From politics to pop culture, the present feels more like a grim sci-fi version of reality than ever before. Welcome to Dystopia Now!, a collection of stories about our darkest timelines.
John Carpenter's seedy dystopian action flick, Escape From New York, was released in 1981. Its premise was simple: By the end of the decade, crime would get so bad that the island of Manhattan would be walled off and turned into a penal colony. America's worst convicts would be given a choice: euthanasia and cremation, or permanent exile in New York City. “There are no guards inside the prison,” read the intertitles near the beginning of the film, “only the prisoners and the worlds they have made.”
The future New York of Escape is a chaotic, bombed-out wasteland roamed by unhinged weirdos and ruled by brutal psychos. An eye-patched Kurt Russell, playing cynical, mercenary antihero Snake Plissken, makes his way through the derelict city on a do-or-die mission: find the president of the United States, whose plane has been brought down over the city, and get him out.
In 1984, Donald Trump wanted to build a castle in Manhattan. Not a metaphorical castle, a literal 60-story building on the Upper East Side, complete with battlements, a water-filled moat, and a working drawbridge with guards. He hired architects to draw up the blueprints and build a model, and began making plans with the landowners of his preferred location, 650 Madison Avenue at 60th Street, two blocks north of Trump Tower, a block east of Central Park. The proposal made clear that the medieval accoutrements were not whimsical, but functional, touting the increased security the moat and drawbridge would offer. It also gave the fortress a name. It was to be called, of course, Trump Castle.
Escape From New York and Trump Castle were funhouse reflections of the same bleak reality: The United States was enduring a long, brutal, and unprecedented crime wave. And New York City was the embodiment of this, playing the same role that Chicago plays in the political discourse now — symbol and scapegoat for the problems of American cities.
In 1968, Donald Trump graduated from Wharton and returned to his birthplace with the intention of becoming the “king of New York real estate.” In 1968, there were 986 murders in New York City, which works out to 12.5 murders for every 100,000 people. This was an all-time high. In 1984, the year crack came to New York and Trump set out to build his castle, there were 1,450 murders, 20 per 100,000 people. In 1990, three years after his bestselling memoir/business tract The Art of the Deal cemented Trump's celebrity, there were 2,245 murders: 31 murders for every 100,000 people. The murder rate had risen by nearly 150 percent.
Then, first slowly, then faster and faster, the murder rate dropped. Six years later, it was less than half of its 1990 peak. In 2016, New York City had the lowest murder rate it has ever recorded.
Calling this a “wave” or even a “spike” is accurate in retrospect, but it doesn't capture the climate for those who lived through it. We call a pattern a wave because we know it will eventually crest and collapse. It is the return to normalcy that gives a trend the shape of a spike. But for people who were living through this time, there was no reason to believe that they would see the other side of the wave. If, like Donald Trump, you were 44 in 1990, crime had risen in every decade of your life. High crime would have felt like the new normal. If you really want to get an idea of what this era felt like, watch a bunch of '80s and '90s science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies. No, really.
Movies that operate in the world of the fantastic can be an escapist retreat. But just as often, instead of withdrawing from their own era, they embody its concerns and preoccupations. Watching science fiction and fantasy movies is like reading the dream journal of the collective subconscious. Donald Trump's campaign, a bundle of exposed nerve endings and raw fear, took its campaign rhetoric about cities directly out of the pages of this journal. His vision of the city is not drawn from the lived experience or statistical reality of life in the average American city in 2017. For him, the city is a nightmare vision of the New York of the '70s, '80s, and early '90s — Old Future New York.
In the '70s, just as crime began to rise more sharply in New York, corruption scandals roiled the NYPD. Nationwide economic stagnation hit New York particularly hard, driving it into a fiscal crisis that almost led to bankruptcy in 1975. In 1977, a citywide blackout plunged much of the city into almost 24 hours of looting, riots, and arson. That year, Democrat Ed Koch swept into office on a pro–death penalty and law and order platform, pledging to clean up the city and restore it to its former glory. The homicide rate jumped drastically in his second year in office. The mayor of Boston, visiting East Brooklyn in 1978, said, “I have now seen the beginning of the end of civilization.” And Donald Trump finished the negotiations to build Trump Tower, the luxury high-rise that would become his home and headquarters, in midtown Manhattan.
Walter Hill's 1979 film The Warriors is a postapocalyptic movie. The old order of things has been swept away and a new order has risen. But there is no apocalyptic trigger, no cleansing fire or natural disaster. The fall is ushered in simply by the steady march of social decline, the trends of the '70s projected into the future. The Warriors' New York is a balkanized city, each gang leader ruling his fiefdom like a warlord. Crossing into the wrong territory without a pass or parley is an act of war. The police are reduced to just another gang — and not even the most numerous or powerful one. This fact is the precipitating event for one of the film's opening scenes, in which hundreds of gang members gather in a public park for a large, open-air meeting in an amphitheater.
The movie itself is a series of skirmishes, chases, and confrontations that play out on city streets, in parks, and in subway stations. The public space has been colonized by gangs, and non–gang members are hardly visible. When they are, they've been reduced to bystander or victim. They are terrorized and intimidated with impunity, sometimes seemingly randomly selected for abuse. New York City does not belong to them anymore. “The turf is ours by right,” says Cyrus, the leader of the largest gang, the all-black Gramercy Riffs. “It's all our turf.” The transformation is so complete that the film is able to comfortably sustain a moral universe in which there are good and bad gangs. The Warriors' eponymous, multiracial gang is not presented as a group of villains or even antiheroes, but as flawed heroes. Their antagonists, the Rogues, are wild cards who thrive on anarchy. When asked why he assassinated Cyrus and framed the Warriors, turning the Warriors into hunted men, the Rogues' leader says, “No reason. I like doing things like that.”
In this way, the movie anticipates the animating anxiety of the coming decade: not just crime, but disorder, and the contested border between the two New Yorks. In one New York, the one that Donald Trump occupied, a Wall Street boom was restoring the fiscal health of the city, the real estate market was recovering, and unemployment was dropping. But in the other New York, homelessness and crime were both rising. The crack epidemic acted as an accelerant for chaos, as rival gangs fought for turf and addicts scrounged for money. From 1977 to 1984, there were 10 incidents of bystanders being hit by random gunfire in New York. In 1988 alone, there were 54. These shootings were so frequent that gangs created a slang term for innocent bystanders caught in crossfire: mushrooms, for their delicateness, and the ease with which they could be trod underfoot. Gentrification meant that the borders between the two versions of the city were beginning to thin and blur. The disorder and violence that was tolerated in poor, minority areas of the city was spilling outside of its usual confines. People were afraid of being devoured, of being overrun.
In 1984, Ghostbusters depicted a New York whose citizenry was literally haunted by evil spirits. In the trashy horror movie C.H.U.D. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers), homeless people live in the sewers, infected by toxic waste and sustaining on unsuspecting New Yorkers they’ve dragged underground to feed on. “A recent article in a New York newspaper reported that there were large colonies of people living under the city,” the movie's marketing went. “The paper is incorrect. What is living under the city is not human.” The tagline warned, “They're not staying down there, anymore.” A couple years prior, in the real-life New York of 1982, Trump was attempting to evict the tenants of a rent-controlled apartment that he owned on Central Park South, so he could tear down the building and build new luxury apartments. When a handful of tenants wouldn't budge, Trump offered the empty apartments to the City of New York as housing for the homeless. He wasn’t being benevolent: He was trying to use the prospect of living next to the homeless to drive out the remaining tenants. The city, wisely, declined.
Also in 1984, four black teenagers approached Bernhard Goetz, a white owner of an electronics business, on the subway, and asked him for five dollars. Goetz, who had been mugged a few years prior, replied, “I have five dollars for each of you,” unholstered a revolver, and opened fire on the teens. He wounded all four, hitting two of them in the back, and paralyzing one of them from the waist down. “If I had more bullets,” Goetz told the police, “I would have shot 'em all again and again. My problem was I ran out of bullets.” It was an eerie echo of 1974's Death Wish, in which Charles Bronson's vigilante takes a loaded gun onto a subway and waits for muggers to give him an excuse to shoot them. New York comedienne Joan Rivers sent Goetz a telegram offering to pay his bail, and “Thug Buster” t-shirts that referenced the Ghostbusters logo began popping up around the city. A tip line that the police set up to help with information about the case was flooded with callers who offered praise and support of Goetz.
“Decent people shouldn't live here,” says the Joker in 1989's Batman. “They'd be happier somewhere else.” Batman's Gotham — anything below 14th Street, according to Denny O’Neil — is a nightmarish, sunless New York: ugly, dirty, and violent. The very structure of the city is warped and disfigured by crime. “A city run by crime,” set designer Anton Furst called it. “It looks like hell burst through the pavement and kept on going,” said director Tim Burton. It is this hellscape that creates the film's hero, a vigilante haunted and driven by the death of his parents at the hands of a mugger. The Joker replaces the suit-and-tie mobsters who used to run the city with a gang of leather-jacketed henchmen with sunglasses and boom boxes. Their first move after consolidating power is to vandalize the city's art gallery, defacing the paintings with fluorescent graffiti. The only painting the Joker leaves untouched is Francis Bacon's Figure With Meat, a grotesque, hallucinogenic depiction of a seated man with an obliterated face, flanked by enormous slabs of raw meat. In Batman, it is civilization itself that crime seeks to raze, and the only structures it will leave standing are those that are already malevolent.
On April 19, 1989, a white 28-year-old investment banker from the Upper East Side was found naked, bound, and gagged in a shallow ravine in Central Park. She had been raped, stabbed, and savagely beaten into a coma. The police quickly rounded up a group of five black and brown teenagers and charged them with the crime. Even in a city in which there were, at that point, six murders a day, the attack's brutality and randomness, combined with the identity of the victim, shocked the public and sent the media into a frenzy.
Pete Hamill, a celebrated columnist and lifelong New Yorker, wrote a piece called “A Savage Disease Called New York” for the New York Post a few days after the attack, and set forth what would become the dominant narrative:
But they were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance. They were coming from a land with no fathers. They were coming from schools where cops must guard the doors. They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor. And driven by a collective fury, brimming with the rippling energies of youth, their minds teeming with the violent images of the streets and the movies. They had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.
This bleak vision of the two New York Cities — one wealthy and mostly white, the other poor, and mostly black and brown — reflected the anxiety of the class divide in the city. Even as crime was spiking, rents were rising. The city's economy began to recover and white people began returning to midtown. In fact, the reason that Trump's castle was never built is that the firm that owned the land decided it could make even more money selling it to another developer.
Fewer than two weeks after the Central Park attack, Donald Trump spent the equivalent of $170,000 on full-page ads in every New York daily newspaper. “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK THE POLICE,” the ad raged, in a headline that took up the top half of the page. Trump’s solution to New York’s crime problem was simple: reinstate the death penalty, and give the police a freer hand to mete out violence, without worries about “civil liberties” and “police brutality.” This was the only way, Trump argued, to turn back the societal decline that had turned the families of New York into “hostages to a world ruled by the law of the streets” by “roving bands of wild criminals” and “crazed misfits.”
1989's Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan was intended to be the finale of the moribund franchise. The main gag of the movie is that Jason Voorhees, a freaky immortal serial killer, blends right into the New York scene, just another “crazed misfit.” He stalks through the subway as New Yorkers look on blankly; in Times Square, sullen teen muggers accost him. When his teenaged prey burst into a diner to ask for help, frantically pleading with a waitress that a maniac is trying to kill them, the jaded waitress gives them a cockeyed look. “Welcome to New York,” she replies nonchalantly.
In 1990, after a tourist from Utah was murdered on the subway while trying to protect his family from muggers, Time published a cover story titled “The Rotting of the Big Apple.” “A growing sense of vulnerability has been deepened by the belief that deadly violence,” Joelle Attinger wrote, “once mostly conﬁned to crime‑ridden ghetto neighborhoods that the police wrote oﬀ as free‑ﬁre zones, is now lashing out randomly at anyone, anytime, even in areas once considered relatively safe.” According to a poll the magazine took that year, 73 percent of people thought the city had become too dangerous, and 59 percent said they would leave and live somewhere else if they could.
After more than a decade of the city in crisis, New York Magazine published a special issue titled “How to Save New York.” The issue, published in 1990, contained several short columns from New Yorkers offering their diagnoses for what ailed the city, along with prescriptions for restoring its health. The suggestions ran the gamut from pragmatic to draconian — increasing school funding, criminalizing homelessness, charging juveniles as adults. William F. Buckley, editor of the conservative National Review, recommended sending single mothers and their children to camps upstate. John V. Lindsay, the former mayor, suggested adding community service to the high school graduation requirements. But the response that perhaps best captured the tenor of the times came from the comedian Jackie Mason. “Maybe the simplest solution,” he wryly suggested, after noting the violence that reigned on the city streets, “is to put everybody in prison and let the criminals out.”
Near the end of 1996, the year before Escape From New York was supposed to have taken place, the New York Times published a feature titled “Is New York Back?” (The question was largely answered in the affirmative.) Clay Felker, the founder of New York Magazine, wrote that “New York has its old swagger back.” The qualification that he tacked on to his answer, that New York had ceded some political power and cultural cachet to California, only served to underline the turnaround.
By then, the murder rate had been steadily falling throughout the decade and was at less than half of its peak. Other violent crime rates had followed suit. Crime, in fact, was falling all over the country. Today, the murder rate hovers lower than it was in the late '60s, before the crime spike, and that’s where it’s been for the last few years. So what happened to make crime drop nationwide? There are a lot of theories — the recovering economy, mass incarceration, even lead abatement — but the unsatisfying and unsettling answer is that nobody really knows.
But if you listen to Donald Trump, it's the late '80s again. “The murder rate,” Trump declared at his campaign rallies, “it’s the worst, the highest it’s been in 45 years. Nobody talks about that — nobody talks about that.” Nobody talks about this mostly because it isn’t true. In fact, it's nearly the opposite of true. In 2015, the murder rate in NYC did increase by about 10 percent, the highest one-year increase in about 25 years. Though the numbers haven't officially been released for 2016, crime is projected to have increased again. But the murder rate in 2015 was still near the historic lows of past years.
In speech after speech, Trump sounded the alarm anyway, saying that America was “a more dangerous environment for everyone” than he or anyone else had ever seen, saying that the Obama administration had “failed America’s inner cities.” And on a trip to Milwaukee, Trump decried the “crime and lawlessness” of the inner city. Though the Milwaukee speech was ostensibly aimed at winning the votes of African-Americans, like most of Trump's speeches, the true audience was his base. In his February address to the joint session of Congress, Trump announced that he would be ordering the creation of an office called Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE), whose function would be to document and publicize crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in the United States. In Trump's accounting, the impetus for rising crime is unauthorized immigrants, who are concentrated in multicultural and polyglot American cities.
Trump is evoking this fever dream of a disintegrating city because his policy solutions thrive on fear of crime and fear of terrorism. The hellscape of Escape From New York, which is itself Carpenter's conscious extension of the urban “jungle” of Death Wish, is inhabited by characters from the nightmares of Trump's rural and suburban base — drug-addled vagrants, violent thugs, hardened convicts, mindless mobs. And the world that those people would create is one so depraved and anarchic that fear of it would drive people to accept state repression. It is that fear that justifies the travel ban, the draconian deportation of undocumented immigrants, the promise to spend millions of dollars on a southern border wall, the crackdown on “sanctuary cities.” It is that fear that justifies squashing attempts to reform civil forfeiture laws and the retreat, at the federal level, from trying to hold local police departments accountable for their abuses.
Trump's rhetoric is working. Pollsters ask people whether crime is getting better or getting worse, and they also ask them how safe they would feel walking near their own home at night. We depend on our first-hand knowledge of our surroundings for our opinions of how safe we are personally. But our evaluation of how safe things are in America in general comes from the climate generated by politicians and the media. So, Radley Balko noted, the gap between the two responses — how safe people think America is, versus how safe they feel personally — is a pretty good measure of how artificially inflated fears are. And that gap happens to be bigger than it’s been since 1993.
In an environment overheated with this kind of rhetoric, things could get bad in a hurry if the murder rate continues to rise. Trump already believes that Rudy Giuliani's implementation of Stop-and-Frisk, which has been shown to decrease trust of the police and increase racial profiling, is responsible for the decline of the murder rate in New York City. He advocated for rolling it out nationwide. But Trump has talked about going even further.
Donald Trump said that an anonymous cop — a “rough, tough guy” in the upper echelons of the Chicago Police Department, essentially the character sketch of a post–Dirty Harry cop-vigilante protagonist — told him that the murder rate could be brought to a halt in a week if the police were freed to use “tough police tactics.” According to Trump, the police in Chicago are not allowed to be tough at all. Trump believed that freeing the cops would also “give them back their spirit.” Though these are ostensibly someone else's words, they sound remarkably like Trump himself in his Central Park Five ad, calling for the city to “bring back the police” and stop worrying so much about police brutality. And this time, as president of the United States, with an attorney general who thinks that ad was a great idea, Trump can do something about it. The ghostly vision of Old Future New York could be haunting us again soon.