Look! Over There!
Antman and the Wasp is an enjoyable summer movie, a lovely palate cleanser after the loud, gloomy, and commercially cynical (of course they're not killing off all those franchises! Money!) Avengers installment. As my time on earth steps more fully into its downhill phase, I'm far less likely than I used to be to see movies multiple times, but I didn't mind at all seeing this one twice. Most of the jokes held up very well (though one unfortunate trope involving a Hispanic character and a hot little car really bugged me on the second viewing), and one in particular, with clever callbacks throughout the movie, resonated with our contemporary political situation in ways the filmmakers may not have anticipated.
To set the stage very quickly: Antman is under house arrest for something having to do with his involvement in the last Captain America movie (it's never really explained what law he broke). To entertain himself, he's taken up a variety of hobbies, including card tricks. The secret, he explains after performing one for the FBI agent in charge of his case, is distraction: get the audience to look somewhere else while you manipulate your props so that when they look back, it appears you've magically transformer one thing into another. It's not a trade secret, more of a psychological insight; but even understanding how it works, I've been tricked by sleight-of-hand gags that left me astounded.
It's also, I'm convinced, how the Trump regime has managed to hang onto its voter base even as Trump policies inflict enormous economic damage to those same voters. Case in point: Trump's trade war is causing the bottom to drop out of the global hazelnut market just as Oregon growers were gearing up to run this year's bumper crop through their new $20 million processing plant. Oregon produced 99% of the USA's hazelnuts, almost all of them in rural counties that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016. It's a story that's being repeated across the country in American industries dependent on foreign steel, or on selling uniquely American products overseas: tariffs are hurting them in huge ways.
And yet, Trump's core voters are unwavering in their support for their president. The preponderance of Trump's base come from rural counties and working class neighborhoods. They're also far more likely to be evangelical Christians than are Democrats or independents. This makes their loyalty to Trump even more dumbfounding, as indictments of Trump's inner circle on a plethora of charges accumulate, as do evidence that he is a serial philanderer who has silenced both employees and mistresses with hush money and non-disclosure agreements. Meanwhile, his Twitter feed is rife with cruel attacks on those he considers enemies, seemingly obvious lies about his misdeeds, and "what-aboutisms" that continue to endlessly relitigate long-settled cases against Democrats. And then there's the Russia connection, which seems to have evolved from denial to open embrace by some of his followers, who'd rather be Russian dupes than vote vote for a Democrat.
This would be horrible behavior if it were coming from a business leader--and in fact, it's wholly consistent with how Trump behaved prior to his run for the presidency. For him to actually be president and act this way, with all eyes on him, makes it even more confounding that his base is so stubbornly loyal. What are they not seeing, not hearing, not comprehending about him? How does he do it?
Oh, wait--that last question sounds familiar...got it! It's exactly what I ask myself and the people around me when I see a clever magic trick! And, looking back at Antman, I have to say the answer is right there in front of me, if I just take the time to watch carefully: redirection.
Trump and his Cabinet are, beyond doubt, some of the stupidest people who've ever occupied these high offices in all but one sense: they are masters of redirection.
For those of us in the opposition, that redirection takes the form of a nonstop news cycle overflowing with outrages: the EPA shilling for the coal industry, the Department of Education subsidizing guns in schools, executive orders neutralizing the power of public sector unions, ICE officials separating parents from their children, utterly incompetent persons being appointed to judgeships and Cabinet-level positions, on and on it goes. Just yesterday, I scrolled through half a dozen headlines in the New York Times any one of which would be cause, under any previous president, for explosive news coverage and Congressional investigations. And yet none of these were main stories because the Times was still focusing on revelations about Trump associates and supporters pleading or being found guilty of felonies in which he is implicated as a co-conspirator.
Meanwhile, the leading story in those media outlets that are still Trump-friendly was the murder of a young woman by an undocumented immigrant. And in his never-ending itinerary of campaign rallies--nominally for the benefit of Trump-friendly congressional candidates running for reelection in an extremely un-Trump-friendly year, but really just occasions for him to luxuriate in the adulation of his personality cult--Trump continues to beat the drums of racism and xenophobia, inventing crime statistics that he knows will stir up his supporters, labeling any news story that casts him in a negative light as "fake news," pinning pejorative labels on any prominent individuals who oppose him. No matter how explosively damning the news may be about him and his regime, he can distract his base instantly with a lie about football players disrespecting veterans by kneeling during the national anthem. He's like a rock star keeping the fans satisfied by playing his greatest hits, however dated they may sound to anyone else.
The good news for those of us who care about our nation, and want desperately to take it back from the burning train wreck of this regime, is that as magical as Trump's popularity feels at times, there's no such thing as magic. It's only a trick. The methodical, evidence-based approach of Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors is one way of handling these magical distractions: just ignore them, and concentrate on revealing the truth. That's what I try to do as I skim the headlines about one bizarro policy after another: I know that all of these will be challenged in court, and most will be rejected before they can be implemented in any way. Unfortunately, some of the most abominable actions of the regime have been enacted before courts could do anything about them: travel bans, separating and imprisoning refugee parents and children, abusing executive powers to punish critics and reward toadies. And some will even slip through the Supreme Court, especially if the Senate continues to enable Trump's stacking of that body with yes-men (and yes, they'll almost certainly all be men). By and large, though, the courts are rejecting one policy after another, while the Republican Congress is incapable of passing legislation that does anything but alienate voters with indefensible sops to the landed gentry.
And alienated those voters very much are--and not just to apathy, the usual refuge of voters disenchanted with the ruling party. Democrats are angry and energized, and there's much more interest among young voters than there has been in decades. This mid-term general election may see more voters participating than any similar election in recent memory. Odds are good that Democrats will flip the House, though the Senate will probably just barely manage to maintain its thin majority.
That brings me to the bad news: rather than be peeled away by the mounting evidence of corruption and incompetence, the Trump base is doubling down on its support. While they're too small a group to dominate a general election, they've done so in many a primary, punishing incumbents who showed the slightest sign of departing from Trump's agenda, or of questioning his fitness for the Oval Office. I'm not worried that they'll carry the nation--as I said, they're only a fraction of Americans--but even so, they're turning the Republican party even further to the right than it's been in this era of reactionary GOP politics. They're also tilting it to white supremacy, purging it of the few persons of color who remained in its ranks with their incessant opposition to the ethnic diversification of America.
Ultimately, this contingent is going to discover that the magician they've been following is a charlatan, that he's deceived them, picked their pockets, ravaged the economies of their home towns, sent overseas the very industries he claimed to support with his idiotic tariffs. Before we of the left rub our hands in anticipation, we need to stop and think what happens to charlatans and their supporters when their followers realize they've been victimized.
I'm thinking specifically of a strong man, a populist, a dictator who, if he were alive today, would be greatly admired by our authoritarian-wannabe president: Benito Mussolini, the first dictator to claim the title "fascist." His alliances with other regimes in Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan brought about the Second World War. Hundreds of millions of deaths later, and with Italy (as much of Europe) in ruins, Mussolini and his mistress were shot by partisan troops. Their bodies were then desecrated by an angry mob, furious over what Il Duce had done to them and their country.
The time is coming when the Secret Service will escort Donald Trump out of the White House. It could be that, like Nixon, he'll resign rather than be impeached; it could be he'll stubbornly cling to the hope that the Senate will, as with Bill Clinton, not find him guilty of the charges for which the House has impeached him; or it could take until January 20, 2021, when Elizabeth Warren (or whoever else wins the next election) is sworn in. I highly doubt it'll be four years after that--though mind you, I was horribly wrong about this seem matter two years ago. What worries me is whether it will come before or after the MAGA base realizes, a few at a time and then in droves, that they've been duped by this smooth talking narcissist. Historically, tyrants who've wrecked their countries don't last long once their supporters turn on them. Trump is likely to have far better security than the Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, or Kadafi, but still, it's not going to be pretty. And if it happens before he's out? I worry about what that could mean: rioting by the one demographic who've been most afraid in the past of rioting by anyone else. Many of these people have guns, lots of them; it's one of the reasons they continue to support their cowardly president.
I'm also worried about what happens to their racist, xenophobic impulses, empowered after decades of partial suppression thanks to a race-bating candidate/president. Do they start carrying those guns into Black, Hispanic, and Muslim neighborhoods? Do they organize a militant resistance to the majority government that finally looks like America--a rainbow of colors, origins, and orientations--that has to be put down by force?
We who long for regime change need to keep these possibilities in mind as we work toward a future beyond Trump. In particular, we need to build bridges now to the disillusioned people who thought they were making America great, but instead only hastened its decline with their support of a charlatan spellbinder. There are going to be a lot of hurt people out there, needing to know that they're still part of a country that is orienting itself away from magic and fables and toward science and facts. Ignoring their existence put us in the mess we're in now. We ignore their continued existence at our peril.