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President Lisa Simpson

We’re “Bart to the Future” . . . again

The Simpsons season eleven episode “Bart to the Future,” which first aired in March of 2000, purports to offer us a glimpse into what the family’s life will be like in the year 2030—in this reality, Lisa has just been elected President of the United States, and she is struggling to fix the many problems bequeathed to her by the disastrous administration of her predecessor, Donald Trump. Last year the episode, which had long-since been dismissed as one of the series’ absolute comedic and narrative nadirs, attracted renewed attention for having been one of the few pieces of mainstream media—journalistic or otherwise—to wholeheartedly predict a Trump victory. But in my view last year’s articles were all-too-cursory, and all-too-glib. Sure they took the Trump prophecy seriously, but only because he was already about to become president. They should have gone further than this. I think they should have grappled with the series’ other prophecy: namely that, after Trump has been president, Lisa Simpson will succeed him. There can be little doubt that this prediction will also come true.

The world of “Bart to the Future” is unremittingly bleak, a hollowed-out Mark Fisherian dystopia in which everything is old, in which newness has become seemingly impossible. Almost no one appears in the episode who is not a familiar template, either of an established Simpsons character or a contemporary (in 2000) public figure. The episode focuses on a forty-year-old Bart and a thirty-eight-year-old Lisa. Milhouse is the Secretary of the Treasury; Bart is in a band with Ralph Wiggum. Bart’s band plays at a club owned by Nelson Muntz, the audience of which exclusively consists of the wrinkled, greying husks of long-time Springfield residents. Alan Greenspan, who in contrast to everyone else doesn’t seem to have aged a day, is still Chairman of the Federal Reserve at the age of 104. Mobutu Sese Soko has apparently returned to power (and indeed the realm of the living) in what we must assume is a Zaire renewed, and can be seen sitting on a panel of world leaders that confronts President Lisa.

Civil rights have starkly regressed under Trump; at one point, President Lisa is seen grandstanding about proposals to desegregate the sport of roller ball.

In thirty years, fashion is unchanged, and indeed Lisa herself dresses like no one other than Hillary Clinton. Architecture and interior design are mostly the same, although a few things (like the Washington Monument) have seen the addition of decorative “space age” rings. Popular culture is in stasis to the point that Bart exclusively watches Bewitched marathons. Music has apparently undergone no stylistic or even technological innovations; Bart’s band distributes their music on cassette, and they are anyway only capable of playing cackhanded rip-offs of Jimmy Buffett. Despite this, Bart is at least permitted by the other characters to identify as “cool.” Unsurprisingly, civil rights have starkly regressed under Trump; at one point, President Lisa is seen grandstanding about proposals to desegregate the sport of roller ball. There is some new technology, but it appears to have opened up no qualitatively new functional possibilities. There are hover-buses, but they share routes with (less expensive) regular buses; there are hologram messages, but they are delivered by couriers like telegrams. By contrast, the news is transmitted through gun-like devices directly to people’s brains—although having said this, the resultant “BrainVision News” is formally identical to traditional television broadcasts.

The episode, which as a piece of comedy rather than prophecy deserves its dire reputation, is probably too lazy to have thought the logic of this through. Despite this, it does at one point hint at an explanation: President Trump’s policies have resulted in a nation starkly divided by age, his decision to “invest in our nation’s children” apparently resulting in what Lisa’s aides refer to as a generation of “super-criminals” who are able to go without sleep. We hear no more of this, and indeed throughout the episode no one older than eighteen months but younger than thirty-eight is ever seen. In fact, the sole person younger than the president depicted in the show is “Maggie Jr.,” a character identical to the original Maggie to the point one gets the sense that Marge’s explanation—namely that she is the child of an unseen “Maggie Sr.”—could well be self-delusion on the part of a mother unable to confront the reality of her child’s serious developmental disorder. Where are all these young super-people hiding? Are they really “criminals,” or is this just how they are coded in the categories of the dying husk of the world of the thirty-eight-pluses? At night, in the shadows, are they building something new?

For the sake of the humanity of 2030, perhaps we had better hope so. It is clear at any rate that the world in which Lisa has assumed power is dying: the oceans have dried up, the U.S. treasury is completely broke. That little girl, who in the classroom had all the right answers, is now unable to formulate any: all she can think to do is to impose a grueling and unpopular tax hike, accompanied by what will likely prove a disastrous program of austerity, in a misguided attempt at restoring fiscal solvency. By the end of the episode, her nation’s creditors are furiously demanding payment, a situation so serious that Bart is depicted “saving the day” by using his well-honed deadbeat skills to do just enough to trick them into giving his sister a few more hours to find the money (which obviously she is still going to prove unable to obtain).

So here is why all this will come to pass. It is of course hard to see Trump “investing in our nation’s children,” but certainly it is more than likely that he will leave behind a country facing both economic and environmental disaster, exacerbated by a worsening generational divide. As demography continues to be weighted disproportionately toward baby boomers, culture will more than likely remain stuck in the nostalgic feedback loop that has maintained it since at least the early ’90s. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley start-up culture will continue to mean that technological “innovation’” typically takes the form of re-inventing established technologies and services like buses. Also, the oceans might not dry up, but they could boil, and certainly they have already started drowning large swathes of the American South.

The deep crisis that Trump’s administration will bequeath the United States will require an answer—a good answer. But in the USA, the opposition—or at any rate, the dominant forces in the mainstream opposition—is actively disinterested in good answers. A good answer would involve admitting that the problems the nation faces are massive, deeply-rooted, and systemic. A good answer would thus involve radically re-shaping the economy, from the distribution of wealth to the production of fuel. Indeed, a good answer would in this case be one that responds to a standard of correctness wholly other to the previously established order of things. This is why the DNC will never be interested in good answers.

As she grew up, something strange happened to little Lisa Simpson: she started to sound more like a mouthpiece for the views of her affluent, Harvard-educated, liberal writers.

The whole air surrounding Hillary Clinton and her supporters was and still is precisely that of a gaggle of Lisa Simpsons: always the smartest kids in the class, equipped throughout their lives with all the “right” answers. But suddenly the textbooks have changed, and they’re not “right” about anything anymore. When the character of Lisa Simpson was born, she was depicted as being like any normal gifted child—passionate, earnest, curious, and vulnerable. This Lisa would probably have been able to reflect on what was going on, and at the very least would not have simply lapsed knee-jerk into the discredited economics of financial austerity. But as she grew up, something strange happened to little Lisa Simpson: she started to sound less like a child and more like a mouthpiece for the views of her affluent, Harvard-educated, liberal writers; men who of course know they are right about everything, and who of course never question the structures of a world that has allowed them to grow ever-wealthier by churning out phoned-in gags for a once-great but long-since creatively bankrupt cartoon. This Lisa Simpson will always be trapped in her own smug certainties. There is no way out for her.

Of course Lisa Simpson is a fictional character, even I know that—so the Democrats probably won’t literally put her forward as their presidential candidate. But if she did exist, she’d no doubt seem perfect; young, well-turned-out yet from the sort of white working-class demographic the party is sure they need to recapture. To whatever Lisa analogue the DNC eventually puts forward will most likely fall the task of ensuring, with all the smarts and level-headedness that will make the new president such a refreshing alternative to Trump, that the nation’s decline continues to be as painful and mismanaged as possible.