WASHINGTON — Once upon a time … in America, it looked as if white men were at long last losing their tenacious grip on power.
A black man had made it into the White House. A woman in hot pink claimed the gavel in the House. A Latina congresswoman with a Bronx swagger emerged as the biggest media star in the capital. Six Democratic women — five pols and one mystic — earned their spots on the stage in the first presidential debates.
Male candidates who might have jumped to the head of the presidential pack in earlier eras are finding it impossible to rise anywhere near double digits in polls.
When I asked a friend who once worked for Barack Obama why a smart and appealing Obama protégé, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, was having a hard time breaking through, she replied: “The bar is much, much higher for white guys these days. You just have to be especially special.”
White male privilege is out of fashion these days. Yet we are awash in nostalgia for it.
Donald Trump has built a political ideology on nostalgia. And Quentin Tarantino has built a movie ideology on nostalgia.
In The Los Angeles Times, Mary McNamara observed that the moral of Tarantino’s new fairy tale, “Once Upon A Time In … Hollywood,” is, “Who doesn’t miss the good old days when cars had fins and white men were the heroes of everything?”
Dubbing the cowboys-versus-hippies movie starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio “nostalgia porn,” McNamara notes: “Watching two middle-aged white guys grapple with a world that does not value them as much as they believe it should, it was tough not to wonder if that something was the same narrow, reductive and mythologized view of history that has made red MAGA hats the couture of conservative fashion.”
In The New Yorker, Richard Brody called the movie, Tarantino’s biggest opening ever, “obscenely regressive,” a phrase that could easily be applied to the man in the Oval.
Both the Tarantino creation and the Trump creation feature scripted tough-guy dialogue, rough treatment of women and slurs against Mexicans. (“Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans,” Pitt warns an emotional DiCaprio in a tinsel town parking lot.)
But — except for the usual burst of violence that the director justifies the usual way, by leveling it at the most evil people ever, in this case the Manson Family — Tarantino’s time machine is a gentler ride. (This may mark the first time “Tarantino” and “gentler” have appeared in the same sentence.)
Bathed in a golden glow, Brad Pitt plays a world-weary stunt man and handyman to Leo’s Western star, Rick Dalton. Pitt’s character is a former war hero in the great midcentury tradition of American cinema. He reflects many of the values that America once proudly stood for:
- toughness without belligerence,
- charm without smarminess,
- loyalty without question. He is
- masculine yet chivalrous.
The iconic performance evokes other movie exemplars of the American male: Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke,” Steve McQueen in “Bullet,” Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry.” (Pitt’s significant other is a pit bull named Brandy — another contrast with Trump, who avoids dogs.)
Trump’s time machine is a vicious and vertiginous journey, all about punching down, pulpy fictions, making brown and black people scapegoats and casting women back into a crimped era of fewer reproductive rights.
Trump has inverted all the old American ideals, soiling the image of our country in the world and reshaping it around his grievances and inadequacies.
He is a faux tough guy who lets other people do the fighting for him, a needy brat who never accepts responsibility for his actions, an oaf with no trace of courage, class or chivalry.
Tarantino fashioned his nostalgic world out of love, while Trump fashions his out of hate.
His entitled and grabby ways illustrate why we need to leave that world behind. America is struggling to find a new identity with a more colorful mosaic, moving beyond our monochromatic past. More new heroines and heroes need to emerge, both onscreen and in life.
But first we need the credits to roll on Trump.
There are a lot of similarities between the president and George Wallace of Alabama. But there’s also one big difference.
President Trump’s political rallies are certainly a spectacle, but a spectacle we’ve seen before. In both style and substance, the president’s campaign appearances bear strong resemblances to the rallies held a half-century ago by Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama.
There are a number of similarities between the two politicians’ rallies. But there is one significant difference — and it shows how Mr. Trump remains a greater danger and poses a graver threat to peaceful political discourse, especially as we enter a presidential election campaign.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Wallace presented himself as the political champion of aggrieved working-class and middle-class whites. As governor, he embodied the cause of segregationist resistance, literally standing in the schoolhouse door to block the first black students at the University of Alabama and figuratively standing against what he called the “civil wrongs bill.”
Yet in his repeated campaigns for the presidency between 1968 and 1976, despite today’s consensus to the contrary, Mr. Wallace didn’t make open appeals to racism. Instead, he couched opposition to the civil rights movement — both his own opposition and that of whites in the North and South alike — in new terms. Taking aim at liberals in government and leftist protesters in the streets, Mr. Wallace presented himself as the champion of ordinary Americans besieged by both. He promised then, as Mr. Trump has now, to restore “law and order” to a troubled nation.
While he lacks Mr. Wallace’s background in boxing, Mr. Trump has adopted a similar stance in his own rallies. He’s claimed some of Mr. Wallace’s specific phrases as his own
— most notably the call for “law and order” — and more generally has stoked the same fires of resentment and racism.
Mr. Wallace’s words electrified crowds of working- and middle-class whites. “Cabdrivers and cattle ranchers, secretaries and steelworkers, they hung on every word, memorized the lines, treasured them, savored them, waited to hear them again,” noted an Esquire profile. “George Wallace was their avenging angel. George Wallace said out loud what they nervously kept to themselves. George Wallace articulated their deepest fears, their darkest hates. George Wallace promised revenge.”
Mr. Trump has tapped into that sentiment, winning over white voters with a willingness to buck “political correctness” and voice their anger and anxieties directly. “He says what we’re thinking and what we want to say,” noted a white woman at a Trump rally in Montana. “We wish we could speak our mind without worrying about the consequences,” explained a white man at a Phoenix event. “He can speak his mind without worrying.”
Mr. Wallace’s rallies regularly erupted in violence, as his fans often took his words not just seriously but also literally. Mr. Wallace often talked about dragging hippies “by the hair of their head.” At a Detroit rally in 1968, his supporters did just that, dragging leftist protesters out of their seats and through a thicket of metal chairs. As they were roughed up, the candidate signaled his approval from the stage: “You came here for trouble and you got it.”
Mr. Trump’s rallies have likewise been marked by violence unseen in other modern campaigns. At a 2015 rally in Birmingham, Ala., for example, an African-American protester was punched, kicked and choked. Rather than seeking to reduce the violence from his supporters, Mr. Trump rationalized it, saying “maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”
This leads us to the significant difference between Mr. Wallace and Mr. Trump. Mr. Wallace’s targets were, for the most part, presented in the abstract. Though he denounced broad categories of generic enemies — “agitators,” “anarchists” and “communists” — he rarely went after an individual by name.
Mr. Trump, in pointed contrast, has used his rallies to single out specific enemies. During the 2016 campaign, he demonized his political opponents in the primaries and the general election, and also denounced private individuals, from Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor, to the former Miss Universe Alicia Machado and the federal judge Gonzalo Curiel.
At recent rallies, he has targeted four Democratic House members who have criticized him and his administration — Representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.
Participants at Mr. Trump’s rallies have been moved to attack individuals he’s singled out. For most rally participants, the attacks have been confined to ominous but nevertheless nonviolent chants — from the 2016 cries of “Lock her up!” to the recent refrain of “Send her back!” But a handful have gone further, targeting the individuals named by the president with death threats and even attempts at violence.
In late 2018, a Trump supporter, Cesar Sayoc Jr., mailed pipe bombs to high-profile Democrats and media figures who had criticized the president and whom the president had denounced in return. After his arrest, Mr. Sayoc explained that Mr. Trump’s rallies had become “a newfound drug” for him and warped his thinking. “In the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections,” Mr. Sayoc’s lawyers added last week, “President Trump warned his supporters that they were in danger from Democrats, and at times condoned violence against his critics and ‘enemies.’”
Since the midterms, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and the threats from his supporters have only intensified. In March, a Trump backer in New York was arrested on charges of threatening to “put a bullet” in Ms. Omar’s “skull.” In April, a Trump supporter in Florida was arrested on charges of making death threats to Ms. Tlaib and two other Democrats. This month, two police officers in Louisiana were fired over a Facebook post suggesting that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez should be shot.
As the 2020 campaign heats up, the president’s rhetoric will as well. It’s long past time that he started worrying about the consequences of his words.