One of America’s major exports is stories. Since Hollywood’s Golden Age they have sold us dreamy narratives of rags to riches, sinners to saints, impossible romances made possible through sheer force of will. These are tales of triumph over adversity, of belief in yourself magically transformed into the reality you want.
Donald Trump is the latest in a long line of American storytellers. Even though this is a man who has learnt his tricks from reality TV, the story he is telling us is another of Hollywood’s great genres: the existential threat. In this version, we are watching Independence Day unfold through the medium of his Twitter feed, Trump defending America in real time from an invasion of illegal immigrant aliens.
We have been here before. Trump follows most obviously in the footsteps of America’s studio system president, Ronald Reagan. Reagan came through the tight reputation-creation and management scheme that was the Hollywood studio: once you were ‘cast’, on-screen and off-screen personas were blended seamlessly into one. Take Humphrey Bogart. He floated around Hollywood for years, doing the odd bit of gangster-acting, neither particularly noticed nor noticeable. Then he was cast in The Maltese Falcon and turned out to be an excellent cynic with a soft side. That part that would be his, both on screen and in the gossip columns, for the rest of his life.
Reagan was not so fortunate. He was a B movie actor who mostly starred in Westerns, a variant of the existential threat narrative in which a rugged American faith and courage is tested and found to be resilient in the face of the ‘other’ (never mind that the other is in fact the original in this case). Initially a Democrat, Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild during the Hollywood blacklist era, and became known for dumping a lot of his fellow American movie stars in it. Tension between him and his then wife, Jane Wyman, over his testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee was apparently one of the reasons they divorced.
His next wife, Nancy, was of a more conservative persuasion, and with her by his side he went from cowboy to homesteader, building a narrative of the perfect couple standing up for American family values against the savagery that lay beyond the white picket fence. He was more successful at selling this version of the story, and reached the pinnacle of his career not on a Hollywood sound stage, but on that of the White House press conference.
The Hollywood studio system no longer exists, and with it, some of Hollywood’s power has crumbled (hence the nostalgia-fest that is La La Land). Since then, the Kardashians have happened. The blend of reality and fiction has blurred even further. We are entering an era in which people ‘play themselves’, and sell themselves, for whole, forensically viewed lifetimes.
And here, right on cue, we have the world’s first reality TV president, emerging from the Apprentice boardroom with a ready-made Twitter following and a nose for how to win the ratings war. Which is, after all, just about telling the most compelling story, whether it is true or not. A terrorist attack in Sweden? Sounds plausible. Trump knows that whether we love him or loathe him, believe him or are horrified by him, we’re all hooked. The approach that worked at the ballot box is propelling him to global stardom. For a man who has monetized himself with varying success over the years, he just hit the jackpot. No one is going to forget this brand in a hurry.
ALL CHANGE PLEASE
In late capitalist societies dominated by the tyranny of the markets, the exercise of voting has in itself become more like picking your favourite contestant on X Factor than it is about the possibility of effecting meaningful change. Nonetheless, voters keep trying their luck, going for the ‘change candidate’ in the hope that this time they might taste the difference. And, as on X Factor, the candidates often trade on their own, personal stories.
Obama was a classic example of this. He sits squarely in the tradition of the American dream: a black man from humble origins making it through sheer hard work and determination. His ‘yes we can’ was founded on a ‘because I did’. This despite the fact of his white middle class upbringing. But there again, facts are not allowed to get in the way of a good story. We are looking for big journeys, sudden reversals, characters whose actions affect the world around them in deep and meaningful ways.
Sadly, dreams do not come true because of wishing upon a star; not even because of hard work. You need a healthy dose of luck. The latest all-American poster girls — the Kardashians — are the children of Robert Kardashian, businessman and O. J. Simpson’s defence attorney (there’s another bit of constructed reality for you). Trump is not some kind of renegade swamp drainer, he is the son of a wealthy real estate developer who gloried in the middle name ‘Christ’. These people are not smarter than you. They are not prettier than you. They are richer than you, they are better connected than you, they are luckier than you.
Hope-filled fantasies can obscure dark realities. Yes, Beyoncé might be “a black Bill Gates in the making” (as she sings on Formation) but the majority of Americans are living with nothing but a hope in hell of being either her or him. However, even more troubling than the passivity bred by escapism, is what we are seeing now. A creeping totalitarianism supported by tales of existential threat: dark realities conjured by dark fantasies.
Steve Bannon, it turns out, actually pitched his version of this narrative to Hollywood in 2007, during a stint there as a filmmaker. He outlined a documentary-style movie telling the story of the ‘Islamic States of America’, a radical Muslim takeover of the US enabled by the media, the Jewish community and government agencies. For every hissy fit had by a reality TV star, there is a behind-the-scenes producer pulling the strings: Bannon is Trump’s producer.
So here we are, endlessly trying to sift the reality from the fiction when maybe the fiction is what we need to worry about. We should take a careful look at the narratives we are being fed, both on screen and off. And, whether it’s a hope-filled tale of reversal of fortune or a battle against the odds, those of us in the business of telling stories should get critical about our part in creating these simplistic mythologies.
That is difficult. We are hard-wired to love the epic, and prone to rearrange even our own memories into tales of triumph. But more complexity is possible. Explorations not just of people, but also the systems that they live in and limit them. The films of Andrea Arnold, the plays of Caryl Churchill, for example. We need to beware of simple stories of the exception, the leading man or woman who succeeds where others fail.
Donald Trump is a terrifying leading man. He is also the logical latest act of American capitalism’s love of stories. He is the story and the story is him. And we can’t stop consuming it.