Not Every Piece of Art is About Trump — Or Is It?


Flavorwire is taking the final week of 2017 off, because God knows we need it. But all week, we’ll be reposting some of our favorite pieces from the year. Read them all here.

Like many conscious culture consumers, I’ve been dividing up my diet of books, TV and film into two categories: “Think more deeply about the Trump era” on one side (hi, Origins of Totalitarianism, newly-downloaded onto thousands of e-readers), or “Forget about the Trump era” on the other.

But in a world that feels like it’s completely been remade in the image of the former reality TV personality with a bad combover, along with his resentful minions, the line between the two modes of consumption can be hard to draw. For example, I spent last Thursday reading Kate Zambreno’s just re-released early novel, O Fallen Angel, a tribute to Francis Bacon and Virginia Woolf, as a way of getting a fictional entryway into the mind of the Trump voter. It was pitched to critics as having direct relevance to that topic, and oh boy, does it: its primary character is an archetype named “Mommy,” a pink-wearing, Mayonnaise-gobbling, abortion-hating, repressed, racist Catholic midwestern woman whose daughter is in the throes of a nervous breakdown. In Zambreno’s vision, Trumpism is a disease that’s intertwined with a quintessential American illness, both mental and physical, and a denial of corporeal reality — sex and death in particular — at its root. (I recommend it thoroughly).

My thoughts and feelings thoroughly provoked by this reading experience, I decided to unwind by watching the premiere of the CW’s overwrought Archie Comics murder mystery remake, Riverdale. This teen soap was enjoyably distracting, until head cheerleader Cheryl Blossom, while trying to ban Betty from her squad, started getting in to full gaslighting and bully mode. I recognized her behavior. I recognized it all too well.

“CHERYL BLOSSOM IS TRUMP,” I tweeted in a tizzy. So much for escape.

The following night, feeling spiritually overwhelmed by the political situation, I got into bed with tea and turned on one of my top three movies of all time, the 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion featuring Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. It was meant to be an absolutely aesthetically healing experience, full of melancholy and uplift in turns. But the family’s patriarch, the red-faced, idiotic, profligate baronet Sir Walter Elliot, who loves to look at his reflection in the silverware, felt too familiar once again. “Oh my God. SIR WALTER ELLIOT IS TRUMP,” I told my husband. And then I looked up Austen’s masterful description of the character, a man who only reads books detailing his own noble lineage (sound familiar?)

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somerset- shire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one… —this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened: “ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH-HALL. … Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation … Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did; nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.

The way Austen describes her character’s pride and self-absorption felt even more brilliant to me this time, as it reflected back over the centuries and alighted on our current leader. But it also was distressing because I couldn’t find in this most beloved novel and adaptation thereof the kind of relaxing and emotionally pure experience I was looking for.

This has proven to be true with almost all attempts at self-care via culture. They’re futile. He’s everywhere. My favorite Bob Dylan records, which my husband played to cheer me up, felt like they predicted the dark American strain that brought us to this juncture. The Young Pope? It’s hardly a direct allegory, but it’s hard to laugh and take pleasure at watching American Pope Lenny’s rise into chief asshole of the Vatican at this particular moment in time. The Good Place? Yes (spoiler alert, spoiler alert) it turns out… we are all in hell. And so on, and so forth.

I’m not the only one suffering from this malady. “Remarkable how clearly the novels I put on my reading list last year all seem to have something to say about the country we’re living in at the moment,” the novelist Eileen Pollack wrote on Facebook recently. “You’ve got monomaniacal Ahab taking a ship full of sailors of many races and nationalities down to the bottom of the sea with him. You’ve got Huck being suckered by the Duke and Dauphin … and various other conmen.” Our own Jason Bailey blithely went to see a Jack Black comedy, Polka King, at Sundance and was appalled to realize that the plot about a swindler practicing his art on middle America mirrored the election. Kristina, another friend of mine, started watching an old Sandra Bullock comedy and unexpectedly encountered the worst thing possible: an actual Donald Trump cameo. Other friends, watching thoughtful sci-fi fare like Battlestar Galactica, Black Mirror, even Star Trek reruns were finding Trump symbolism left and mostly right. Far, far right.

“It feels like everything I’ve watched since the election has made me think of some aspect of Trump’s America,” my friend Lauren said in response to a Facebook thread I started on the topic. “Westworld (general dystopia, inhumanity), Good Girls Revolt (misogyny), Hidden Figures (racism), etc. While I was sick yesterday I started watching The Americans (secret Russian agents, lol), and was wondering if I’m seeking these things out or if I’m just reading Trump into everything.”

The answer of course is both. Egotists, petty dictators, swindlers and tyrants show up in every genre of story, from teen comedies to 19th century epics, so it’s hard to avoid a Trumpian archetype showing up as we turn the pages or watch our screens. Same, to an extent, with the people who will suffer under his regime: stories about refugees, immigrants and social discrimination of every variety are ever-fruitful subjects for serious artistic inquiry, so those kinds of narratives, no matter how exquisite, provide only a more piercing spotlight on the suffering happening today.

Adding flavor to that fertile cultural landscape is the reality that our brains are already predisposed to find this connection — because when we’re not in pursuit of escapist art, we’re reading approximately 15,000 words a day of tweets, Facebook screeds and hard-hitting articles about how we’re doomed, doomed, and doomed.

What can we do? Certainly, when it’s possible, we should be mindful of trying to prevent Trump’s authority from extending to our inner selves. We must endeavor if we can to consume art on its own terms and resist the urge to reduce every single piece of film or literature into a mere referendum on our times. But when the parallels are clear, we shouldn’t ignore them either. Maybe we shouldn’t seek to escape, anyway. People stranded in airports, or worried about pre-existing conditions, can’t ever fully escape, so why should we? Instead, we should consume art right now as a way of looking at reality but in a softer, less-direct focus way, a way that gives us the distance and time to consider our current situation without the meltdown that reading straight news provokes.

We can take a measure of fortitude from the lessons art offers us. Sure, very few of these stories have endings that involve all the characters joining together to oust their undemocratic leader; but they do tell tales of personal escape and resistance that can shore our own courage up. In Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot’s daughter Anne, eventually finds her mettle and defies her family to grab a second chance at love. Ahab sinks the ship but Ishmael lives to tell the tale (okay, that one is pretty dark). Huck lights out for the West. Even on Riverdale, spoiled Veronica stands up to Cheryl, the bully, when she gets Betty on the cheerleading squad (of course, then she makes out with Betty’s love interest, Archie, during a game of “7 minutes in heaven” so the lesson there may be that relying on rich people to stand up to bullies and tyrant may help in the short term but stand in the way of our dreams, or something).

Art is never more than an extension and reflection of life; as in our other spiritual and mental practices, balancing staying on our toes and being kind to ourselves as we read, watch and imagine is going to be a crucial aspect of building our own systems of resistance in the years to come.