Star Wars & God Emperors

The Sci-Fi Roots of the Far Right—From ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’ to Newt’s Moon Base to Donald’s Wall

Pournelle, Gingrich and Trump see a future that must be secured by authoritarian institutions that group together humanity’s best and prevent the rest from stifling them.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

There is a tendency to see President Donald Trump as a radical break from the past.

But conservative techno-futurist Newt Gingrich sees Trump as ushering in a revolution — with a subsequent utopian space-age.Gingrich has envisioned such a breakthrough, and hopes Trump will be an agent of it, for decades. Gingrich’s vision is one stop on a straight line that goes through his friend and legendary science-fiction novelist Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars to Bill Clinton’s impeachment to Trump.

Pournelle — who died earlier this month — first rose to prominence as part of an influential group of right-wing science-fiction writers in the 1970s and 1980s that also included Larry Niven, David Drake, Janet Morris, and S. M. Stirling. All envisioned the best of a militarized humanity breaking away from the evils of bureaucracy and bleeding-hearts and aggressively colonizing and conquering space, exploiting its military and financial potential. Unlike most conservatives, all were less concerned with preserving the past for its own sake than for planning for the future—their preferred future.

In partnership with Niven, Pournelle’s science-fiction married aggressive military might with Atlas Shrugged-style techno-futurist fantasies and nativist paranoia, offering what in retrospect looks like an uncannily prescient portrait of the Trump era and its cultural overtones. Take, for example, the pair’s Hugo-nominated 1977 novel Lucifer’s Hammer, which depicts a small ranch of patriotic American farmers as they struggle to survive after a comet hits earth. Early on, the farmers debate how to keep out undesirables:

“They'll all be here, all that can get here," Christopher shouted. “Los Angeles, and the San Joaquin, and what's left of San Francisco … How long can we keep it up, lettin' those people come here?”

"Be n**gers too," someone shouted from the floor. He looked self-consciously at two black faces at the end of the room. "Okay, sorry—no. I'm not sorry. Lucius, you own land. You work it. But city n**gers, whining about equality—you don't want 'em either!"

The black man said nothing. He seemed to shrink away from the group, and he sat very quietly with his son.

"Lucius Carter's all right," George Christopher said. "But Frank's right about the others. City people. Tourists. Hippies. Be here in droves pretty soon. We have to stop them."

This kind of scene — the asterisks are mine; they spelled the word out — plays on the same fears Trump stoked in his campaign of immigrants and undesirables invading the “real” America. Yet Pournelle and Niven yoked this divisiveness to an Ayn Randian view of technological progress, in which there are those who work and those who leech.

In Lucifer’s Hammer, the free-thinking libertarian survivors, naturally, win the day over their wrong-thinking competition. The hippy-dippy Shire collective, who attempt to rebuild society according to principles of socialism and environmentalism, is wiped out because of its weakness, forced to submit to the cannibalistic New Brotherhood Army—led by the inhumane Sergeant Hooker, a black man. Strong leader Senator Jellison (who is white) then asks former Shire founder Hugo Beck what went wrong, and Beck says his fellow hippies just never realized how great technology and laissez-faire economics were, and now all his old friends are dining on human flesh under the thumb of a scary black communist.

We also learn that the New Brotherhood Army is very politically correct—they are genuine Social Justice Warriors—and forces equality on its members: “And you never say anything bad about blacks, or chicanos, or anybody else. First couple of days they just slap you for it…but if you don't learn fast they figure you're not really converted …”

One antagonist of Lucifer’s Hammer is Alim Nassor, a black man who loots during the day of the comet, then goes on to start a gang that eventually links up with the New Brotherhood Army. (At one point, he kills a follower who won’t eat human flesh.) Nassor’s name is of his own choosing:

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Before he was great he had been George Washington Carver Davis. His mother had been proud of that name. She'd said the family was named for Jefferson Davis. That honky had been a tough dude, but it was a loser's name, no power in it ... Alim Nassor meant wise conqueror in both Arabic and Swahili. Not many knew what it meant, and so what? The name had power…And he could still walk into City Hall and get in to see people. He'd been able to do that ever since he broke up a riot with his switchblade and the razor blades in his shoes and the chain he carried around his waist. There was all that Federal money around for a tough dude. The honkies shoveled out money. Anything for quiet in the black ghetto. It had been a damn good game, and too bad it was over.

Today, Lucifer’s Hammer reads as a depiction of a post-apocalyptic war between Trump counties and Clinton counties, simultaneously promising American renewal even as it depicts unavoidable catastrophe. The comet acts as a cleansing, wiping away so much dead wood of civilization. (Feminism, too, comes in for repeated knocks.)

Pournelle and Niven’s attitude toward civil-rights struggles and feminism wavers between condescension and irritation. Progressive issues are bumps on the road of progress. At their most dangerous, they radicalize lumpen segments of the population into dangerous terrorists: Antifa is one step on the way to the New Brotherhood Army.

Consequently, their attitudes on race and immigration come off as callous. In 2008, Niven told a DHS conference that “The problem [of hospitals going broke] is hugely exaggerated by illegal aliens who aren’t going to pay for anything anyway,” and then suggested spreading rumors in the Spanish Latino community that hospitals were killing patients to harvest their organs.

They attempted to address race more sympathetically in 1981's Oath of Fealty, making one of the main characters, Preston Sanders, black. (“His family had never been enslaved,” they write.) But since Sanders’ first words are affirming to the genius John Galtian protagonist (named, not coincidentally, Tony Rand) that the white hero isn’t prejudiced, it’s not terribly convincing.

Oath of Fealty chronicles the conflict between a futuristic, closed city—a privately-run, utopian “arcology” that elevates the best and the brightest—and the backwards-looking bureaucratic government of a Los Angeles in urban decline. The corporate-run, authoritarian arcology does an end-run around all of Los Angeles’ pesky government and regulations, which turn out to bring great benefits to Los Angeles as a side effect. When ecoterrorists led by an evil UCLA sociology professor attack the arcology, the arcology plays its trump card by harming LA’s infrastructure, which they have done so much to improve and operate. Check and mate.

Another obsession of Pournelle, who worked for years in the aerospace industry, was military conflict and how that might play out on, and beyond, our Earth. In the 80’s, he served as chair of the Citizen Advisory Council on National Space Policy. Alongside astronauts and physicists, the council included sci-fi luminaries such as Niven, Robert Heinlein, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, and publisher Jim Baen.

The council also included Ronald Reagan’s adviser Lt. General Daniel O. Graham, whose advocacy firm High Frontier provided the primary political push for the president’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Better known as “Star Wars,” SDI represented the ultimate science-fiction defense project, a “shield” aimed at shooting down nuclear missiles with lasers from land and from space.

Pournelle’s council provided the blueprint for SDI—as the author explained, Reagan’s 1983 speech inaugurating the “Star Wars” project came from work the council had done beginning in 1980. And in 1984, Baen published Pournelle’s Mutual Assured Survival, based on the council’s reports on how to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles—“ICBM’S [sic] WILL SOON BE OBSOLETE,” the cover declares—and blurbed by Ronald Reagan himself.

SDI was only one part of a larger right-wing techno-futurist project. SDI historian Edward Linenthal cites a 1983 interview with Newt Gingrich in which the young conservative Congressman predicted that SDI would not just destroy Russia’s Communists but liberalism, too. SDI would be “a dagger at the heart of the liberal welfare state” because it destroys “the liberal myth of scarcity,” leaving only “the limits of a free people’s ingenuity, daring, and courage.”

A year later, in 1984, science-fiction publisher Tor Books issued Gingrich’s first book, Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future, which had also been commissioned by publisher Jim Baen. Co-written with science-fiction writers David Drake and Janet Morris as well as Gingrich’s then-wife Marianne, Window of Opportunity has one leg firmly planted in the geek world. The preface was written by Pournelle, who praised Gingrich’s “practical program that not only proves that we can all get rich, but shows how.”

Gingrich subsequently secured a job for Pournelle’s son with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in 1994, who like Gingrich is now a stalwart space booster and Trump supporter.

Gingrich’s futurist political perspective has long differentiated him from many Republicans. He distinguished himself early on with his interest in space, drawn partly from his fascination with large-scope future histories like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. When Gingrich told his aides to read the Foundation trilogy and one asked what the books had to do with politics, Gingrich replied: “I'm a figure who thinks in terms of 100-year increments and I think in terms of civilization's rising and falling over 500-year increments.” Central to his failed 2012 presidential run was the plan for an American moonbase by 2020.

In their science fiction as in life, Gingrich and Pournelle shared an optimistic belief in power of technology—and an equally powerful insistence on the inevitability of conflict. They believed this required a robust, authoritarian state apparatus to preserve order and bind citizens together. Indeed, while backing Reagan, Gingrich had promoted a techno-futurism that was less conservative than it was authoritarian: he called for pruning inefficiency while aggressively promoting expansion and military technology. For his part, Pournelle published anthologies of science-fiction and techno-military essays through the 1980s under the name There Will Be War.

Under Reagan, that inevitable conflict was with Red Russia. But with communism a fading threat by the late 80’s, Gingrich shifted his focus to the specter of a new enemy, arguing in 1989 that “Islamic extremism may well be the greatest threat to Western values and Western security in the world.” Such fear-mongering—Islamic extremism remains a fraction as destructive as the nuclear Soviet Union—may seem ill-suited to optimism in mankind’s future, but as a political project it can be uncannily effective. Pournelle wrote that Islam demands adherence to a principle of “Islam or the sword,” and that an aggressive military response is not only justified but demanded: we are at war with the Caliphate.

Given Trump’s aggression and autocratic tendencies, it makes sense that Gingrich steadfastly supported him from the beginning, encouraging and advising his campaign. During election season, Gingrich spoke with Trump daily. Gingrich views Trump as a tool to get America to where he wants to go faster. “Trump must keep going at breakneck speed to keep his opponents off balance,” he writes. He’s also expressed hope that the Trump era will provide the conditions for future space travel: “With a few breaks and some entrepreneurial daring, Americans could land on Mars either in Trump’s last year of his second term or in the first term of his successor.”

Trump’s ideology and governing style are far from a perfect fit for the conservative techno-futurists. Gingrich has expressed frustration with Trump’s lack of focus, and Trump lacks any clear vision of the future beyond making America great again. Still, for Pournelle, Trump beats anyone else out there: “Trump is not a movement conservative, but his inclination is to set goals and get people working on them, not to jail and fine them for not doing so. Compared to Hillary or Sanders or anyone in Obama’s train, I’ll take Trump any day. Trump is a pragmatic populist. I can live with that.”

One of the things Gingrich admires about Trump, as he told me in an interview, is the president’s sheer capacity for change and interruption: “Trump is the personification of enormous underlying forces, an eruption of personality and capability in which you then have to reset your analysis around their reality.”

In speaking to me, Gingrich also celebrated Trump as a “disruptive politician” on the order of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

In other words, Gingrich and Pournelle’s enthusiasm had less to do with Trump’s particular ambitions than with his capacity for destruction of the status quo. Much of the chaos Trump foments is, to Gingrich and Pournelle, a key feature to induce the future they want—the one where the feminists and “eco-terrorists” and university professors are soundly defeated. Gingrich has always been fond of revolution, as evidenced by one rationale he quoted for supporting Trump: “We have to kick over the table in Washington.” (Or as he wrote in 1984: “Revolutions have to occur fast or not at all.”) What Trump does is less important than the fact that he kicks over the table, strengthening America’s military state while demolishing bureaucracy and ignoring niceties. Democracy and law matter less than security and innovation.

We’re back at authoritarianism—the through-line for Trump and Pournelle and Gingrich alike. Indeed, many of Trump’s online supporters refer to him as “God Emperor” with varying levels of irony, referring in part to the benevolent tyrant of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Leto II, who transforms himself into a gigantic worm in order to direct humanity on his “Golden Path” for 3,500 years.

Pournelle and Niven charted their own Golden Path in Oath of Fealty. Early in that book,  black protagonist Preston Sanders, reflects on why he hates the rich white bigots of the arcology less than the preppie liberals he grew up with:

Because I don't share the black experience? That's what my roommate at Howard would have said.

Or because we're all doing something we believe in? We're running a civilization, something new in this world, and don't bother to tell me how small it is. It's a civilization. The first one in a long time where people can feel safe.

The only things standing in the way of that Golden Path are the liberal bureaucrats and wrong-thinkers that Gingrich elsewhere termed the “prison guards of the past (who) use centralized bureaucracy, litigation, regulations, and red tape to delay or kill break through innovations in many fields. They squander America’s potential in order to protect their privileges and their old ideas, and they rely on our complacency not to do anything about it.”

And those guards, in Gingrich’s view, are so wedded to their ideologies that nothing short of outright conflict will sway them. Or as Trump said of the media in his Arizona speech, “These are sick people. You would think they'd want to make our country great again, and I honestly believe they don't.”

No science-fiction writer since has exerted as significant a political influence as Pournelle. But Pournelle does have a spiritual successor in Castalia House, the independent science-fiction publisher run by white nationalist Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day. Beale, like Gingrich, has said that his job is to save Western Civilization—and that it is in dire need of saving. Beale, however, is far more explicit about race. In his definition of the Alt-Right, Beale proposes the 14th tenet, “The Alt Right believes we must secure the existence of white people and a future for white children,” stressing that homogeneous ethno-states are the only viable future for the world—and that the United States must be a white, Christian ethno-state. Though Beale has repeatedly denounced neo-Nazis, this tenet is near identical with the “Fourteen Words” of white supremacy, and its placement as the fourteenth item reads as a dog whistle.

Pournelle has dissociated himself from Beale’s politics, but Castalia House’s republishing of Pournelle’s 1980s There Will Be War series (as well as publishing a new volume 10) is no mere coincidence. Rather, they are indications of a shared worldview. To these writers, civil rights, equality, and civil liberties are irritants and impediments to progress at best. At worst, they are impositions on the holy forces of the market and social Darwinism (“evolution in action”) that sort out the best from the rest. And to all of them, the best tend to be white (with a bit of space for “the good ones” of other races). If there has been a shift in thought between the 1970s and today, it’s that the expected separation of wheat from chaff hasn’t taken place, and so now more active measures need to be taken—building the border walls and deportations, for example. Trump is an agent of these active measures—an agent of revolution, or at least the destruction that precedes a revolution.

The line that connects Pournelle, Gingrich and Trump is a view that the future must be secured through aggressive force, and specifically through authoritarian institutions (governmental or non-governmental) that group together humanity’s best and prevent the rest from stifling them. The difficulty, as always, lies in identifying “the best,” and in who’s doing the identification.

At the bottom of Pournelle’s website is the quote, “Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.” It’s not attributed, but the sentiment is an old saw of the far right, going back at least to John Birch Society co-founder and segregationist Thomas J. Anderson in 1961. Today, Pournelle’s particular phrasing is most commonly attributed to white supremacist and anti-semite Richard Cotten. It’s one more indicator that Trump was far from the first to eliminate the line between right-wing thought and outright bigotry.

Whether in the apocalypse of Lucifer’s Hammer or the quasi-utopia of Oath of Fealty, there will be war between the visionaries and the prison guards—and the visionaries will win.