California Forum

If Trump’s behavior seems stranger than science fiction, maybe this is why

An android toys with Ryan Gosling in “Blade Runner 2049.” If empathy defines humanity, the author asks, how does a president who lacks it differ from a machine?
An android toys with Ryan Gosling in “Blade Runner 2049.” If empathy defines humanity, the author asks, how does a president who lacks it differ from a machine? Photo courtesy of Alcon Entertainment

I wonder, these days, if the American president is an android.

It is a question that has intrigued me since I read, a few weeks back, Philip K. Dick’s classic sci-fi novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The book, published in 1968 and later adapted into the movie “Blade Runner,” is set in what was then the distant future, in the year 2021. It’s an apocalyptic, post-nuclear war planet, in which most non-human life has died off, most of the few humans remaining have emigrated to Mars, and the ones who have stayed – living off of synthetic foods and satisfying their craving for nature by nurturing electronic, faux-animal pets – are waging a constant war for survival. Their enemies are not only the radioactive dust clouds that poison their environments and ultimately their bodies and minds, but also human-looking, and human-imitating androids, conscious slave-robots-gone-rogue who are competing with humans for dominance over the scarified planet.

The latest generation of these organic robots look and act so human that only highly trained bounty hunters can tell the difference. In the end, it comes down to empathy: No matter how well-designed, well-programmed, and adaptive the androids are, ultimately they always fail complex empathy tests, their intellectual responses to certain questions designed to trigger empathy correct, but their physiological responses faulty.

In other words, they are fakers: They are smart enough to say the right things when asked about situations involving pain and suffering for other people or animals, but their bodies betray them. Their eyes don’t dilate in quite the right ways, their blood pressure and heart rate doesn’t shift as would a genuine human’s when asked to envision hurtful scenarios.

In the author’s world, empathy remains the defining characteristic of what it is to be human. Replicas – while they might be physically stronger, intellectually superior, better problem-solvers – in the end don’t have the same moral caliber as homo sapiens.

By these measures, there is a strong case to make that Donald J. Trump is a replica, a dangerous android unleashed on a wounded planet.

Here’s my reasoning:

The number of people damaged by his actions or his words is vast, and growing vaster. Taking 800,000 Dreamers and their families hostage isn’t politics-as-normal; it’s a sort of Marquis de Sade exercise in sadism. Arbitrarily withdrawing Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, who have been in the country two decades, and suddenly declaring them illegal – and, by extension, making it likely that they will end up being separated from their hundreds of thousands of U.S.-citizen children – is a similar act of capricious cruelty.

Calling the countries of Africa, the Caribbean and Central America “shitholes” isn’t simply a diplomatic slip-up; it’s a stunning and deliberate slap in the face to the hundreds of millions of residents of those regions. Urging the police to beat up suspects isn’t just tough talk; it’s an active encouragement to use the force of law enforcement for harm rather than good.

Glorying in the ability to inflict torture on terrorism suspects is, similarly, a grievous abdication of moral responsibility. Playing nuclear chicken – my nuclear button is bigger and more powerful than yours, and mine works – with North Korea isn’t just crass, it’s also playing Russian roulette with the future of the entire globe. Sabotaging global climate change agreements isn’t merely short-sighted, it’s actively contemptuous of the environment upon which the great web of life on earth depends.

All of this would make Trump simply a cruel, nasty, maybe even pathological man. What makes him an android is that, on occasion, he can pivot just enough to say the right things.

Take the absurd spectacle of last week’s State of the Union speech. There Trump was, talking about bringing everyone together, celebrating a “New American Moment,” urging the two political parties to get over their mutual loathing and vote on vast infrastructure investments. Some of the passages, carefully read off of the teleprompter, sounded, dare I say it, quite reasonable.

But that’s just it: In Philip K. Dick’s world, androids can, when the occasion demands it, sound quite normal, quite human. The problem is, their words are just words. They don’t have the moral core to genuinely feel the emotions they are trying to publicly present. And, ultimately, their actions reflect that lack of moral restraint. Because they don’t actually care about other people, and how their actions impact them, when push comes to shove they are entirely opportunistic.

That’s Trump to a tee. He – or it, as the androids are labeled in Dick’s masterpiece – simply isn’t programmed to feel others’ pain, to see the world through others’ eyes. The replicas, wrote Dick, “possessed no ability to feel empathic joy for another life form’s success or grief at its defeat.” Such a creation was, he wrote, “a solitary predator.”

In a much newer book, “Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff describes Trump retiring to his White House bedroom to eat fast food in bed and then phone his friends to complain about his day’s press coverage. When he finally puts the phone down and drifts to sleep, does the decrepit old android dream of electric sheep?

Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be reached at