I’ve been a fan of Harry Turtledove’s writing ever since I picked up a copy of Great War: American Front back in 2009. Turtledove has the ability to weave the stories of numerous ordinary people together to make one large patchwork fabric of an impressive, epic tale of a history that might have been. This is the case with his 2015 novel, Joe Steele., which has a relevant message for our time in the age of Obama and Trump.
Joe Steele is based on a short story of the same name written in 2003, and expanded in 2014 to be a long, standalone novel. In this novel, the man who would become Stalin is an American-born son of immigrant and a Democrat congressman from California instead of a Communist Party bureaucrat from Georgia in the Caucuses. Born and raised among farm laborers in Fresno, Joe Steele is a dedicated socialist and militantly pro-labor.
The story follows the Sullivan Brothers, reporters both, over a twenty year period. One will unwillingly become a propagandist for the regime while the other is deported to a labor camp and must later fight on the front lines to atone for his political crimes. Our story begins at the height of the Great Depression.
When the nominating process at the 1932 Democratic National Convention comes to complete gridlock between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joe Steele, no one knows who will challenge Herbert Hoover for the Presidency. The sudden death of FDR in a house fire leaves Joe Steele the uncontested nominee and the eventual landslide victor over Hoover.
President Steele immediately begins a series of economic reforms under the first Four Year Plan—an allusion to Stalin’s Five Year Plan but tailored to the President’s term in office—with makes FDR’s New Deal look like a children’s game. The federal government begins confiscating property under eminent domain for large-scale collective farming. The Supreme Court justices who rule the new policies unconstitutional suddenly find themselves in front of a military tribunal for a show trial, and promptly sentenced to death by firing squad. Joe Steele then moves on to purge the military establishment and key political opposition (as well as purging loyal followers who pose a future potential threat to the regime).
J. Edgar Hoover also plays a prominent role in the novel. Joe Steele’s second term is when the Government Bureau of Investigation—an alternate-history play on the FBI but resembling Stalin’s NKVD and later KGB—sets up a system of labor camps in North Dakota, Colorado, and New Mexico where political prisoners work themselves to death for “political reform.” These are an obvious take on the true-history Gulag concentration camps in the Soviet Union.
This novel shows America slogging through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War much the way it did in true-history, but with the frightening tones of an endless Executive dictatorship, one-party rule, and a police state. It’s frightening to watch Norman Rockwell’s America descend into a totalitarian state. While certain true-history events are changed—for instance, a ‘Japanese War’ kicking off the Cold War instead of the Korean War, or Albert Einstein refusing to design an atom bomb for Joe Steele—much of the novel is grounded in truth.
For starters, Turtledove proves the extent of his research and his expertise in the field of U.S. history by using real case law from the Civil War that allows the federal government to try civilians by military tribunal rather than by jury trial. And while Americans may sleep well today believing themselves safe from labor camps, current federal documents tell a different story.
President Obama signed a series of Executive Orders that essentially allow the federal government to create an America similar to the version in Joe Steele. Free speech is nothing but a privilege as long as Executive Order 10995 remains in effect, allowing the government to seize and control all communication media. Natural resources and utility companies aren’t safe from seizure while Order 10997 gives the government carte blanche over all electrical power, gas petroleum, fuels, and minerals.
Collective farms are made possible by Order 10999, giving the government authority to take over all farms and food sources. Order 11004 gives the Housing and Finance Authority the power to relocate communities, build new housing, and transport large populations with or without their consent.
Even worse, labor camps are also made possible by President Obama’s Executive Orders. Order 11002 allows the Postmaster General to watch the entire population by operating a national registration of all persons. Order 11000 allows the government to mobilize (i.e., conscript) civilians into work brigades under government supervision in times of war or peace.
Finally awake from 8 years of slumber, the Left has realized that an authoritarian is in the White House, governing by Executive Order. Most of Donald Trump’s executive orders have been political theater, but some of them are truly worrying. Executive Order 11 gives Homeland Security the go-ahead to build that wall. Eminent domain will unavoidably happen and private property will be violated. The 20% tariff on Mexican imports (like alcohol and American cars) will drive up prices for U.S. consumers.
Order 12 gives Homeland Security the green light to go after undocumented immigrants, and to hire 10,000 new agents to do it. This will come at the cost of tearing apart families at a higher rate than was done under the Obama administration. Order 16 places Trump’s chief crony and bad influence, Steve Bannon, on the National Security Council, while diminishing the roles of the NSC Director and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It’s only a matter of time before Bannon grabs for more power.
In addition, the President has threatened to escalate the War on Drugs by invading Mexico. President Trump has also threatened to send Federal Troops to impose martial law in Chicago. If carried out, this would become a counterinsurgency campaign and the government’s harsh measures would alienate the population just like Fallujah in 2004. (Chicago does need armed intervention against the gangs, but it has to be done by community members with the trust and cooperation of the population.)
During times of political uncertainty and unrest, novels like Harry Turtledove’s Joe Steele and George Orwell’s 1984 encourage people to have discussions and ask tough questions about what kind of future we’re willing to allow our country to slip toward. After reading what the federal government currently has the power to do, does Joe Steele still look like pure fiction? This novel is highly recommended to any students of American and Soviet history, as well as anyone who values liberty and needs inspiration to ask some tough questions.
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Joe Steele cover art courtesy of the Turtledove Wiki. J. Edgar Hoover picture courtesy of The Guardian. FEMA camp image courtesy of Popular Mechanics. These images used according to Fair Use. An earlier version of this article was published by Zach Foster.