When I think about Stephen King’s The Stand, which I have done with some frequency since I first read it in 1994, there’s one passage that always leaps out at me. It’s a description of the novel’s villain, Randall Flagg, a bad guy with such a magnetic presence that King would reuse him across nearly a dozen other books and stories in various guises. In The Stand he’s effectively the Anti-Christ, an ancient, grinning, denim-clad psychopath with magical powers. With little or no knowledge of who and what he really was, Flagg wove in and out of 20th Century America’s violent fringe movements — he was a member of the group that kidnapped and brainwashed Patti Hearst, for example — before emerging to lead a totalitarian nation-state based in Las Vegas (!) after a weaponized flu virus wipes out over 99 percent of the world’s population.
It’s during this phase of his life, which we experience in the pages of The Stand, that Flagg takes unto him his bride, a schoolteacher named Nadine Cross, who for reasons unclear (to her, him, and the reader) had been destined all her life to wind up in his clutches. During the grotesque and violent consummation of their relationship, his human shape melts away, revealing the demon beneath. This shatters Nadine’s sanity, but it also provides her with piercingly clear vision of this supposedly all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful entity’s chief limitation: He’s a moron.
…and now it was the shaggy face of a demon lolling just above her face, a demon with glaring yellow lamps for eyes, windows into a hell never even considered, and still there was that awful good humor in them, eyes that had watched down the crooked alleys of a thousand tenebrous night towns; those eyes were glaring and glinting and finally stupid.
Forgive me for the oft-repeated comparison I am about to make — I am but a writer of thinkpieces, and such is our lot — but does that sound like anyone you know? Donald Trump lacks most of what we might consider Flagg’s more appealing characteristics: the jean-jacket rakishness, the John Cougar Mellencamp faux-folksiness, the ability to transform into a crow. The only experience our ostensible leader has with “the crooked alleys of a thousand tenebrous night towns” is passing through them in a limousine on the way from one of his gilded boondoggle palaces to the next.
But good humor he’s got in spades, those limitless reserves of delight that are the province of a man who views all other people as beneath him and thus never runs out of people to mock. He’s unfamiliar with the small towns and three-time losers of King’s beloved Bruce Springsteen, but his brain has conjured a competing cosmology, one of wilding teenagers roaming Central Park, MS-13 soldiers stalking the suburbs of Long Island, unclean hordes flowing into Southern border towns. He is cocksure about the things he doesn’t know and irrevocably incurious about learning them. Look into his beady, blinking eyes and you’ll see that he, too, is finally stupid.
Unfortunately for us, one of the things about which he is stupid is a plague. Not on the order of the one that murdered the world of The Stand, thank Christ. Known alternately as the superflu, tube neck, or Captain Trips depending on the location of the character (King pegs the different monikers to different geographic regions, setting up the novel’s later road-movie journeys through New England, New York, the South, the Midwest, the Rockies, and the Nevada desert), the disease was created in a bioweapons laboratory by the American government and accidentally set loose on its way to killing billions. It has a 99.4 percent communicability rate and it kills 100 percent of the people who contract it — a horror-story contrivance, but a damn good one. Unsurprisingly, The Stand is about to be turned into a television show starring Aleksander Skarsgård as Flagg (King adaptations have become a Skarsgård family business); this follows actor Jamey Sheridan’s turn in the role in ABC’s well-regarded 1994 miniseries. (Here’s its fabulously morbid opening credit sequence, for all you Blue Öyster Cult fans out there.)
The coronavirus — or COVID-19, to use the name more amenable to Stephen King numerology — is markedly less lethal than the villainous virus of the story, and again, thank Christ, especially given how our government is mishandling it. That mishandling is not the ruthless, violent suppression of information that characterized the American response to Captain Trips, which involved teams of soldiers murdering reporters and shooting up talk-radio stations. It’s more the usual soul-depleting spectacle of Trump’s ignorance (he could not define what a vaccine does if his life depended on it), his insistence that everyone constantly and publicly tell him how great he is, and his desire to root out anyone who falls short. As Alex Pareene puts it in The New Republic, “Trump believes coronavirus is a thing that happens on TV, and that he can control what the TV says… If he can get everyone on the same page about how effective the response to coronavirus has been, all will be well.”
But this tendency predates COVID-19, exists independently of it, and will continue for as long as Trump is in power. That’s where The Stand and reality diverge for real, and not just as a matter of which bug kills more people. For King, a great leveling of society was required for Flagg’s supernatural fascism to take root. Before that he was just a small-timer, handing out inflammatory literature and participating in the odd bombing or bank robbery. Once the superflu started spreading, “He was happier than he’d ever been,” King writes. “Something was coming.”
He could feel it, almost taste it in the night air. He could taste it, a sooty hot taste that came from everywhere, as if God was planning a cookout and all of civilization was going to be the barbecue. Already the charcoal was hot, white and flaky outside, as red as demons’ eyes inside. A huge thing, a great thing.
His time of transfiguration was at hand.
The society that forms around Flagg in Las Vegas takes on familiar contours. Absolute deference to the Leader that borders on — or actually is — religious in nature, coupled with a farcical insistence that he’s looking out for Guys Like Us. A surfeit of ex-cops, ex-military, and tech bros (of the electrical-engineering vein; the book predates the widespread use of the Internet). Vicious persecution of criminals, defined loosely as anyone who partakes of any drug stronger than aspirin or the occasional whiskey. (In one of the book’s most gruesome sequences, Flagg’s goons crucify a cokehead.) Murderous xenophobia. A nascent secret police. Above all, Flagg’s need for control, and his terror that people or events could defy or contradict him.
In our mirror-universe run-through of The Stand’s story arc, we’re about to find out how bad finally stupid can get.
The resulting society stinks, almost literally. According to Tom Cullen, a learning-disabled man sent to Vegas as a deep-cover spy by the rival, benevolent community called the Boulder Free Zone:
He hated it here. It had a kind of smell to it here, a dry and rotten smell that you could never quite put your finger on. The people were mostly nice, and some of them he liked every bit as well as the people in Boulder….They were nice folks, not much different from Boulder folks, as far as he could tell, but —
But they had that smell about them.
In his portrait of American fascism, King was smart to note that Flagg and perhaps a few of his top lieutenants aside, most of his supporters weren’t cartoon supervillains or outright Nazis. The rank and file, everyday Flagg folks cracked jokes and ate lunch and flirted and lived life like normal people, with one exception: They’d found themselves drawn towards a demon in human form, and they were helping him loose himself upon the already devastated world.
But The Stand’s implicit argument that a world-historical cataclysm would be required for such people to coalesce into a large-scale political force — that the chaos wrought by a pandemic would be required for a Flagg-like folksy strongman to attract those people to his side — now seems quaint and sad. In our world, the cause-and-effect have been reversed: We have had the flag-hugging, McDonald’s-eating, elite-bashing black-eyed monster for years, and we’re getting the pandemic after the fact. Indeed, the presence of our preexisting Flagg figure at the height of power seems bound to exacerbate the plague’s spread. In our mirror-universe run-through of The Stand’s story arc, we’re about to find out how bad finally stupid can get.
Which brings me to the other passage from The Stand that’s been stuck in my head all these years. At the end of the book, surviving heroes Stu Redman and Frannie Goldsmith strike out on their own, in hopes that slowing the resurgence of organized society will in turn slow the potential for future Flaggs and future superflus. At least that’s what they hope, but they have their doubts, and it falls to Stu to bring them up. “Do you think…,” he asks, “do you think people ever learn anything?”
She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, fell very silent. The kerosene lamp flickered. Her eyes seemed very blue.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. She seemed unpleased with her answer; she struggled to say something more; to illuminate her first response; and could only say it again:
I don’t know.