by Jon Greenaway
At a recent rally, Donald Trump (in one of his typically free-associative speeches) decided to complain about Bong Joon-Ho’s latest film, Parasite, which took home Best Picture at the Oscars. To Trump, this was something of a disaster. It’s well worth quoting his comments in full.
“By the way, how bad were the Academy Awards this year? Did you see it? And the winner is… a movie from South Korea. What the hell was that all about? We got enough problems with South Korea with trade, on top of it they give them the best movie of the year. Was it good? I don’t know. You know I’m looking for like—let’s get Gone with the Wind. Can we get like Gone with the Wind back, please? Sunset Boulevard. So many great movies. The winner is from South Korea! I thought it was best foreign film, right? Best foreign movie. No, it was the—Did this ever happen before?”
There’s a few things going on here that are worth pointing out. First, the idea of Trump immediately jumping to a film set in the Confederate South is perfectly fitting, but much more amusing is the fact that Trump apparently thinks that Gone With the Wind needs to be brought back. Despite what Trump may think, the film hasn’t gone anywhere. In a way, his little foray into film criticism can tell us something not just about Trump, but of the broader cultural aesthetics of Trumpism as a whole.
Trump himself has never really been all that interested in culture; he lacks the kind of capacity for emotional reflection that is a prerequisite for appreciating art. Instead, he perceives films largely as opportunities for brand-building. Films are good because they feature his property or Republican actors who will say nice things about him in public, and films are bad when they feature someone like Graydon Carter as a character, or when they star actors who won’t treat him with appropriate deference.
When pushed to take a position on a cultural question, like his favorite film, Trump tends to leap towards painfully obvious “cultured” choices like Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind—in distinct contrast to his well-documented fondness for the old Jean Claude Van Damme martial arts spectacle of Bloodsport. Such declarations of preference for classic Cinema have the same ring of sincerity as his answer to Evangelical Christians when asked about his favorite book of the Bible. (“All of them”). These kinds of non-answers are impossible for the target audience to really disagree with, and, to even the most credulous observer, are laughably obvious attempts to cover up the fact that he’s likely never opened up a Bible in his entire life.
On the whole, Trump comes off as deeply disinterested in contemporary culture in itself—unlike Barack Obama, who not only sought to link his own political project to the mainstream Hollywood-liberal hegemony, but has developed something akin to a full-time lifestyle brand since leaving office. (Fascinatingly, Obama called Parasite one of his favorite movies in one of his end-of-season lists. But it’s not clear why Obama liked it, what themes or aesthetic choices resonated, only that it was the kind of film that a tastemaker like Obama should like).
Some people think that the adulation given to the film by liberal cultural figures undercuts its politics. But if the film Parasite were to exist within its own fictional universe, the Park family and all their rich friends would certainly gush over it. Just because Obama and others praised the film doesn’t mean it’s a political failure—but it does mean that mainstream liberal culture is either recuperating it and defanging its core critique, or is completely failing to understand the film in any serious way. In fact, the backlash against the integration of politics with high-profile liberal culture probably goes a fair ways towards explaining Trump’s own views on culture. Whether consciously or not, Trump and Trumpism are interested in culture to the extent of its political utility; it is this impulse that forms the background of the right-wing cultural outlook.
There’s a contradiction here that seems worth teasing out, as it speaks to the ideological commitments of the American right more generally. To Trump, Parasite is politically inconvenient, since it lends legitimacy to the work of a director from a country that is causing Trump some diplomatic issues. On the other hand, Gone With The Wind—a backwards, nativist nostalgia fantasy that depends upon sanitizing the paternalistic racism of the American South—is depoliticized (it’s just “a good movie”). Presented in this framework, Gone With The Wind is a cultural and aesthetic good, and politically value-neutral. Parasite, conversely, is politically fraught, which Trump reacts to by questioning its artistic value.
Paradoxically, Trumpism sees culture as both far too influential (think of the frequent complaints about Hollywood elites) and simultaneously politically irrelevant, unwilling and unable to properly value Trump’s propaganda narrative of boundless triumph. Of course, the media is entirely complicit in this. Trump understands nothing as well as he understands television—in particular, reality TV—which explains a huge portion of his rhetorical style and political instincts. His 2016 campaign was covered feverishly by the media, which wrung every possible second of screen time out of his antics. The spectacle was then condensed into a simple, widely distributed and uncritically consumed narrative.
This is one of the reasons why Trump was so effective against Bloomberg in this year’s election season: his understanding of the genre tropes of reality TV reduced Bloomberg’s presidential ambition to a ridiculous heel turn in a cable drama. Just as Obama’s presidential terms shared a tone of anodyne, feel-good liberalism with touchstones like Buzzfeed and Hamilton, Trump’s indelible association with reality TV and cable news has joined together nativist, reactionary policy with the Trump brand as a mass-market cultural product. Trump’s speeches and public pronouncements were treated like teasers for a new season. His garbled viral Twitter communiques about matters of serious national policy read like his breathless posts about the latest developments on The Apprentice. For Trump, what matters in culture is not content but ratings, not ideas but spectacle and reach.
Thus, for Trumpism, culture is both something which should be entirely distinct from the political yet functions as a key site of political struggle. No cultural object can be autonomous or politically independent; it must be mapped onto a wider political terrain. A film is either liberal “social justice warrior” propaganda (stop putting politics in our space wizard movie), or if its politics are downplayed or even conservative, then it is the left that is accused of being unable to “just enjoy a good film” without bringing politics into everything.
Of course, the left-wing response to this is that any cultural artifact is already inescapably political, but that cultural enjoyment and experience doesn’t have to be solely on the grounds of politics. Admitting that cultural politics is a thing doesn’t entirely negate aesthetics. For Trumpism, culture must be policed, for it is the space in which lies the moral and political corruption of the lib SJWs. But it can also be a place in which America can come first, or win again. You only need to see the ways in which Kanye was lauded by the right as a great American for wearing a hat, when hip-hop is generally seen by the right as cultural propaganda that seeks to excuse low morality.
Kanye wearing a hat is fine, but when grime MCs from the UK make some comments about the horrors of austerity, they are pilloried for any lyrics criticizing material conditions created by the same political right that condemns them. What this makes for, then, is both a moralistic Puritanism and a desperate search for cultural offense—to go along with the cultural nostalgia for a time when actors just acted and didn’t make the mistake of expressing thoughts and ideas. This vision of history is another ideological myth—actors, public figures and celebrities didn’t suddenly start being political. (One need only look to Charlie Chaplin’s antifascism or Marlon Brando’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement).
A contemporary example is the conservative handwringing about the Super Bowl halftime show. The show was too sexually suggestive, they said, and what’s more, it might have been referencing the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the US/Mexico Border. The comments on this article are instructive, as these Trumpist cultural critics are repulsed by the sexuality on display and the possibility of a perceived political message. (I can only assume that if a figure like Ted Nugent had been performing, then whatever politics might have been conveyed would be completely invisible to them—‘just entertainment.’)
There is no better example of the cultural politics of Trumpism than the response to The Hunt. This film was pulled because of the closeness of its release to a spate of mass shootings. However, it was also seen as a comment on Trump supporters, thanks to a line of dialogue in the trailer about how there’s nothing better than shooting “deplorables.” Trump’s tweeted (of course) response shows both the moralistic panic and political insecurity that underpins Trumpist cultural politics. The film was made in order to “inflame and cause chaos,” according to Trump, and “Hollywood was doing a tremendous disservice to the country.” Culture only has a moral element when it can be mapped onto a pre-existing political divide—in which case, it’s leftist propaganda that is both morally and politically dangerous.
Trump’s cultural tastes are inextricably bound up in his politics—backwards-looking, nativist, and suspicious of difference. But where this gets slightly more complex is in the question of what this cultural politics is for. For thinkers like Edmund Burke, culture is supposed to unite a disparate population behind a shared set of values, or at the very least describe a shared condition in an aesthetically pleasing way. For Trump, culture is supposed to unite a homogenous population not behind not values, but his own political drives and desire.
With this as context, then, the choice of Gone With The Wind makes complete sense as a Trumpist example of a ‘good movie.’ Trumpist cultural politics then is like the man himself—gaudily capitalistic, racist to the core (in that unquestioning way which is so distinctive of American white supremacy) and in dire need of replacement by something more egalitarian. Parasite’s success bodes well on this front, if politics remains downstream from culture. As Bong Joon-Ho said about his film, “I think maybe there is no borderline between countries now because we all live in the same country, it’s called capitalism.” With more stories like Parasite, we might find new ways of building a new country far removed from Trump’s dead-ended fascism. ♦