media has to change the entire way in which they interpret and engage with reality. The American news media, for the most part, cannot do it. They cannot make that pivot. The rules are different with an authoritarian such as Donald Trump.

At the same time, the advantage of Trump and his movement is that they do not care about reality or the truth. They are a death cult. They are not afraid to die. The Trumpists and Republicans are excited and motivated by the possibility of remaking reality itself, because they are in revolutionary mode. The Democrats and everyone else are, by comparison, trying to find a magical way to retain the status quo. Which, even if the status quo was somehow good enough, is now impossible to salvage. The American right's, and the global right's, revolutionary process is far too advanced at this point.

What guidance would you give the average person about maintaining perspective and reorienting themselves to this new reality?

People are struggling with the logistics of life, just staying on the surface and not drowning. Given the circumstances with the economy and the state of the world I would not blame anyone for that. But there has been this longstanding notion that America is a stable society. It is a country with its own deep tradition of checks and balances. In America, however deep the social injustice and inequality, the future was something that could be reasonably anticipated. Even if things were bad, there was a sense of continuity and predictability.  

But what is happening now with COVID is that people in the United States simply do not know what is going to happen in a month. The future has become unpredictable. In America, people are now negotiating reality. Having to figure out reality and what is true or not on a basic level is a shocking change for many people in America and some other parts of the world. People are now thinking of the "future" in terms of months and not three or 10 or 30 years in the future. With this disruption in even being able to plan for the future, it takes agency away and gives it to other people and individuals. Someone else is now deciding your fate. Meanwhile, the people on the right have guns and think that they are some type of liberation force. They think they are the ones with the agency and freedom. Being on the left puts you in a position of not having agency in the United States at present.

One person's dystopia is another person's utopia. The global right wing has purpose. They have got the guns. They are highly ideological and committed. There is a core group of the global right-wing extremists who are committed to "accelerationism," destroying society in order to create their own new world.

The right wing is in revolutionary mode because part of every nationalist movement or discourse is a myth of some kind of sacrifice or rebirth in blood and sacrifice. That logic justifies all of their wars and mass killing. Donald Trump has no ideology or understanding of political theory and philosophy. But Trump does have an instinctive understanding of nationalism.

He just said the other day, "Our doctors are at war." It's a war that is part of the rebirth of the nation.

Donald Trump and the right wing are in revolutionary mode, but there are so many observers who believe that they are just stupid and insane. These outsiders do not really understand what is happening. They dismiss what the right wing is doing as some type of farce or joke when it is deadly serious.

Revolutionary political parties do not need many supporters or members to succeed. Obsessing over how many people do or do not support Donald Trump is an error. Numbers are not the absolute measure of his strength. The true measure of Trump's strength is how many people are willing to die for him. How many people in America and Europe are willing to die for a leftist cause? Donald Trump has stormtroopers. We don't have stormtroopers. It is that simple. The Democrats are so afraid of anyone who even appears that they might just be a tiny bit radical. Even something like national health care is treated as too radical. The Democrats are not preparing for a fight; they're preparing for a vote. Those are not the same things. It is not enough. And it is probably useless in the long run, when the Democrats are up against a revolutionary right-wing movement.

The other part of the equation is the people who are willing to kill for Donald Trump and his movement. Moreover, Trump's supporters have been killing their "enemies" here in the United States through mass shootings and other violence. Those murders, assaults and other violence have been a feature of Trump's regime. Unfortunately, the mainstream news media has not been consistently reporting on it because such outcomes are now normalized.

A large number of people who are willing to die for Donald Trump are also willing to kill for him. These Trump supporters are willing to sacrifice their previous morality and to be reborn through an act of blood and sacrifice in service to him. The military is very important here. During the wars in the former Yugoslavia it came down to who controlled the military. In the United States, people on the left are saying, "Well, if it really gets that bad, the military will intervene and save us." We are at a point where people on the left in the United States are hoping for military intervention — as though that's a good thing. What will the United States military do? I don't know.

The Democrats really believe they can just vote Trump out of office. They are not properly organizing for all possibilities and in response to what the right wing is doing.

We hope that Biden will get elected and then somehow we'll return to some status quo from before and pre-Trump democracy will be restored in some way. That's just wishful thinking. Totally wishful thinking. Meanwhile, Donald Trump and the right wing and the Republicans are preparing for a showdown.

Trump and the broader right are now saying that people should sacrifice themselves for "the economy"  by dying from the coronavirus pandemic. Specifically, those who should die are the elderly and others who are vulnerable to the disease. This is social Darwinism. It is fascistic. That logic should be abhorrent but there has been little outrage from the American people.

I don't know what could constitute enough outrage and opposition. There has to be change at the end. Otherwise it is just yelling at the wind. Moreover, what is needed now to counter Trump and his movement is more than just objections — it must be a vision and an alternative plan. There must also be a movement that is created out of that rage and anger in order to follow through on the necessary work and struggle.

Being angry is a precondition, I suppose, for some kind of radical or at least committed action. But it's a necessary but not sufficient condition. There is plenty of outrage. What is lacking is a framework for what to do with that outrage. Democrats are afraid of that outrage. Whatever happens with Trump and the 2020 election, and afterwards, the United States is going to be radically different than before. The question becomes, who wins? Trump and the revolutionary right wing, or the left and the Democrats?

Suppose Joe Biden and the Democrats win. Who in their sane mind thinks that will lead to a radical correction to the country? Who really believes that Donald Trump and his enforcers are just going to drop their weapons and go home? That is not going to happen. The United States is heading towards a conflict. This conflict cannot be resolved politically. I believe that it may have to be resolved extra-politically.

I initially accepted the fact that some people voted for Trump in 2016 because they are straight-ticket Republican voters. I think that is a horrible decision, but I can understand it on a certain level. But to continue to support Trump at present given the authoritarianism, corruption, white supremacy, misogyny, environmental destruction and malevolent negligence is to be complicit. Trump's supporters are now active agents of fascism. I have suggested in my writing and interviews that people of conscience and other good people should not interact in any way with Trump supporters, even if they are members of the family. How have you made such decisions?

I agree. Trump's supporters are participating in a project that directly impacts my life, my family and the people I love in a very negative and dangerous way. We are past the point of understanding with Trump and his supporters. That moment was gone a long time ago. Any intelligent, active citizen understands the consequences of their actions. The whole idea that somehow these white people voted for Donald Trump while not meaning to be racist is just nonsense. If they somehow did not know that Donald Trump is a racist, then it is their responsibility to find out. Now it is evident because Trump is a rabid white supremacist who is aligned with the worst racist elements in the country. To support Donald Trump is to be complicit with white supremacy. It is to actively support a white supremacist project.

I do not talk to Donald Trump's supporters. They are my enemies. I want them to go away and not be anywhere near me. I do not want to "unite" with such people in this country. I do not care if they live in the same country as me. Donald Trump's supporters are my enemies and I want them gone from my life. And that's a hard thing to say. Countries break up over such things. This is imaginable in this country now. And what is imaginable is possible.

You have written about the ethnic conflict and civil war in Yugoslavia and your fears of how such a thing is now on the horizon in the United States. How are people — especially young men — seduced and radicalized into committing such acts of violence?

It is empowering. It flatters their masculine power. Nationalism and fascism are always masculine political projects. This is why misogyny is always an aspect of any kind of nationalism. Fascism and nationalism also empowers old men. And in the context of white male supremacy, the advances of people of color and women were imagined as somehow disempowering white men. These white men became disgruntled. They lost jobs. But the problem with that white male anger is that it ignores that black and brown people lost their jobs too from deindustrialization, neoliberalism, globalization and related forces. The anger and sense of loss and feeling that they do not have agency was compensated for by uniting behind Donald Trump.

I always took Trump seriously. He was always capable of reaching this point. It's not that he's exceptional. It is rather that the conditions were right for Trump to win the presidency because he embodies this vulgar, blatant misogyny, sexism and arrogance. His psychopathic characteristics exactly match the fantasies of fascism.

There is another aspect of Donald Trump's popularity among his followers. There is something terribly reassuring to a certain type of person that one can be stupid and lazy and so openly unpleasant and still become president of the United States. By comparison Barack Obama had to be a saint. He had to be perfect, Harvard-educated and wise. But Trump's white supporters hated him intensely. Trump restores a certain type of faith in white supremacy for his supporters because someone as stupid and bad and lazy and evil as Trump can become president of the United States. Trump's supporters now know that the worst of them can still be president. That must be terribly reassuring.

Donald Trump's narcissism and other mental pathologies exactly match the collective pathology of white nationalists. Trump is a natural-born white supremacist because in any other context he is an idiot and a psychopath. 

You are one of the co-writers of "The Matrix 4." The Age of Trump, and now this pandemic and associated economic collapse is a surreal living nightmare. Could you have sat down and made up such a story? Would it even be believable?

With the same writers I worked with on "The Matrix 4," we developed a spec script in December of 2017. The premise of the project was the disintegration of the United States and what happened afterward, as seen through the lives of several characters over 25 or so years of time in the story. Anything imaginable is possible. In our story there was a pandemic, environmental collapse, random violence, militias and rogue governors of different states.

I am sure people are writing science fiction stories based in this current moment, and his gets us back to politics in this moment and the power of imagination. I believe that many people cannot accept what is happening and are in denial because they lack imagination. They cannot make sense of the headlines because their minds eliminate so many possibilities about what is happening in the world right now — and what will happen in the future.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Aleksandar Hemon Authoritarianism Donald Trump Editor's Picks Fascism Interview Lana Wachowski The Matrix