Opinion | The Absorbing Hollywood Trick Trump Uses to Hook America

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If, while scrolling from CNN to MSNBC to Fox, you find yourself no longer relating to the bulletins about our current president as news and instead come to view them as another season of the self-contradicting, cliffhanging, reality-defying but spectacularly thrilling season of the Trump Cinematic Universe, you’re finally watching TV the way Donald Trump intended. That’s especially if you’ve been binge-watching the post-election episodes in which he’s turning the entire nation inside-out as he continues to defy reality by claiming he was reelected.

Although it’s been widely observed that Trump regards himself as an entertainer, his presidency a show and the electorate his audience, nobody has mapped the similarities between his political career and the attention-grabbing genre of “mind-bending” cinema. Mind-bending cinema, as Steven Johnson wrote in his 2006 book Everything Bad Is Good for You, is “designed specifically to disorient you, to mess with your head.” Mind-bending cinema loves to shock viewers with whiplash reversals, lay down a tangle of bizarre and intersecting plot lines, leave important plot elements dangling (or abandoned), blithely eject characters and violate the laws of dramatic logic.

While Hollywood has always messed with your head, the trend accelerated in recent decades as writers and directors found the swiftest path to viewer engagement was to place the audience inside a constantly expanding nightmare of alternative possibilities—something conventional drama had traditionally avoided. Trump adopted some of these techniques early in his career by posing as a successful billionaire. His grudge-making and score-settling, the reliable cruelty and crudity, also placed him in the tradition of such classic mind-bending films as Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Matrix, but the definition covers older films such as Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate, as well as more modern works including The X-Files, Lost and Inception. Using the same storytelling tropes of the mind-bending films, Trump differs in that he isn’t trying to open our minds to new realities and possibilities. His purpose is destructive. He wants to distort and skew this world for his own political, self-serving ends. Mind-bending films seek to connect viewers to some larger insight. With Trump, the goal is not greater understanding but perpetual confusion that helps keep him in power. Anytime linear storytelling gives way to zigzag and chaos, conspiracy and confusion, you’re experiencing the art of the mind-bender.

Governing the nation as President Mind-bender, Trump has struck practically every beat the genre demands, threatening war with North Korea, helping the Saudis cover up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, threatening to wage war on protesters, claiming the right to pardon himself and more. Not even The Matrix possessed such berserk plot twists. On election night, he flexed his mind-bending muscles by declaring victory when he was clearly behind in the Electoral College. “If you count the legal votes, I easily win,” Trump then said on Nov. 5. Since then, he’s confounded the audience by both demanding recounts where he’s behind and calling for the votes to be frozen where he’s ahead. Ordinarily a publicity hog, he has cloaked himself in mystery by retreating to his White House spider hole. He’s staged almost no public appearances since election night aside from attending a memorial service on Veterans’ Day at Arlington National Cemetery—at which he gave no remarks. On Twitter, Trump, his family and his staff have continued to keep the nation off-balance by promoting preposterous conspiracy theories about ballot-burning, dead-people votes, poll-watcher abuse and widespread voter fraud. The Washington Post reports that Trump’s idea of voter fraud in Michigan boils down to loud noises, mean stares from union officials and a big man who followed a poll-watcher too close for her comfort. Trump is now proclaiming against all the evidence that he’s got Arizona in the bag, and he continues to push the ridiculous plot point of the Democrats attempting to steal the presidency, without explaining how the Dems could have gone to all the bother of breaking into the polling infrastructure but then left the Senate races unmolested.

The paranoiac jumble that is the Trump presidency captivates both Trump’s fans and foes. He has seized the idea that nobody in power can be trusted—core to such mind-bending classics as The X-Files, Conspiracy Theory, JFK and Invasion of the Body Snatchers—and forged it into his governance template with one exception: Only he can be trusted. His fans delight in the way he bends reality to taunt the elites and tortures the press and they not only forgive him the confusion wrought by his policy inconsistencies and lapses in reason, they embrace the madness. Trump’s foes and critics, who underestimated him from day one—remember in 2015 when the Washington Post’s Dan Balz asked if Trump’s rude treatment of John McCain might not be his “Waterloo“?—have been sucked into Trumpworld as completely as his admirers. What draws them? For many, there’s no desire to watch—they pay attention to Trump because they can’t afford not to know what he’s doing. And because he uncorks a new storyline nearly every day, Trump places the electorate in the position A Clockwork Orange placed the droogie, Alex, unable to look away.

Last Saturday morning, when the networks projected Joe Biden as the likely winner, anti-Trumpies of my acquaintance expressed their relief at his apparent defeat. “Oh, god, this is finally the end of him,” one told me. But then Trump interjected his fictions to extend his performance to at least Dec. 15, when the Electoral College votes. But who is to say that Trump will abide by that convention? Anybody who has watched his career closely should expect the revelation of another plot twist. Will he mobilize the QAnon cult and conspiracy, which just sent at least one adherent to the House of Representatives? Even if Biden succeeds at dislodging Trump from the White House, which seems likely, be prepared for these two altered states of political consciousness to blur and merge into several new seasons of mind-bending mayhem and even a few spinoffs. Like a ride on a Möbius strip, the streaming series Trump started in 2015 may never end.

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A hat tip to Tom Shone, whose dandy new book, The Nolan Variations, alerted me to the concept of mind-bending films. My favorite mind-bending film is 2001: A Space Odyssey. What’s yours? Send nominations to [email protected]. My email alerts trust everybody. My Twitter feed favors The Parallax View. My RSS feed says Detour is the only movie you ever need watch.

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