Trump’s Leaving, But Hollywood Must Confront Trumpism In Its Storytelling (Guest Column)

Capitol-building-on-January-6-2021-and-inset-of-Alan-Jenkins
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images; Courtesy of Victoria Jackson

A view of the Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6. (Inset image: Alan Jenkins)

We don’t need more films or TV shows about Trump, but rather new, shared narratives about the fear mongering, bigotry and authoritarianism that could create more Trumps.

As a new political era dawns, Americans are reeling. Images of a violent insurrection incited by a sitting U.S. President are seared in our collective memory. The attack on the Capitol by confederate flag-wielding thugs was both a stunningly treacherous event and a profound symbol of the threat to our democratic values posed by Trumpism. The hard work of fully processing these traumatic events and moving the nation in a new, positive direction falls not only to political, faith, or civic leaders, but to all of us.  And Hollywood has a uniquely important role to play.

At important moments in our history, Hollywood has helped Americans understand the meaning and gravity of threats to our democratic principles. Through allegory, symbolism, and often farce, creative works have reminded us of the values to which we aspire and the dangers of abandoning them. 

The McCarthy era was such a period, in which redbaiting and opportunism turned Americans against each other, ruined lives, and destroyed careers. Perhaps because artists were so often its victims, they produced a vast body of work illustrating the profound harms of McCarthyism’s madness. Content as diverse as The Crucible, The Manchurian Candidate, Planet of the Apes, and countless Twilight Zone episodes conveyed the dangers of lies and persecution in the name of patriotism. 

During the civil rights movement, white supremacist politicians set dogs and firehoses on Black Americans who dared to exercise their constitutional right to vote—the very heart of American democracy. Artists from Harry Belafonte to Loraine Hansberry to Norman Lear responded with compelling storytelling that helped white audiences come to grips with racism’s threat to democratic values while supporting activists. They often did so at great risk to their economic and physical safety.  Along with others, their body of work helped to shape the historical and cultural record of dangerous injustice.

We very much need that spirit from Hollywood today. We need new, shared narratives that artfully articulate the elements and dangers of Trumpism. President Trump, aided by people still in power today, repeatedly divided Americans against each other, attacked free speech and the press, cruelly separated families, embraced white supremacy, traded in lies, and made a mockery of our justice system. He and his allies participated in a violent insurrection and attempted to overturn a fair election.  And like McCarthyism, the worst elements of Trumpism will outlive his departure from office.  Unchecked, they will fester and potentially grow.

To be sure, popular culture is just one vehicle for conveying societal values and processing lessons learned.  But, at their best, creative storytellers connect us across lines of difference in ways that are unique and enduring. Hollywood has a role and a responsibility, not to preach, but to use its creativity and storytelling prowess to remind us who we aspire to be as a people and what we must perpetually fight against.  

Thankfully, that does not require stories about Trump. But it does call for storytelling about the fearmongering, selfishness, vindictiveness, bigotry and authoritarianism that could create more Trumps.  And it invites positive stories about people who stand up to those forces.

In telling those stories, Hollywood should amplify the voices of those most affected by Trumpism. Muslim Americans, Mexican Americans, African Americans, Jewish Americans, and Transgender Americans are just some of the groups vilified and attacked by Trumpism and its devotees. At a time when Hollywood is opening its doors a crack to more diverse stories and storytellers, it must also support authentic and entertaining content from these new voices that tells a new American story.

Indeed, when Donald Trump was elected, many network execs wondered aloud “are we telling the right stories?” They sought out more conservative writers and storylines to better align with a new political and cultural reality.  As the Trump era comes to a close, it’s again time to ask that question. This time around, “the right stories” should include the story of what unites us, what threatens to tear us apart, and the importance of moving forward together.

Alan Jenkins is a professor of practice at Harvard Law School, a transmedia writer and the co-founder and former president of The Opportunity Agenda.