Watching Movies (and TV) in the shadow of President Trump
On Saturday, President Trump evoked “what’s happening last night in Sweden” to add to the pile of reasons why we should be afraid of letting refugees into the country. Nothing specifically happened on Friday night in Sweden (other than the pre-Eurovision excitement of Melfest (tough luck, Owe Thornqvist!)). Just like there never was a Bowling Green Massacre, just like there wasn’t a terrorist attack in Atlanta, just like many of the things Trump and his plastic-mouthed cabal say are fabrications.
Lies, if you don’t want to get fancy about it.
Granted, it’s unclear whether the Keystone Kops currently hard at work in the White House planning President Trump’s many vacations are deliberately lying, are ignorant, are getting false information they don’t care to check, or are just screwing up under pressure. Unfortunately, the invention of these events has the same effect regardless of the intent because of Trump’s campaign history of stoking fear and confusion about The Other – Mexicans, illegal immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Jews, black people, Indiana-born judges, and the poor.
That desired effect is best expressed by the 51% of Trump supporters recently telling PPP that the Bowling Green Massacre (a thing that never happened) showed “why we need Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration” (a chaotic thing that happened).
If you’re keeping score at home, the poll illustrates an equivalent of millions of people ready to block already-vetted people from coming into the country because something scary didn’t happen. It’s plausible that even more people would point to Trump’s E.O. being legitimized by highly publicized attacks like the Pulse Night Club shooting in Orlando, but the supreme lack of critical thinking involved in propping up the non-existent Bowling Green Massacre as a solid justification for insular xenophobia is telling. It speaks to the baked-in mindset of Trump voters eager to rid their lives of all threats, real and merely perceived.
Large portions of the country are living on Maple Street.
I spent the early part of last October with The Twilight Zone, compiling a list of the 25 best episodes for Thrillist, and while I kept seeing Fascist America reflected in a host of the finest episodes – Brave New World-cribbing “The Obsolete Man,” nostalgia-groping “Walking Distance,” conformity-worshiping “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” and more – there was no escaping “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” as the prime example of Red Scare terror translated to Trump’s America.
The Twilight Zone’s quintessential episode depicts a shadowy “monster,” a cloud of suspicion, falling upon a neighborhood of friends. As if The Thing looked like The Andy Griffith Show, the possibility of an alien attack spurs residents to point fingers, place blame, and attack each other – a moral object lesson that plays as freshly today as it did during its post-McCarthy Era debut. The “twist” that aliens have been lazily tinkering with the lights and cars, and that they’ve concluded that the easiest way to destroy mankind is to let us destroy ourselves, isn’t so much shocking as it is depressingly familiar. Enjoy the rest of the election season!
Except now we’re enjoying the first month of the next four years.
The sleepy citizenry of Maple Street is a Baby Boomer’s wet dream of idyllic prosperity, cut grass, and plentiful jobs for straight-shootin’ white Christians. They’re brought low by a power outage that reveals their animal cynicism within a matter of hours.
It’s a concept that Rod Serling toyed with several times on The Twilight Zone – taking it on most directly with “The Shelter,” which recasts Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper” with care-free, Red Scare disbelievers and a heavily-prepared neighbor who locks the mob of former friends out of his basement sanctuary once the warning bells go off. It’s easy to come away from that episode playing What If and building bunkers, but “Maple Street” is a far more oblique exploration of survival, paranoia and fear. It seems to mock more angrily the inhabitants who jump from comfort to blood-eyed panic in the course of one sunny afternoon.
Watching the episode during the campaign, it was easy to cast Trump as the alien on the hillside, prodding voters down below, filling our heads with hateful nonsense until we were blind enough to pull the wrong lever in the voting booth. He built upon an alternative reality already firmly established by Fox News and Breitbart, seasoning it with his own rancid flavor of marginalization and loserdom. If your life was bad, he gave you someone to blame for it. If your life was great but you thought it was bad because the news kept telling you it was, he gave you someone to blame for it.
It was also like watching a portion of the electorate through a glass darkly. They just wanted comfort and ease, and now they have to deal with aliens from outer space disrupting their existence. You want to think of humans as enlightened beings, but we aren’t great at assessing risk, so we end up acting like wounded animals even before an attack comes.
Re-watching it now, Trump is clearly the little boy who cries wolf. In the episode, Tommy tells all the adults that he read a story (fake news!) that the power outage is the work of aliens trying to separate them from the other suburban blocks in order to pick them off, and that one of the aliens is already hidden among them. In a bit of TZ irony, he’s right, but there’s no hidden alien, and the neighbors end up doing all the destructive work before the aliens can even really invade.
Tommy Trump plays a crucial role as the rumor monger who tips the dominoes in the direction of fear. Without thinking that The Other was responsible for their misfortune and was, in fact, actively trying to destroy them, the Maple Streetians may have scratched their heads through a wacky day and gone to sleep as friends.
Tommy is also a bratty little kid, not espousing some sort of youthful wisdom, but regurgitating unchecked, questionable stories with the ultimate result of shattering the peace.
Taking his place on the hillside as the alien pulling Maple Street’s chain is Vladimir Putin and a Russian cohort who just (almost by accident) discovered that it’s easier and cheaper to create a tectonic shift in geopolitics by spreading disinformation than by firing a single shot. Instead of aliens in leftover Forbidden Planet uniforms, it’s a group of State-sponsored hackers (maybe all 400 pounds) and Macedonian teens looking to make an easy buck off gullible “news”-sharers.
The post-election read on “Maple Street” is also not as simple as relating the fear Trump is invoking to the fear of the window knocking the shutters against a house at night. Terrorism is real, and we’ve been affected by it. Job loss in certain working class sectors is real, and we’ve been affected by it.
Yet the clearest lesson of “Maple Street” is that overreaction in the face of danger is a fatal mistake. For whatever overwhelming paradigm we’re concerned about, it’s vital to understand what stokes our fears, and to think critically about whether they are genuine monsters or mere shadows. To ask ourselves why we think every white terrorist is a lone wolf while a single Muslim terrorist is proof of a systemic problem infecting a billion people. To ask ourselves why we think of white rural welfare recipients as justified while black and Latinx and Hispanic SNAP families are mooching off the system. To ask ourselves why The Other is such a primordial fear, and whether that fear is real. Until we do, the real solutions to our problems will be blindly out of reach.
What’s not shown in “Maple Street” shouts as loudly as what’s shown. Specifically, who doesn’t own a home on that happy street.
The Twilight Zone’s track record of diversity was healthy for its time, and it’s no accident that Maple Street’s denizens are all white. The episode originally aired March 1960, just a few months before President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1960, and five years before the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches. The people living on Maple Street were not some abstract group of average citizens; they were a specific cohort of White Flighters who opted out of diversity, so it’s just as fair to say that the allegory of the tale is about modern racism as it is to say that it’s about a potential invasion from the Soviets. They’re so terrified of losing their purity (in this case, racial and ideological) that they would rather risk destroying themselves than confront change.
Serling’s outro monologue makes that clear:
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill – and suspicion can destroy – and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children – and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is – that these things cannot be confined – to the Twilight Zone.”
A writer that chose his words with extreme care, Serling didn’t pick “prejudice” out of a hat. The two themes he most often explored in his work were anti-war education and racial equality, and both are represented here with aggressive clarity.
In fact, there was a remake of “Maple Street” for the 2003 Twilight Zone reboot that recast the neighbors as a multicultural crew largely worried about yard maintenance uniformity, and made a government experiment the culprit, undercutting the allegory by narrowing it to a wobbly post-9/11 tale of Big Brother overreach. As ever, fear is a pliable narrative tool.
Of course, in Trump’s narrative, we are the monsters.
Refugees are the monsters. Immigrants are the monsters. Newspapers, news shows and internet press are the monsters. People seeking racial equality and justice are the monsters. Black Lives Matter is the monster. The judicial branch is the monster. All are monsters suspiciously flicking the lights of “the American way of life” on and off so that good, white, Christian people can’t fly their kites on a warm Tuesday afternoon. Except, they could, if they’d only recognize that they still own a kite, the sun’s out, and they should invite that nice Muslim family who just moved in down the block.
The self-exiled Putin critic (and chess Grandmaster) Garry Kasparov recently offered a field guide to resisting President Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, where he suggested making him look weak and silly as much as possible. He also offered this:
“You have to reinforce the institutions, steadily and legally, and work through them. If you go too far, and react violently, it will only play into the hands of the Trump administration, which is already portraying all opposition as paid agitators and other ridiculousness straight from Putin’s playbook.”
The act of resistance is not easy. Our first instinct is to panic, to spread unverified information that shocks us, to lose focus. There is a frustrating slowness to the necessary survival of our systems. To the health of our functioning, diverse neighborhood.
But there’s also a fragile echo chamber created by fear-mongering that dictates that only a few can rightfully dare to criticize the President, and as soon as they do, they’ve lost that right. On Maple Street, only the neighbors have the right to judge themselves, but speaking up instantly paints them with suspicion.
In that sense, the Trump administration itself is Maple Street – nervous, scrambling, and vulnerable to fearful collapse.
Know of another movie we need to watch in the shadow of Trump? Let us know in the comments section or email [email protected] with the subject “Trump Movies.”