Screen Life

“Liberals are right that Donald Trump is dangerous without signaling that it has ever occurred to them that they are dangerous as well.”

— Rob Urie

“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”

— Edward Said (L.A. Times, 2003)

There is a sense of unreality in the U.S. The figure of Trump is deeply unreal, a kitsch President, a sort of post Warhol creation whose fame rests primarily on a TV reality show and a three decade record of self promotion as a real estate dealer. His diplomatic blunders will soon be seen, I suspect, internationally, as the actions of the most ignorant man to ever occupy the White House. And that’s a stiffly contested title. Lets remember that Reagan knew nothing either.

The White House is not home to the best and brightest. Bush Jr, and Andrew Jackson, or Filmore or Taft or McKinley, or Polk or the openly alcoholic racist Andrew Johnson are not exactly on any Deans List. Teddy Roosevelt loved taxidermy, something I think suggests a certain level of unreality. Zachery Taylor, old Rough & Ready was a dense soldier with no real love of learning. Hoover was another intellectually challenged figure who also lacked curiosity about most everything. Ditto Harding. Gerald Ford, another bumpkin. But this is low hanging fruit, and the idea of intellect is pretty fluid anyway.

Bill Clinton was highly educated, sort of, but an intellectual? Naw. Nor is Obama. What they are is socially acceptable to the bourgeoisie. They play the role of intellectual. Obama plays the part, too, as Geoffrey Skoll observed, of the black man as Hollywood invented him in The Cosby Show. But the point is that already Trump has evidenced a lack of couth. And that is found unnaceptable. But his lack of curiosity seamlessly fits into the intellectual landscape of the country today. The danger with Trump is that, as expected and feared, he has surrounded himself with not just the Breitbart mafia, but with long entrenched right wing hardliners who served under other administrations.

Now it was clear what Hillary Clinton had planned for foreign policy; she was being mentored by the likes of Henry Kissinger. She was bent on a confrontation with Russia. Trump seems to have gravitated toward the ‘bomb Iran’ contingent from the corridors of power. People like General *Mad Dog* Mattis, his pick for Secretary of Defense. But all of this is still relatively unclear. There is a clear pro Likud bent to many of the new inner circle, but also a far right Christian grouping that begins with Mike Pence. This is a very pro Israel group, and one that successfully masked that to some extent during the campaign.

The hysteria in liberal circles about Trump’s rolling back civil liberties seems to miss the fact that the ground work was being laid as far back as Bill Clinton, through Bush Jr, onto Obama. A list of the legislations passed that began with Bill Clinton is pretty draconian (Clinton’s crime bill, he also signed the first illegal rendition, and signed off on the Iraq sanctions — not to mention DOMA and NAFTA). Clinton also deregulated Wall Street with his repeal of the Glass Steagal Law and the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act. Trump is only sort of more openly activating what is already pretty much in place. Remember that domestic policing has been implemented in squashing free speech and protest for almost a decade now. The NATO protests in Chicago, 2012, and before that in Seattle, 1999, featured all the newest technology of crowd control (meaning concussion grenades and massive surveillance, sonic canons, and all coupled to a fair amount of privatized security personal and the creation of free speech zones, an Orwellian term if there ever was one). The SWAT attired soldiers of Empire swept up all protesters and kept them far away from the site of the NATO meeting. The first real test drive for some of this was the shutting down of Boston after the marathon bombing. Then Ferguson and now Standing Rock. The message is dissent and protest will not be tolerated.

Dave Lindorff wrote of the Standing Rock protests and the authority structures response:

“The casualties of this one-sided battle against peaceful protesters on a bridge were enormous, with some 300 of the estimated 400 protesting water protectors, both native people and non-native supporters, injured, 26 of them seriously. There was evidence that police were aiming rubber bullets at protesters’ heads and groins to inflict maximum pain and damage, with eight of the injured hospitalized, including a 13-year-old girl shot in the face, whose eye was reportedly damaged. { } The attack on Sunday night, which has been rightly condemned by UN human rights observers as an atrocity, harks back to the simultaneous country-wide crushing of the Occupy movement occupations in cities across the US during early November, 2011, when local police aided in some cases by armed federal parks police, assaulted occupiers with maximum violence, almost always at night, barring the media from witnessing their deliberate and coordinated over-the-top violence.”

Needless to say, Obama has done nothing and said nothing. So, while Trump is indeed a troubling figure, he is hardly out of line with the policies that preceded him. The fact that it was Obama who introduced the *fake news* meme to contemporary discourse should also not be forgotten. While physical protest is being brutally attacked by the militarized security apparatus of the U.S., freedom of speech is being just as excessively attacked. What Robert Parry calls a *War on Skepticism*. From the Washington Post’s smear article on well established news and opinion sites to a ramped up reinforcing of anti Russian propaganda, the government is clearly working to eradicate all opinion not in line with the state. Parry noted….

“An organization of some 30 mainstream media companies already exists, including not only The Washington Post and The New York Times but also the Atlantic Council-connected Bellingcat, as the emerging arbiters – or ombudsmen – for truth, something Orwell described less flatteringly as a “Ministry of Truth. The New York Times has even editorialized in support of Internet censorship, using the hysteria over “fake news” to justify the marginalization or disappearance of dissident news sites.
It now appears that this 1984-ish “MiniTrue” will especially target journalistic skepticism when applied to U.S. government and mainstream media “group thinks.”

Remember that this is all happening in the last days of the Obama presidency. Glen Ford, at Black Agenda Report (one of the sites targeted in the Washington Post article) wrote…

“Clearly, there is a conspiracy afoot, involving the outgoing president, the woman he hoped would succeed him, the Democratic Party apparatus they lead, and the corporate media and national security establishment that came together in Hillary Clinton’s Big Tent after Donald Trump wrecked the Republican side of the corporate electoral duopoly. Trump’s campaign positions against the free outward flow of capital and jobs, via NAFTA and TPP-type corporate rights deals, and his stated reluctance to pursue “regime change” against states that “kill ISIS” caused panic among his brethren in the ruling class. They had lost control of the political narrative, and feared that a heretic might take over the State.
Had Clinton won the election, she would have begun a campaign of repression against the Left along the same national security lines as the Washington Post article, with that paper probably leading the propaganda charge.”

Trump, with appointments like Jeff Sessions in particular, harken back to old time segregationist policies of racial exclusion, but both parties (even when fighting amongst themselves) have been on the same course of hegemonic control of the population. The social unrest predicted by a worsening economy, and a crises of overproduction, along with growing environmental problems has been studied by the U.S. government and its wealthy patrons. The repressive policies of the outgoing Democrat are just served up as less openly racist and bigoted than Trump’s, but the essential goals are much the same. On November 30th H.R.6393, Intelligence Authorization Act, 2017 passed the House. The bill covers a variety of intelligence issues, but focuses particularly on combating the supposed Russian manipulation of media. The rather astonishing part of this entire tsunami of thought control is that is has raised very little outcry in the educated masses of the U.S. And one reason for this is that Hollywood has been normalizing even the most acute attacks on civil liberties for thirty years. It would be valuable, I think, to watch the entire second season of Madame Secretary, the Barbara Hall created series starring Tea Leoni as the Secretary of State for fictional president Keith Carradine ( a almost amusing bit of casting if any of this were at all amusing). The show follows the complete revisionist history of U.S. foreign policy from start to finish. Evil Russians, even more evil Iranians, and noble Americans (and Maddie Albright even did a guest cameo). But even this series feels no need to explain the assumption of blanket American exceptionalism that is constantly referenced. At the end of the second season, or near end, the President is aghast that Iran wants a bomb. Its a given that they do, and its a given that this must be stopped. Throughout the series American forces are repeatedly sent on blatantly illegal missions to interfere in the affairs of other sovereign countries, while the affluent white families of the lead characters act out various plot lines that go back to Father Knows Best. Global domination is a good thing, and the entire state department is in the business of making sure nothing interrupts this. The only villains are either Muslim or Russian (and I think once Chinese).

But, the show, like virtually everything that comes out of Hollywood today, works overtime to reinforce notions of American tolerance and multiculturalism. And one could just as easily look at a dozen other shows, starting perhaps with House of Cards or the new HBO Kiefer Sutherland vehicle, Designated Survivor. There are gay characters in prominent roles, women with authority and power, and a fair share of black and latino roles, too. All of them happy to be part of the Empire. The empire as seen by the Democratic Party. The cultural divide then is about a style of cultural expression, and not about political issues. The Trump version of the Republican Party is one of archaic xenophobia replete with calls for a new HUAC and a Muslim Registry. But neither party nor its stylistic avatars in Hollywood have a problem with global domination, with the sadistic policies of international financial organizations, or with the deeply entrenched belief in white superiority. The narratives are told from a white point of view. Now, there are a handful of exceptions (and much UK product seems of a different register altogether, though still more than a little vaguely reactionary) but they are rare. The US public has been internalizing these models for daily life for over three decades. Still, the Clintons penetrated Hollywood far more than any previous political dynasty. And there is probably something of a bitterness in the new alt right, disingenuously so called, that still favors Christian media and Little House on the Prairie. Mike Pence, the poster boy for homophobia is almost a cartoon version of repressed libidinal confusion. But this is that fraction of the Trump base that saw nothing surreal in the Dallas Cowboys Stadium funeral ceremony for sniper Chris Kyle. The ones who think Thomas Kinkade should have retrospective at the Modern, those that know of the Modern. Trump is the kitsch presidency style wise. He shares the same taste in decor as Las Vegas casinos. The east coast WASP elitism of the Bush family is gone, replaced with Reagan’s America as painted by Jeff Koons.

Bill Clinton’s world view is almost identical to Trump’s. He simply said and did it with charm and form the platform of the Democratic Party. And the Democrats controlled the government in 1993 when NAFTA was passed. The ideological imprint of NAFTA is exactly the same as Reagan’s vision on trade and business. Identical. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 was exactly reproducing the ideas of Newt Gingrich (a Trump fave). The ruling wealth of America makes decisions, and Presidents carry them out. As Margaret Kimberley wrote…“Showing bad manners seems to be the only thing that sets off expressions of outrage among Americans.”

Trump offends white liberals. It can’t be his policies because they are the same as Obama’s and Bush’s. When people argue that, for example with climate change, one has to wonder what they mean. The Paris Accords were described by most serious climate activists as a waste of time. Nick Deardon of Global Justice wrote :

It’s outrageous that the deal that’s on the table is being spun as a success when it undermines the rights of the world’s most vulnerable communities and had almost nothing binding to ensure a safe and liveable climate for future generations.

In other words, all that matters is that you SAY you want to fight for climate and social justice. Never mind that you do nothing. Just say it. Trump offends liberals because he doesn’t bother to say he cares. And indeed, he doesn’t. And this is a theme that runs through American culture today. The demand that convicts up for parole admit their remorse for example. Its a curiously confessional society, even if insincere. Sincerity is so passe. Of course Obama and Hillary Clinton don’t care really, either. But they say they do. Obama said he respected the constitution, too, and then repurposed the Espionage Act to prosecute and punish (and wildly excessive punishment at that) all whistle blowers. And look, when you lead the largest military in the world, and you keep lobbying for more defense monies, you clearly are not exactly an environmentalist.

But I keep returning to perception in all this. And to Hollywood. I have said before that the real violence of mass culture, of TV and film, is not that seen in slasher films or crime drama, but the violence of white supremacism in sentimental and maudlin melodrama. A society raised on artificial emotions and saccharine kitsch revisions of, not just history, but daily life, is going to be a sociopathic society — a society of endless regression and infantilism. If you do not recognize Lena Dunham’s Girls,or Orange is The New Black, or The Affair, or House of Cards, as shows that express white privilege, then I think you aren’t paying much attention.

The demolishing of public education, that followed on Reagan’s dream, was only the final stage of a trend that had been going on for decades. In fact public education was never meant for the masses, really. There was an anomalous blip mid century that expressed a kind of middle class fantasy of Norman Rockwellian proportions, but in fact the idea of a *middle class* is itself a kind of fantasy. The truth is America never wanted to educate its poor children. The wealthy go to private schools and elite universities. The rest of the children can just go fuck off. So, the new empire of *entertainment* is one in which violence is expressed in mostly cartoon fashion, and while its hardly healthy — whatever that is –, it is also true that much great literature is infused with violence. The real damage comes from the express manipulation of the audience. The marketed smiley face culture, one of whiteness and the natural superiority of wealth. The paeans to aristocrasy and royalty, and the imaginary suburbia of Spielberg and John Hughes and Harold Ramis. And their inheritors that couch such suburban visions in fantasy pseudo dystopias (Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, et al) the better to prove white saviors are still in play. A

nd while there are examples each year of prestige films that address social issues, they are mostly, if not always, tributes to the class that produced them. The shallowness and reactionary core of much applauded films from American Beauty, to Boyhood suggests a general and not so gradual intensifying of immaturity, aesthetically. Or, just rewrite history (The Revenant, Bridge of Spies, The Imitation Game, Zero Dark Thirty, et al). The real cultural harm comes from the gatekeepers of taste. The curators and artistic directors and gallery owners and studio executives who are no more immune to the coarsening of taste than anyone else and who validate this ever more adolescent entertainment as *art*. And certainly advertisers are not immune. And sponsers remain, even now, the final authority on what gets aired.

Herman Gray wrote…

“Socially, the middle-class ideal of Americanness was staged in the theater of domesticity, where social ties and identities based on gender, family, and tradition were its primary targets. Labor and time-saving appliances were aimed at white women, whose work and social domains were increasingly defined in terms of the good mother—a nurturing and unselfish figure who remained at home providing for the husband and kids.
Television programming and advertising encouraged working-class white ethnics to abandon the habits, practices, and identifications based on old ties of neighborhood, family, and community in favor of suburban life filled with consumer goods that announced and confirmed achievement of the mythical American dream. The sphere of domesticity, complete with national brands and new forms of association and community, competed with, transformed, and in some cases displaced social relations formerly defined by clubs, bars, and work.”

There are things produced of great quality, and real vision, but I’m not sure this invalidates my point here. Even the best drama I’ve seen on TV and in film the last ten years still perpetuates the mythology of American goodness and military virtue. Or it panders to a new sub literate conformism. The backdrop reality, or unreality, remains a white patriarchal system that worships Capital. Screen reality is, or already has, replaced material reality. Discussions of art and culture are hugely complex and I don’t want to be reductive. The erosion of taste, so goes my argument, does not fall uniquely on the shoulders of Don Trump and his smarmy sons.

Mass culture is balkanized anyway. Shows are created with a specific demographic in mind. Trinity Broadcasting is not pulling the same viewership as HBO. And the fact that the University educated are so profoundly segregated from the Christian right, for example, speaks to the class stratification in the U.S. today. The now infamous deplorables remark can be seen as an imperious sense of contempt that the white affluent liberal feels toward the poor. And it explains this selective outrage and fear.

After all, suddenly the proprietor class have nightmares of Klansmen breaking into their gated communities. Welcome to the nightmares of the rest of us, only its those SWAT attired private security guys in Humvees mounted with the latest LRAD sonic cannon and there are no gates to run over, only the new disposable population.

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John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwriting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. A collection of plays, Sea of Cortez & Other Plays was published in 1999, and his book on aesthetics, Aesthetic Resistance and Dis-Interest was published by Mimesis International in 2016.

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