My review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 magnum opus, There Will Be Blood, interpreted that film’s thematic premise as the conquering of American social, religious conservatism by American fiscal conservatism and the American financial elite. At the risk of spoiling a fantastic film, Daniel Day-Lewis’ protagonist, Daniel Plainview, a wealthy oil baron depicted as one of the early “heroes” of Western capitalism, literally beats Paul Dano’s Eli Sunday, a rural pauper and avid preacher of the Gospel, into submission throughout the film. There Will Be Blood is one of the best films of the 21st century so far, and covers much philosophical, psychological, and thematic territory over its long, engrossing running-time, but its recurring theme of the manipulation of the socially conservative, rural working-class by the educated, wealthy elite is perhaps its most distinct attribute.
Moreover, it is a succinct and proper summation of the longstanding American conservative moment, which emerged out of wealthy Republican businessmen who grew tired of financing the reconstruction and civil rights “re-education” of the South following the American Civil War, and over the course of the 20th century, adopted the Southern Strategy. The Southern Strategy, for those of you unfamiliar with the concept or who are reading from abroad, is a loosely defined sociopolitical agenda employed by the United States’ conservative Republican Party (the other major American political party being the socially and fiscally liberal Democratic Party, of which current President Barack Obama is a member) throughout the early and mid 20th century to appeal to white working-class Americans in the former slave-owning South. Since the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960’s, the Republican Party has been unable to shed this image of empowering rural American racism through covert means.
Much like Daniel Plainview’s subjugation of Eli Sunday’s land, labor, and philosophical appeal to the working masses, the US Republican Party has repeatedly appealed to the close-minded, xenophobic tendencies of rural, uneducated whites (primarily in the South at first, but now extending to all rural America) to garner support for their conservative fiscal policies. Republican elites have frequently maligned welfare users and the unemployed (many of whom are Americans of color) as lazy, boorish, drug-addicted, or parasitic, and played to the fears of not only rural but also suburban whites of urban crime via African-Americans, Latino-Americans, and now of course immigrants, Muslim-Americans, and LGBT-Americans of every stripe. Simply put: The wealthy fiscal conservatives use xenophobic scapegoating and fearmongering to convince working-class social conservatives to keep them in power, both politically and economically.
None of these trends are limited to the United States. The Great Depression infamously gave rise to fascism in both mainland Europe (Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany) and Japan. European fascists used Antisemitism and Jewish minority-scapegoating to take advantage of the financial insecurities of the populace, and Imperial Japan utilized their own form of racial hierarchy to subjugate Koreans and other southeast Asian conquests. As Barack Obama remarked at the 2016 Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI):
“… the challenge we have, because we are people from so many different places, is that sometimes we’ve had to deal with racism or conflict between races, ethnic groups, [and] new immigrants. And that especially becomes a problem when the economy is not doing well, and so people feel stressed. And typically, when people feel stressed, they turn on others who don’t look like them. That’s true everywhere in the world. When things are going good, everybody is okay. And then when suddenly things are harder, people start saying, ah, you know what, this is the fault of the Chinese, or this is the fault of Jews, or this is the fault of the Houthi, or whatever — it’s the Javanese.“
While fascism may have long vanished from the West, right-wing populist movements and nativism have not. Terrorism based within or inspired by sectarian strife in the Middle-East has caused hysteria within both the United States and Europe, particularly with regards to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS). The humanitarian crisis stemming from the Syrian Civil War has sent millions of refugees to Europe, which has further stoked sectarian, nationalist sentiments within those countries. As a result, socially conservative nativist political parties have gained power throughout Europe to such an extent that they are threatening the more socially liberal status quo; the far right Alternative for Germany has won positions in numerous legislative districts throughout Germany at the expense of Angela Merkel’s more centrist Christian Democratic Party, Austrian far-right candidate Norbert Hofer narrowly lost his presidential bid by just over 30,000 votes (49.7% of the popular vote), Marine Le Pen’s National Front dominated last year’s (2015’s) regional elections, and Le Pen herself is a heavy contender for France’s presidential election in 2017. What all these rising populist movements have in common are staunch anti-immigration platforms, skepticism of the European Union (EU) and its freedom of movement concept (essentially open borders within the EU), and nationalist protectionism.
Nowhere is this philosophy of anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic protectionism better demonstrated than in the United Kingdom’s (UK) referendum to leave the EU, also known as Brexit. Though the UK has felt some rippling economic effects from this referendum, and will likely endure additional negative fluctuations in the pound sterling in the short-term, the ultimate message of Brexit is a choice for nationalist self-determination over globalization and even immediate economic security. It would be naive to assume that rightwing populist movements will not garner further momentum from the Brexit vote, further threatening the collapse of the Eurozone.
This brings us back to the United States and the dynamic of the manipulation of social conservatism via fiscal conservatism. While rightwing populism has been slower to take root in America at the federal level than in Europe, likely a result of the US’s two-party system and much larger population, it has finally arrived in the form Donald Trump, the wealthy real estate tycoon, former realty-television star, and nominee for President of the United States (POTUS) of the Republican Party. People have written numerous treatises and embarked on countless rants explaining how, in excruciating detail, Donald Trump is upsetting the American political system, how he is grossly unfit for office, and even how he is not a typical “small-government” (re: fiscally conservative) American Republican. However, I believe all these arguments miss the point of Trump’s rise, that of his politically related cohorts in Europe, and the appeal of their movements to the working-class, socially conservative masses.
Much like a previous blog post I wrote on the Charlie Hebdo shootings (also connected to rising Western tensions with immigration and the Middle-East), this sociopolitical, socioeconomic phenomenon can be illustrated with yet another cinematic example. Much like how The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) symbolized the maniacal, chaotic, senseless acts of terrorists, so too can the antagonist of Nolan’s follow-up movie, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), be interpreted as the megalomaniacal, idealistic, authoritarian reflection of today’s populist rabble-rousers: Bane.
The setup to one crucial scene in particular illustrates my point; while Batman and law-enforcement managed to halt the growth of corruption and organized crime in Batman Begins (2005), and protected Gotham during the reactionary extremist escalation in The Dark Knight, in their place has grown economic inequality, white-collar crime (personified by Ben Mendolhson’s corporate juggernaut, John Daggett), and social unrest. In the absence of Batman (a depressed, disillusioned Bruce Wayne [Christian Bale]), a cancer has grown in the sewers of Gotham — Bane has been quietly amassing his armies literally under the city’s feet, the League of Shadows is resurgent, and they have benefited from the covert financial support of Daggett.
While it is unknown how much Daggett knew of Bane’s endgame, it is likely he didn’t foresee the latter murdering him with his bare hands, holding the city hostage with a weapon of mass destruction, and controlling the city through populist banter and strongman leadership. See where this is going, yet? After his plan to absorb Wayne’s company fails once Bruce passes his majority share to Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard, the secret leader of the League Shadows, unbeknownst to Wayne), Daggett confronts Bane about their holdup of the stock exchange, which Daggett thought was supposed to weaken Wayne’s shareholdings so that he could take over.
- John Daggett: What. The hell. Is going on?
- Bane: Our plan is proceeding as expected.
- John Daggett: Oh really? Do I look like I’m running Wayne Enterprises right now? Your hit on the stock exchange, it didn’t work, my friend! And now you have my construction crews going around the city at 24 hours a day! How exactly is that supposed to help my company absorb Wayne’s?
- Bane: [to Stryver] Leave us.
- John Daggett: No! You stay here, I’m in charge!
- Bane: [puts his hand on Daggett’s shoulder] Do you feel in charge?
- John Daggett: … I’ve paid you a small fortune.
- Bane: And this gives you power over me? Your money and infrastructure have been important… ’til now.
- John Daggett: What are you?
- Bane: I’m Gotham’s reckoning — here to end the borrowed time you’ve all been living on.
- John Daggett: You’re pure evil.
- Bane: I’m necessary evil!
The symbolism here is clear. Like the French Revolution and other populist movements before it, this modern wave of nationalist uprisings is about social, working-class power turning the tables on the economic elite. The social conservatives have turned on the fiscal conservatives. In many ways it was only a matter of time, given how economic elites have repeatedly failed to improve their working-class constituents’ living standards, and given the latter’s distaste for social liberal policies on multiculturalism. Who else were they going to turn to?
As I stated earlier, those of us at a loss to rationalize Trump’s appeal, despite his nature, are missing the point. What so many of Trump’s working-class supporters love about him is his unqualified, outsider-status. They like how off-the-wall and weird and anti-immigrant/minority/outsider he is. They like that he uses the rhetoric of a fourth grader and that he probably hasn’t read a book in a decade. They like the fact that he’s been essentially winging it for 14 months, and has managed to single-handedly overthrow the Republican Party establishment while doing so — that same Republican Party that has left them with nothing but a string of broken promises, tons of immigrants, and worsening socioeconomic status. He’s boiled down the socially conservative Southern Strategy to its essence, to the nth degree, and they love him for it.
Most of us outside the Trump campaign seem to focus on those explaining away Donald’s faults as if they’re in denial of his rhetoric, temperament, or corporate corruption. I’ve reached another conclusion: They know, they just don’t care. They’re under the impression — whether realistic or not, whether justified or not — that America’s working-class (specifically the white working-class) is going down the tube, and the people in Washington are to blame, whether “big government” or small. They are willing, however absurdly, to support absolutely anyone who will upset the status quo, and if that person also happens to increase their chances of never being asked, “?para Español, oprima dos?” ever again… even better!
In other words, Trump’s followers aren’t crazy or stupid because they don’t understand Trump — they’re crazy or stupid because they like Trump. The like him for who he is, and that is terrifying.
The ultimate irony of all this is the continuance of deception: Donald Trump and his Euroskeptic counterparts are no more “working-class heroes of the people” than Bane was planning a legitimate socialist revolution. In the end, they’re both harboring a ticking time bomb. To quote Brendan O’Neill:
“… Bane finds it incredibly easy to trap a huge swathe of Gotham’s police force underground, thereby denuding the city of state authority. The chief of police responds to this development by going home, locking his door, and spurning pleas that he come and save the city. It is widespread cynicism towards the financial market and its traders and the moral incapacity of Gotham’s armed protectors that facilitate Bane’s rampage. He appears strong only because his target is weak. Indeed, when we discover that Bane is not the evil mastermind we thought he was, he is killed with remarkable ease, this seemingly invincible figure dispatched like a dog. He is more spectre than physical threat, energized not by his own evil but by others’ apprehension.”
Donald Trump and others like him have exploited our broken, corrupt political systems for their own ends, and what they offer is far more terrifying than any current economic exploitation, at least to those of us not seduced by nationalist, xenophobic rhetoric. The Eli Sundays of the world have at last revolted on their Daniel Plainview-overloads now that they’ve found strongman authoritarian leaders to embolden them.
A few years ago, I remarked to a friend of mine, a Greek-American citizen who was raised in Greece, that rightwing politics were on the rise in Europe. He corrected me by pointing out that rightwing politics weren’t on the rise — they were back. And now they are here in the United States of America, running a competitive election for POTUS, with all the might and power that comes with the American military at their fingertips. If you thought the possibility of Brexit was unsettling, or the fact that xenophobic nationalists might take office in France, Germany, or Scandinavia was scary, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
But don’t fret just yet, my friends, now’s not the time for fear…