In the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer catches leaders of Indonesian death squads tasked with summarily executing communists in the mid-1960s admitting that their vile gangsterism and butchery was influenced by old Hollywood genre movies.
It's a dispiriting case of life imitating art, in which men blind to (or just exempt from) any sort of repercussions act out consequence-free revisions of silver-screen stories – fantasies written in the blood and trauma of real, living political dissidents. Reality is crept upon and finally gobbled up, as if by some tar-black Blob-like intruder, replaced with a hollow simulation.
As we approach Friday's U.S. presidential inauguration, it may seem that a similar thing is happening stateside. Especially when, in a recent interview, Donald Trump excitedly nailed down his 2020 re-election slogan as "Keep America Great," a line used to bluntly satiric effect to advertise last year's brutal sci-fi dystopia film The Purge: Election Year. For anyone who remains (blissfully) unaware, Election Year is the third in a series of predictive allegory Purge films, which imagine a near-future America in which a plutocratic authoritarian government okays all crime for 12 hours a year. When I reviewed that film in these pages last summer, I wrote that "the generalized ideological intelligibility of the Purge films achieves the apex of idiocy." I had not counted – not by a long shot – on soon-to-be President Trump.
Granted, it is almost certainly coincidental that Trump co-opted the catchphrase, especially given that the prospective non-plan to "Keep America Great" feels like a natural extension of his current, and just as implausible, policy platform, whereby he will somehow "Make America Great Again," simply by saying so, over and over and over again. And, yes, there are number of other movie tag lines that might be scrawled across the wrought iron, Xanadu-ish gates of Trump's America. Say, "Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid" (from The Fly) or, "The Damnedest Thing You Ever Saw" (from Robert Altman's cynical comedy-musical cavalcade Nashville, which offers a grim premonition for contemporary America). But what's most striking about Trump cribbing a line from The Purge movies – and one originally cribbed from his own campaign – is precisely how unstriking it is.
Forget The Purge movies. Trump is the reigning champ of ideological intelligibility. As a candidate, he copped the jargon of Occupy and Bernie Sanders, attacking the "broken system" of government that privileges the powerful plutocrats (of which Trump is one), while simultaneously pandering to the racist, xenophobic, white nationalist reveries of America's far-right. Taking a line meant as a damning condemnation of America's pretensions of greatness and twisting it into a gung-ho campaign slogan? Were it anyone but Trump, we might feign surprise.
This is the essence of Trump's villainy, the thing that makes him more than goofy cartoon bad guy from an Austin Powers movie and elevates him closer to real-deal evil: He seems impossible to criticize in terms we're used to. Part of the reason it's facile and moronic to liken Trump to Voldemort or to cock an eyebrow and raise a pathetic pointer finger and quip, "Ah, it seems to me that Idiocracy is in fact a documentary, sir!" is because such pop-cultural broadsides mean nothing to a bloviated ego-husk who nourishes himself on contempt. It is difficult (to use an old piece of leftist argot) to "accelerate the contradictions," when Trump is already a patchy quilt-work of incongruity, balled up and sent hurtling toward the White House at full speed.
We can't even compare Trump's America to the cartoonish near-future of The Purge because he's already doing it himself. His presidency is already a big, dumb, sad blockbuster: equal parts comedy, disaster movie and perverted picaresque.
In Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, the communist-purging thugs eventually grapple with the evil they committed by engaging in staged re-enactments of their crimes – crimes that were themselves re-enactments of movie violence. One wonders if the living horror show that is the presidency of a former reality-TV star will provide a similar sort of self-awareness, or repentant catharsis. But it's doubtful. Trump is too deeply ensconced in his NORAD bunker of incoherence, simulation and delusion to conceivably arrive at such a reckoning.
As we prepare to watch, wide-eyed, the vacant, saggy spectacle of his inauguration, with its surreal soundtrack by fading soul singers and washed-up chud-rock bands, it's tempting to go full-glib and rejig another fitting movie tag line, this time from Michael Bay's blockbuster disaster movie Armageddon: "America. It was fun while it lasted."