• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Dystopia, as Easy as ABC

There is so much utter idiocy and overwhelming venality spewing from the lame braintrust in Washington D.C. these days that what is said and done, in the name of Trumpism, could not fill a book. A is For Autocrat by D.B. Dowd, with design by Scott Gericke, is a satirical romp through the outspoken sins of our elected, unelected and hopefully (soon to be) dejected leaders and their lackeys. I asked Dowd to talk about the ABCs of this Trump-inspired alphabetography.

What do you want the reader to take away? Fundamentally, I want to bolster the reader. ABC books are comforting things. Kids love them because the reading is gentle, and the looking is easy. In the middle of a pandemic mishandled by bullies and thieves, many of us feel like big, bewildered children. What can we expect? What comes next? No one can say for sure. But in the meantime, we know certain things: what is good, and lovely. How ugliness and falsehood look and sound. Where xenophobia and white nationalism lead. We’re not crazy, and we haven’t forgotten everything.

A is for Autocrat says it upfront: “This fierce little book is for our younger, unjaded selves, a salty refreshment of our moral and aesthetic capacities, of late battered by double talk and villainy.”

There is a backstory: On Thanksgiving weekend 2018, I came across a brief guide to character education for children put out by the Grolier Society, publishers of The Book of Knowledge, an encyclopedia for kids. The booklet provides an index to encyclopedia articles tethered to moral concepts like kindness, courage and loyalty. Published in 1946, immediately after World War II and the Holocaust, the Grolier guide might as well have been written 300 years ago, so distant did it seem from the Trump era when I first read it.

On the last several pages of that yellowed booklet, the editors provide something called “The Children’s Morality Code,” a concise, cogently written set of guidelines for being a good person. “The Law of Truth,“ for example, covers how a person should respect, guard and never hoard the truth. You can imagine the way in which this very earnest pamphlet is rendered quaint, even grotesque, by our current president. He violates its every precept in the most vulgar way.

It felt like an indictment across time. I went to the checkout counter at the antique mall where I’d found the booklet, and plunked down the seven dollars to buy it. I brought it back to my studio, where it sat until May, when I got it out again.


By choosing an ABC format, I let myself be challenged by Grolier’s guide to communicate as if to children: to use plain language in short segments, straightforward typesetting, and clear illustration to address the moral catastrophe we are living through.

Is this for an audience, or is it a means to vent your current frustrations? The totalizing corruption of the Trump regime has many costs, but one of the most pernicious is what I tend to think of as the Chump Effect. If you believe in fairness, if you protect process, under Trump rules, you’re not a Decent Jane or Joe. You’re a passive loser. A fool, a chump. That’s deeply corrosive. How can we trust each other when the rules aren’t binding for everybody? That’s a concept that children understand. Yet in the everyday chaos of the moment, it can be easy to lose track of such foundational moral questions.

While Autocrat isn’t for an audience of children, it uses strategies that appeal to kids. A friend who saw an early version of the book wrote, “It was the first in a long time that it seemed possible to channel my rage constructively, from A to Z.” That captures what I’m hoping to achieve. Be mad, but don’t despair. Let’s buck up and go. I want to highlight the work of graphic designer Scott Gericke, my longtime collaborator. Scott brought vision and creativity to the effort, which helped keep it on the rails. Working on a complicated project at high speed can be hazardous to your health and relationships! Nonetheless, Scott remains a trusted friend and valued creative partner.



What is the most significant (personally or socially) aspect of this book? The Black Lives Matter protests set off by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis are the most significant events of the moment. I address them both pictorially and textually: 'B' does double duty as Brutality and BLM. That said, designers and illustrators of color—I think of Kadir Nelson—are best positioned to bear witness and command attention on those issues. I think what I have to offer as a writer and illustrator is a targeted mixture of sorrow, humor, beauty and disgust. The right kind of intolerance. As a personal matter, I was raised in a Republican legal family in Ohio. My father served as city councilman, a district attorney and state supreme court justice. He was appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Reagan in 1982, and served until 2014. He was scrupulously honest and deeply committed to the law. Four summers ago, dad was dying of leukemia in Florida as Trump captured the Republican nomination. I was able to be with him throughout his last weeks, and one of the things we did together was to watch the two political conventions. He didn’t make it to November, but he was planning to vote for Hillary Clinton. He found Trump’s dismissive attitude about public service obnoxious, among other sins. I thought about my father quite a bit while working on this project. My politics may have diverged from his many years ago, but his vision of citizenship was non-partisan. I dedicated the book to him.



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