Trump wasn't the first delusional celebrity the GOP foisted on us

Trump wasn't the first delusional celebrity the GOP foisted on us

by digby

This piece in the NYRB about Reagan and the movies shows us just how long the right has been enamored of this particular style of politician. In fact, they revere it:

For Reagan, movies were a source of knowledge. He waxed enthusiastic over WarGames (1983), in which a teenage hacker inadvertently sets off the nuclear codes. He was impressed by Firefox (1982), in which Clint Eastwood, a heroic bomber pilot fluent in Russian (!), is recruited to steal a Soviet fighter jet controlled by telepathy. Firefox inspired government research into a form of enhanced jet-fighter command controls based on an “ocular attention-sensing interface system,” perhaps the subject of the phone call Reagan placed to Eastwood after seeing the film.

Another instance of movie-empathy preceded Reagan’s determination to visit the Bitburg cemetery was a response to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s blubbering reaction to being left out of the 1984 D-Day commemoration extravaganza. After seeing the Oscar-nominated German-made wartime submarine drama Das Boot in 1982, the president mused in his diary that it was “strange to find yourself rooting for the enemy.”

Understanding that movies were information for Reagan, aides suggested that he screen Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1981) before his first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev (who was evidently briefed to ask him about Kings Row), but there was another movie on the president’s mind. Reagan flummoxed both the Soviet general-secretary and his own staff with this departure from script by advancing the notion that extraterrestrial invasion would trump national differences and cold war rivalry. But national security adviser General Colin Powell recognized that the proposal was inspired by the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still.

I confess that my own sense of Reagan was formed by his last movie, Don Siegel’s 1964 remake of The Killers, which I first saw in 1969, a year after spending the summer in Berkeley. It would be difficult to overstate my loathing of Governor Reagan, whom I regarded as a personal enemy. For me, Reagan’s supporting role as the movie’s criminal mastermind was an inexplicable bit of self-revelation.

In fact, it was a blunder. “I don’t think that Ronnie fully appreciated until he saw the film that he was really the most evil person in the picture,” Siegel would recall in 1980. At the same time, Siegel praised candidate Reagan’s political instincts:

After all he is an actor… He’s not going to be frightened when he’s having debates with anybody. He feels that he’s in better shape than they are, and he is. It’s not easy to get up on your own and look out at a sea of faces and mikes sticking up and, God knows how many millions of people are going to be looking at it. It doesn’t bother him at all.

As president, Reagan provided the nation with a new collective memory and a new representation—as well as a representative—of the national past. His last leading role would be his greatest. By the time, thirty-six years later, that another professional entertainer was elected, Reagan was imagined by many as the greatest American president since Franklin Roosevelt.

Hollywood was founded on the proposition that scenarios that are naturally hegemonic and usually reassuring will appeal to the largest possible audience. Seamlessly merging the concept of “Freedom” with the gospel of “Entertainment,” Reagan was Hollywood incarnate, the embodiment of happy endings and uncomplicated emotions, with a built-in Production Code designed to suppress any uncomfortable truth.

Reagan’s movie was America as America imagined itself. Trump’s reality TV show is Trump, as America imagines him. The Killers was revelatory, after all, just not in the way I’d thought.

Let's not forget about Schwarzenneger, a huge movie star who won on the basis of his role as "The Terminator."

As one of the few historians who deeply studies the intersection of American popular culture and modern politics, Rick Perlstein saw this phenomenon playing out with Trump from the get-go:

In The Invisible Bridge I wrote about what it was like in this New York in 1974, the summer when the federal lawsuit against the Trumps was approaching its climax, the summer when a controversial new movie began packing theaters across the five boroughs.

"Death Wish" starred a then-obscure Charles Bronson as a New York City architect who used to be liberal, until his daughter was raped and his wife murdered. His son-in-law pronounces defeat: “There’s nothing we can do to stop it. Nothing but cut and run.” The architect, by contrast, learns to shoot a gun—in an Old West ghost town—so he can start mowing down muggers at point-blank range. He soon cuts the city’s murder rate in half, and wins a spot on the cover of Time.

Liberal reviewers registered their disgust: The Times’s Vincent Canby called it “a bird-brained movie to cheer the hearts of the far-right wing,” then, 10 days later, branded Bronson a “circus bear.” Time called it “meretricious,” “brazen,” and “hysterical.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times labeled it “fascist.” But in the real-life New York City, where the murder rate had doubled in 10 years, and where a psychiatrist published a Times op-ed bragging about the violence he had prevented by leveling a pistol that he kept “never far from my reach while I attend to patients in my mid-Manhattan office,” each onscreen vigilante act won ovations from grateful fans—sometimes standing ovations.

Two years later came an even darker, and considerably more critical, portrait of New York City’s escalating culture of vigilantism. In Taxi Driver, a deranged Vietnam veteran speaks what must have been the unspoken inner monologue of any number of real-life New Yorkers who felt trapped in an urban sewer: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Pistol in hand, he rehearses his revenge in the mirror: “Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it any more. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”

When, around that time, Wall Street Journal columnist Irving Kristol coined the phrase “a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality”—a bowdlerization of the older adage “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged”—he probably didn’t have Charles Bronson in mind, let alone taxi driver Travis Bickle. Nonetheless the politics is all of a piece. Charles Bronson conservatism, Travis Bickle conservatism, the conservatism of avenging angels protecting white innocence in a “liberal” metropolis gone mad: this is New York City’s unique contribution to the history of conservatism in America, an ideological tradition heretofore unrecognized in the historical literature. But without it, we cannot understand the rise of Donald Trump.

He literally sees himself as Charles Bronson in Death Wish. He even acted out the vigilante shooting from the stage at his rallies and led the crowd in chants of "Death Wish."

Democrats have their myths as well, of course. Our rather high self-regard about "progress" tends to ignore the ebbs and flows and backlashes to our goals. But for all the power of the so-called liberal media and entertainment complex, it's the right that has successfully harnessed its power for its own partisan political purposes.

Why is that?