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Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump, Part 4: ‘The Dead Zone’

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Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump, Part 4: ‘The Dead Zone’


Welcome to the fourth part of our ongoing series, examining all the ways that the artistic and entertainment communities have been trying to warn America that Donald Trump (or someone like him) was up to no good.

Stephen King is the author responsible for such dream-haunting creations as a memorably pissed off telekinetic prom queen, a denim-clad dimension-hopping deity, a temperamental train engine with a poor sense of humor, a murderous St. Bernard, and a burial ground that takes recently deceased loved ones and spits them back to Earth as feral butchers.

But his most terrifying invention may be something much closer to home — a coarse, unstable demagogue who enters the political arena seemingly out of nowhere, rides a wave of populism to an unlikely White House victory, and raging with messianic self-regard incites a nuclear apocalypse.

This is Gregory Ammas Stillson, the antagonist of King’s 1979 novel The Dead Zone, and he’s as frightening as anything cooked up by the prolific novelist’s imagination. This year in particular, Stillson seems an eerily prescient portent of our current political climate.

“I’ve seen the comparisons drawn between Trump and Stillson on Twitter — always makes me smile,” King said in an email.

In The Dead Zone, an unassuming New England schoolteacher, Johnny Smith, survives a brush with death, and awakens from a seven-year coma with the power to see future catastrophic events. After some early successes with his new skillset — saving various lives from disasters, closing the case on a stubbornly uncatchable serial killer — Smith comes to realize that an ascendant wild-card candidate for the House of Representatives, a combustable, egomaniacal political newcomer named Greg Stillson, will one day take the Oval Office and bring about World War III.

King introduces the character as the sort of carnival sideshow that can enliven a political campaign, but one that cooler heads could reasonably expect to fade away before any votes are cast: “First,” King writes, “Greg Stillson shouldn’t have been able to get elected. His campaign promises were, by and large, jokes.” Sound like anyone we know? A fictionalized Walter Cronkite explains that he may be running an “eccentric campaign,” but nevertheless has a comfortable lead over more established candidates.

Another character is more frank: “He’s as crazy as a rat in a drainpipe. But I do believe the sober-sided electorate…is going to send him to Washington this November. Unless he actually falls down and starts frothing at the mouth. And I wouldn’t completely rule that out.”

King’s description of a Stillson rally may have read like satire in the late-70s; now it seems to eerily prefigure the reality-show hijinks and circus theatrics that have become hallmarks of The Donald’s campaign. Stillson takes the stage to John Denver’s “Thank God, I’m A Country Boy,” wearing a “hi-impact construction worker’s helmet  cocked at an arrogant, rakish angle on his head.” Why the helmet?

“You wanna know why I’m wearin this helmet, friends n neighbors? I’ll tell you why. I’m wearin it because when you send me up to Washington, I’m gonna go through em like you-know-what through a canebrake! Gonna go through em just like this!”

And before Johnny’s wondering eyes, Stillson put his head down and began to charge up and down the podium stage like a bull, uttering a high, yipping Rebel yell as he did so.

He closes the rally by tossing fistfuls of freshly boiled hot dogs into the crowd, screaming, “Hot dogs for every man, woman, and child in America! And when you put Greg Stillson in the House of Representatives, you gonna say [sic] HOT DOG! SOMEONE GIVES A RIP AT LAST!

Like Trump, Stillson peddles promises, not plans, and he’s expert at spackling over his ignorance with a loud voice and the canny use of adjectives like “greatest.”

Stillson declares that he will put his seasoned experience as a bonafide rainmaker to use: “If he’s elected,” one observer wryly notes, “we’ll have rain whenever we need it.” Not entirely unlike the way Trump promises that, under his presidency, America will win so much that her citizens will “get sick of winning.”

Trump vows to build a continent-spanning wall and somehow get another sovereign nation to foot the bill. Stillson has an improbably grandiose public works project of his own: He’s going “to send all the pollution right into outer space! Gonna put it in Hefty bags! Gonna put it in Glad bags! Gonna send it to Mars, to Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn! We’re gonna have clean air and we’re gonna have clean water and we’re gonna have it in SIX MONTHS!”

Rather than inducing bewilderment and skepticism, Stillson’s fans — like Trump’s — respond to such manias by erupting into “paroxysms of joy,” and the ones who aren’t unironically delighted are “killing themselves with laughter.” In short, the wrong people are taking these candidates seriously.

As with Trump, in the early stages of Stillson’s campaign, his explosive language and dramatic temperament deflect critical attention. “His colorful, controversial personality seemed to stir only amused admiration from the national press,” King writes.

A recent Vox post soberly articulates our own national press’s collective mea culpa for the attitude of charmed dismissal that characterized so much of the early coverage of Trump’s candidacy. (Guilty as charged.)

King artfully depicts how Stillson’s charisma doesn’t simply mask his malevolence, but feeds off it. Like Trump, an inextricable part of his appeal is his apparent capacity for violence, his implicit promise of restitution, his knack for making the powerless feel powerful again, and his obvious willingness to shoot first and ask questions never. Where Trump applauds his fans for roughing up a Black Lives Matter protestor, Stillson draws supporters who come to his rally armed with sawed-off pool cues (à la Hell’s Angels), and brandishes violent campaign slogans like STILLSON’S GOT ‘EM IN A FULL-NELSON and LIVE FREE OR DIE, HERE’S GREG IN YOUR EYE!

Like many a pundit who saw Trump’s imminent implosion with each new extension of the tycoon’s contempt and violent rhetoric — whether it was directed toward Mexicans, veterans, or Muslims, Johnny Smith at first sees Stillson’s undisguised fascistic impulses as sure sign of his limited political prospects. Entering a rally, he witnesses “a wild mix of horror and hilarity,” and appraises the raging throngs of Stillson fans as “Brownshirts…. Brownshirts is all they are.

Well, so what? Maybe that was even good. Americans had a rather low tolerance for the fascist approach — even rock-ribbed righties like Reagan didn’t go for that stuff […] Stillson couldn’t be a few paces from overstepping himself. If it wasn’t quite so weird, it really would be funny. [emphasis in the original]

In David Cronenberg’s successful 1983 film adaptation, the role of Stillson was portrayed with grinning menace by Martin Sheen (the antimatter to his performance as Jed Bartlett). Sheen’s Stillson is a more well-scrubbed, less visibly volatile character than the one depicted in King’s novel with his “faded jeans and a two-pocket Army fatigue shirt with the words GIVE PEACE A CHANCE embroidered on one pocket and MOM’S APPLE PIE on the other.”

When Trump’s sanity gets called into question, the illustration almost everyone uses is the “red button” — could we trust Trump with the nuclear codes? No less an authority on sanity than Bobby Jindal, onetime amateur exorcist and Trump’s bested Republican rival, said America couldn’t have a “egomaniacal madman” sitting on the nuclear trigger.

When asked at Tuesday’s debate which part of the nuclear triad was most important, Trump responded: “For me, nuclear, the power, the devastation, is very important to me.” Trump was so caught up in his visions of glorious carnage he apparently forgot that the “triad” actually refers to the three methods of nuke delivery — via bombers, ICBMs, and submarine-launched missiles.

A spokesperson for the Trump camp clarified his position a few days later on The O’Reilly Factor: “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?” she asked. The power and the devastation will be yuuuuge.

In the following clip from the movie, we see Johnny’s premonition of a future President Stillson, whose campaign-trail charisma has curdled with power into something far more alarming — an unshakeable conviction that the American people speak through him, and they’re telling him to bring about nuclear Armageddon.

King noted that Stillson has literary and historical forbears, among them Willie Stark, the “Boss,” from Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, who in turn draws from Huey P. Long, the Louisiana governor and U.S. senator who was assassinated in 1935.

“Trump is an American ‘Tell it like it is’ populist in a long tradition of them,” King said. “Although [Trump] came from money rather than sharecropper poverty, people vote for [people like him] because they speak in the vulgate of the common people, and because they want to paste mainstream politicians in the eye. Trump is the voice of anger and racism. The anger won’t get him in trouble, but the racism guarantees he won’t be elected.”

President Trump is a horror story even King can’t entertain.

This is the fourth in our new series “Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump.” 

Check out Part 1: “The Penguin”Part 2: “MAD Magazine”; and Part 3: Lex Luthor

Screengrab: Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson from The Dead Zone (1983), Dir. David Cronenberg

Sam Reisman

Sam Reisman is the former managing editor at The National Memo, where he still writes the weekly "This Week In Crazy" column. His writing has appeared in Flavorpill, The Huffington Post, Columbia Daily Spectator, and Bwog. He was the publisher of the 2010 edition of Inside New York, an annual guidebook to the city for students and young professionals.

Since 2011, he has co-curated and hosted Peculiar Streams, a showcase for NYC-based writers, musicians, comedians, and filmmakers. He is a staff writer at Mediaite, and blogs at SamReisman.com.

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  1. Phil Christensen December 19, 2015

    When paranoia and literature collide.

  2. yabbed December 19, 2015

    Trump will never be President of the United States. Bigoted rednecks cannot elect a President. They don’t have the electoral votes to do so.

    1. MikeL December 22, 2015

      Trump will not get the Republican nomination, he will implode before the first primary. he can’t help himself, it’s in his nature.

      1. Carolyn1520 December 22, 2015

        Either way, he’s going to be the ultimate spoiler for the right.

  3. docb December 19, 2015

    Art imitates life…Creepy!

    Forewarned should be forearmed…just not with weapons but with diplomacy!

  4. MikeL December 19, 2015

    I read the book years ago. Funny thing is though, I’d actually heard of the Trumps before he announced his run for the Presidency. If you’re truly worried about a mystery man inhabiting the White House, look no longer, he’s there right now!

    1. Cloudherder December 19, 2015

      Yeah, a mystery man with 2 autobiographies, and who has been a Senator and then on his second term as president. Some mystery man.

      1. MikeL December 20, 2015

        I’m willing to bet that you read neither of those fictional works. And that when you first heard the name “Barack Obama” you thought he was responsible for knocking down the World Trade Center. You did, didn’t you? Be honest, moron

        1. Carolyn1520 December 20, 2015

          I’ve read both books and you obviously haven’t based on many of your false comments you made about Obama on other news stories. I’m betting you get your “information” from other conspiracy theorists blogs. They like to deflect their own stupidity by coming out of the gate with name calling too.. Be honest, you haven’t ever read a real book, have you?

          1. MikeL December 21, 2015

            Not only do I read books, I write some too. When my novel is finally published, I’ll send you a free copy. Since I believe you to be a Democrat, I take it that the “free” aspect would appeal to someone like you. Send me your address.

          2. Carolyn1520 December 21, 2015

            Deflection. You obviously didn’t read those two books.
            Yeah I’m a Democrat but a fortunate one. I know, what a concept, huh? However it’s to our advantage for the mouth breathing right to assume just because everyone on the left isn’t a selfish greedy sob, they must be poor and looking for an handout. As free as your book might be, it would still cost me in my time and you’d have to pay me to read it. 😀
            When your novel is published… what’s the hold up, there are a lot of vanity presses out there.

          3. tbs December 21, 2015

            Carolyn, Spoken like a true democrat…you want money to read MikeL’s book? Always more money, more money like all democrats want ALL the time! When it runs out who are you going to go to get it?

          4. Carolyn1520 December 22, 2015

            Oh another mouth breather who misses every point.

          5. MikeL December 22, 2015

            I did read “Dreams of my Father” , then decided not to waste my time on the “Audacity of Hope”. FYI: some of my work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and Bloomberg Financial. Merry Christmas!

          6. Carolyn1520 December 22, 2015

            Your loss.
            I’ll look for Mike L on both.
            Happy Holidays. 🙂
            Seriously, Merry Christmas to you too.

      2. tbs December 21, 2015

        Voting fraud and lying to the poor in giving them free things and probably buying votes as well did it! But they don’t want to hear that!

        1. Carolyn1520 December 22, 2015

          Voter fraud is an invention of the right to justify voter suppression. Everyone knows that. It’s the tired old rhetoric only morons use now. Keep up.

    2. CrankyToo December 19, 2015

      And another wingding deposits his two cents worth of sh!t atop the stinking pile of nonsense which reflects the ideology of the Turd Party…

      1. Jmz Nesky December 20, 2015

        I like you Cranky…

        1. CrankyToo December 20, 2015

          Cheers, Mate.

    3. tbs December 21, 2015

      Absolutely, MikeL.

  5. pmbalele December 19, 2015

    Please avoid vote for any Repub or TP. Vote for Hillary. I have just learned
    USA was depending on and was buying Russian engines for NASA projects during
    Republican administrations. Does it mean we here in USA could not manufacture NASA engines? And those administrators at NASA are telling us it will take 3 years before the USA can build or manufacture engines for NASA projects. Worst of all this Country bought 300 Russian’s copters for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and this again was during Republican administration when these copters could be manufactured in Oshkosh Wis. I am also told some jet engines are bought from Japan. And all this was in the name of reducing the deficit ch did not happen during Republican Administrations. Remember this was at expense of people being hired here for manufacturing those engines. No doubt unemployment was 9% during Bush II. America has people all colors: African-Americans;Japanese Americans; Chinese Americans; Latino Americans; European Americans and you are telling me we could not manufacture those engines during Republican administrations? Republicans have to explain why we could not manufacture those engines here. That is why Republicans did not want our smart kids to get college education to have an excuse not to manufacture those engines here. Thank God we elected and re-elected President Obama. And now you people want to elect a Republican as president to ship jobs to Russia and Japan! We are not crazy. Let’s vote for Hillary to keep jobs here.

    1. tbs December 21, 2015

      She won’t keep jobs here! She could care less as all she is capable of thinking is …..she deserves to be President. Boy if that isn’t straight off the wall crazy!! With her baggage and you liberals think lying, money laundering, taking tax payers money to run your off the wall programs, even getting rid of people if they get in the way of what you want, buying votes, voter fraud, and the list goes on and on! BUT just let ANYONE upset your thinking, then something has to be wrong with the other person! Funny, right?
      NOTHING is EVER one sided! Maybe if you liberals would try and think you might get it right
      and do something nice for a change! This faux pres now is the worst racists, bigoted, money spender and divider we have ever had! I am so ashamed of him, representing our country, and what he is trying to do….it is sickening! Your day of reckoning is coming and it won’t be pretty or easy!

      1. Carolyn1520 December 22, 2015

        What goobly gook. Go spend some time cleaning that tooth.

  6. Otto Greif December 19, 2015

    Trump is the peace candidate.

  7. Stuart December 19, 2015

    King, of course, isn’t the first writer to posit an insane president. Try Sinclair Lewis in 1935, “It Can’t Happen Here,” for starters. And Hitler had only been in power for two years at the time.

    No one is talking about the 800-pound gorilla in the room — Congress. Yeah, cue the laugh track. But the crazies under Trump or Cruz may not achieve much more than they did under Obama. The so-called Freedom Caucus isn’t big enough to block an impeachment. Go ahead and run against Congress; see how far you get.

    A military coup? I really don’t think the Army has gone that far down hill yet. Just maybe we have an American counterpart to the Russian submarine commander who refused to start World War III in 1962.

    1. Mark February 21, 2016

      Cruz is a TRUE Believer.

  8. paulyz December 20, 2015

    What a stupid article this is.

    1. tbs December 21, 2015

      King is not to sane anyway! Good writer and makes for a quick read but no real depth!

      1. Sam Reisman December 21, 2015

        Say what you will about King. He does know the difference between “to” and “too.”

  9. MichelleRose3 December 23, 2015

    “The anger won’t get him in trouble, but the racism guarantees he won’t be elected.”
    Oh yes it will get him elected.

  10. redheart January 30, 2016

    BHO already beat him to it. He was elected on Hope & Change and he could read a teleprompter. He had zero accomplishments other than being a Community Organizer. And yet, he was elected twice and we are all paying the price now.

    1. Cicero Labeak February 28, 2016

      What “price”, per-se? Gas is down, home sales up, jobs up, stocks up. YES, the haters have come out of hiding…They are losers. Do you think that Trump will fix that?

  11. Mark February 21, 2016

    Trump is a clown. Cruz is the real Messianic nut case. He is a TRUE believer. Cruz will lie cheat steal or kill to become President. It has been his one single minded goal since he was in high school.

  12. 4TruthandJustice March 15, 2016

    Statement: “Cruz is the real Messianic nut case. He is a TRUE believer. Cruz will lie cheat steal or kill to become President.” – the obvious question is: How many times has Senator Cruz lied, cheated or killed so far? And – how do you know he lied, cheated or killed outside your own definition of those terms? And- so you believe the choice is only between a Clown or a Killer, is that correct?? If so on the last: you need professional help to get your very twisted mind straightened out. 🙂

  13. Sharon Keys November 4, 2016

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