Just what is it that makes today’s president so different, so appealing? (To his supporters, anyway.) Donald Trump might be our first reality-star chief executive, but if you really want to experience the national id he has tapped into, you’d be better off watching Hollywood blockbusters. It’s time to go to the movies.
Specifically, it’s worth taking a look at some of the ecstatic nihilism that has been a Hollywood staple for decades.
For instance, take the way that Trump and his surrogates “destabilize meaning,” as Moises Velasquez-Manoff puts it. Trump uses very simple words–he famously speaks at the level of a fourth grader–but he leeches all semantic value out of those words at the same time. Coming from anybody else, a sentence like this one would be a simple declaration of fact; coming from Trump, it’s a disorienting performance, carefully calculated to confuse, confound, and generally undermine any conception of shared values or even shared language.
Look at the language Trump used when a baby started to cry at one of his rallies. Here’s how he starts:
Don't worry about that baby, I love babies. I love babies, I hear that baby crying and I like it. I like it. What a baby! What a beautiful baby. Don't worry (gesticulates at baby's mother in audience). The mom's running about like…don't worry about, you know. It's young and beautiful and healthy and that's what we want.
And then, a few beats later, when the baby is still crying:
Actually I was only kidding, you can get the baby out of here. That's alright, don't worry. I think she really believed me that I love having a baby crying while I am speaking! That's ok, people don't understand. That's ok…."
This trope–of saying the exact opposite of what you mean, so as to maximize the shock when you come out with how you really feel–is very familiar to moviegoers. Jared Leto’s Joker, for instance, uses it to hideous effect in Suicide Squad, as does the equally unstable Reggie Kray, in Legend, who’s happy to tell a pilfering employee to just pay back the money he stole, before offering him a cigarette and then breaking his jaw with a single punch.
The characters who behave this way in movies are always dangerously unpredictable criminals who are all the more dangerous for lacking any kind of rational self-interest: Trump, here, is embracing the bad-guy trope in an astonishingly audacious manner.
But that’s just the beginning of the way in which the Trump administration aspires to cartoon-villain status. As far back as 2013, I was talking about how the zombie apocalypse has arrived: how a large swathe of the American public was displaying a clear political taste for what the artist and essayist John Powers calls “the alternative to the system with no alternative.” Exhibit A was Fight Club, whose antihero, Tyler Durden, ends the film watching the orgasmic destruction of the towers that epitomize finance and cosmopolitanism.
Fight Club begat not only Zero Hedge, the Trumpiest of all finance websites, but also Steve Bannon, who called his band of Breitbart renegades Fight Club for the way in which they wanted to tear down the establishment. Later, he would explicitly say that he wanted to “destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down.”
What Trump and Bannon tapped into, then, is exactly the same phenomenon that made The Walking Dead the most popular TV show in the world. There’s a manic millenarianism to much of Trump’s support, a revolutionary fever dream where the rich are overthrown, the working classes take over, and where enormous amounts of blood run in the streets. (Naturally, as in all such dreams, the tale is told from the point of view of a tough survivor.)
In a world where right and left alike have accepted that there is no alternative to liberal capitalism as broadly understood, the segment of the population that has been most hurt by economic globalization has increasingly found itself in a desperate, nothing-to-lose mindset. A milestone of sorts was set just three years ago, in the forgettable sci-fi flick Transcendence, when the agent of eschatological downfall–the man who destroys all human knowledge and progress, sending us back to some kind of Hobbesian stone age–is weirdly the hero of the movie, rather than the villain.
Transcendence was a box-office flop, because the hero/narrator, played by Paul Bettany, was up against an even more powerful antihero, in the form of a virtualized Johnny Depp. What really sells, in the movies, is wanton destruction, of buildings or cities or entire planets, all of which are filled with innocent sheeple who would probably never survive a post-apocalyptic hellscape anyway. The implosions and fireballs are, in Powers’ words, “a catharsis, a conceptual clearing of the deck.” They’re the great leveler, and, not incidentally, they elevate the all-American skills of the rugged frontiersman and no-nonsense sharpshooter, while rendering useless the ability to, say, optimize a social-media strategy or create a lovely heart shape atop a cappuccino.
In these movies, what you say never really matters: What matters is some combination of irreducible character and manifest destiny. And even if the good triumph in the end, there’s always a lot of blood and mess along the way. Steve Bannon is cool with that, and so are a lot of his supporters. Which is to say: Things are going to get worse before they get worse.