Peter Biskind: Hate Trump? Blame 'Game of Thrones' (Exclusive Book Excerpt)
And Marvel. And Disney. While pundits argue nonstop over the cause of modern-day partisanship, one factor that routinely gets a pass is culture. But even our most popular franchises, peddled as "just entertainment," deal in extremes and tell us how to vote, writes the prolific author.
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far away, there was a planet called Earth, and on that planet was a country named America, inhabited by a dying breed of humans called "centrists."
These centrists, aka "pluralists," believed in the big tent, home to peoples of different colors, ethnicities and religions. Theirs was an open society, a melting pot where differences were dissolved in a soup of assimilation. There were, however, two tribes of outliers — the far left and far right — who fought against everything the other stood for. Pluralists denounced them as "extremists," and despite their principles, excluded them from what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called "the vital center."
It's no secret that the age of bipartisan consensus that lasted — with a few ups and downs named Vietnam, Watergate and Reagan — from World War II to Obama, is history. These days, the far right and the not-quite-so-far left are taking their revenge. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has called it "asymmetric polarization." As House Speaker Paul Ryan happily observed in 2009, "It's as if we're living in an Ayn Rand novel."
"Extremism," as it turns out, had been undergoing a makeover long before Donald Trump assumed the presidency. "Extreme" was invested with a tangy sizzle of daring and excitement, the go-to term for characterizing whatever was new and different, ahead of the curve. A random sampling turns up "extreme combat," "extreme medicine" and, of course, "extreme rendition." Extremists were praised as "disrupters," "envelope pushers," "out of the boxers." Rather than an epithet, "extreme" has become an accolade. Witness Trump's usage of the term to tout the deep background checks he advocates for immigrants from "terrorist countries." "Extreme vetting," he cried. "I want extreme."
Once, a Trump in the White House would have meant that extremism had been defanged, "co-opted," as was most often the case when outsiders with their noses pressed to the glass became insiders. But now the extremes are dictating the terms of the transaction. "Mainstream" has become "lamestream." What was once inhibited is now exhibited.
How did we get from there to here, from consensus to discord? Pundits and scholars argue over the causes, citing inequities of wealth, the export of jobs, the new digital economy, changing demographics, but the one factor that is regularly ignored is culture.
At least since Marx, culture has been treated shabbily with regard to social change, as a secondary, tertiary or no factor at all. Accidental Marxists, studio and network executives have followed suit. Anxious to shield themselves from partisan attacks, they have insisted that movies and TV are just entertainment. As Samuel Goldwyn famously said, "If you have a message, call Western Union."
Just two years ago, Disney chief Bob Iger, fending off a right-wing boycott of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, channeled Goldwyn by saying that it is "not a film that is, in any way, a political film." Of course, he knows better. Movies and TV have always been full of messages, sometimes conscious, sometimes not. Edgar Wright, who directed and co-wrote satirical hits like Shaun of the Dead (2004) and The World's End (2013), compares his movies to Trojan horses: "[I] smuggle in other themes under the auspices of a zombie or a sci-fi film."
Both chicken and egg, culture incites, enhances or, on the contrary, inhibits social change that may have its roots elsewhere. To choose just one example, The Manchurian Candidate dramatized Russian intervention in our domestic politics 54 years before it happened. There are even cognitive studies that confirm the outsized impact of stories on belief. Unlike the rhetoric of bloviating politicians, telling stories touches people's hearts and engages their minds.
We live in an era when the polarization of the electorate has been turbocharged by what Eli Pariser called the "filter bubble," a phrase describing Google's customization of information to fit the viewpoints of its users, and now, of course, the multitude of new entertainment providers — cable TV, streaming services, digital hubs like Facebook and YouTube — as well as the devices that display them, have disrupted the consensus entertainment provided by the studios and the networks. As Avengers director Joss Whedon puts it, "Are things getting more simplistic, and therefore more right and more left? Yeah!"
Centrist entertainment has by no means disappeared. The broadcast networks, continuing to work hard to convince us that mainstream institutions can still do the job, are dusting off oldies like Magnum P.I., Murphy Brown and MacGyver, to name a few. David Chase labored in broadcast TV for years before he created and ran The Sopranos on HBO. "One of the things that I find problematic about the network shows," he explains, "is that they're all about institutions: You have the courthouse, the schoolhouse, the precinct house, the White House. There is this desperate need to prove that people in authority are not incompetent but, rather, dedicated — that they really give a shit."
There are no mainstream institutions, no big tent, no melting pot in Game of Thrones, perhaps the most influential centrist show on TV today, and that's the problem. Jon Snow, King of the North, wishes there were. Westeros is a killing zone where ignorant armies clash by night — and day. The warring families, little more than primitive tribes, have nothing better to do than fight — that is, until along come the zombies from the North, the White Walkers, who represent an existential threat to each of them, since no single family can defeat the zombies on its own. Like a good centrist, Snow embarks on coalition building, trying to persuade the feuding dynasties to join forces.
Loyalty to family no longer cuts it.
As Brienne of Tarth puts it, "Fuck loyalty." If loyalty is still a virtue, it is the kind of loyalty demanded by the center: to the big tent, society, even the species. "The lone wolf dies," observes Sansa Stark, "but the pack survives." Queen Cersei is the extremist of the lot. She doesn't get it. "I don't care about checking my worst impulses," she says. "I don't care about making the world a better place. Hang the world."
Prick Cersei and you get Donald Trump, who considers loyalty to himself and his family the highest virtue, higher than his obligations as president to his country. He believes in exclusion, rather than inclusion, and famously refuses to play by the rules of the mainstream. More, the boy king, Cersei's son Joffrey — vain, impulsive, entirely without scruples and lavishly unqualified for his job — is the young Trump. In other words, Game of Thrones, despite its dragons, werewolves, witches and warlocks, turns out to be a mainstream series about America today.
Popular though Game of Thrones may be, it is dwarfed on the extreme left by Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time, wherein a predatory corporation and the former U.S. Marines in its employ are the bad guys while jumbo-sized blue aliens are the good guys.
More recently, the winner of this year's best picture Oscar, The Shape of Water, is a classic extreme-left movie in which the white hats are an unlikely trio of outsiders — two janitors, one black, one Hispanic, and an unemployed illustrator who happens to be gay. The "monster" referred to in a narration "who destroys it all" is not the slimy humanoid distantly related to the creature from the Black Lagoon, but the U.S. Army colonel who fished it out of the waters of the Amazon in hopes of weaponizing it. The creature is an innocent victim, and we learn to love it, or at least not fear and hate it. Sally Hawkins, one of the janitors, loves it so much that she helps it escape and follows it into the ocean for a fishy orgasm. She not only betrays America, she betrays her own species.
Sally isn't alone. Left-wing productions are sympathy-for-the-devil stories that embrace the Other. What are monsters to the center are noble savages to the far left. Praising Frankenstein's monster in Showtime's Penny Dreadful, teary Eva Green says, "I think you are the most human man I have ever known." In X-Men: First Class, Erik/Magneto travels to Argentina looking for the Nazi who murdered his mother. Asked his name, he replies, "Let's just say I'm Frankenstein's monster. And I'm looking for my creator."
Marvel movies? Their superheroes are endowed with extreme powers that enable them to employ extreme measures to deal with extreme situations. And yes, they too are predominantly left-wing. Ever since Captain America slugged Hitler in the jaw on the cover of Timely comics, a Marvel precursor published a year before Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. was officially neutral, Marvel has been preoccupied with the fight against fascism. Two X-Men films invoke Auschwitz, and one Joe McCarthy. To X-Men director Bryan Singer, his superheroes stand for Jews, gays and other outsiders. In the Iron Man franchise, Tony Stark exits the arms business, repudiating the "military-industrial complex," and refuses to cooperate with the U.S. government — rightly so, because the president, senators and other high officials are agents of Hydra, a secret Nazi organization that honeycombs American authorities.
The far right rejects the far left's embrace of the Other but shares its distaste for the authorities, who are corrupt or useless. Therefore, its heroes have no choice but to take the law into their own hands. In centrist shows, good guys worry about sinking to the level of the bad guys against whom they are pitted. Not so on the right, where the heroes couldn't care less. It takes extremists to defeat extremists. It shouldn't have surprised anyone that Christopher Nolan sprinkled crumbs of Ayn Randian wisdom throughout Interstellar, because in his previous Dark Knight trilogy, vigilantism was already a growth industry.
As a youth, Bruce Wayne falls under the sway of Ra's Al Ghul's Bannonism; that is, the doctrine of creative destruction. When he matures, he rejects it, adopting a code that prevents him from killing a bad guy, but that doesn't stop him from standing by while others do it for him. He tells one, "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you, either." Even the Joker is impressed. He says, admiringly, "That's cold-blooded."
Defending Batman's vigilante violence is no less than Commissioner Gordon, one of the few honest cops in Gotham, who nevertheless justifies breaking the law to enforce the law to his protege, young Detective Blake. He says, "There's a point when the system fails you, and the rules aren't weapons anymore — they're shackles letting the bad guy get ahead." Blake, still in the grip of naive, by-the-book idealism, is shocked. But by the end of the trilogy, older and wiser, he comes around. He prefers Batman to Gordon, breaking rather than enforcing the law. We leave him, at the conclusion of the trilogy, exploring the Batcave to which he is heir.
Extremism, in other words, refashions the fictive worlds of centrist culture in its own image. Walking on the wild side, we encounter an apocalyptic nightmare, where civilization is ravaged by its discontents, the godless are crushed by the god-fearing, and Them are slaughtered by Us. At the end of The Thing From Another World, released way back in 1951, we are admonished to "Watch the skies." Now, we had better watch our backs as well.
Peter Biskind is a film historian and author of seven books, including Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures.
The above essay is adapted from his new book The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism. Reprinted with permission from The New Press.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.