How Donald Trump Hopes to John Wayne His Way Into the White House

Why the American Hero trope is so dangerous

Susan J. Douglas

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the John Wayne Birthplace Museum on January 19 in Winterset, Iowa. Trump received the endorsement of Aissa Wayne, John Wayne's daughter. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump says that if he had been present for the Paris ter­ror attacks, he would have per­son­al­ly shot the attackers.

We must recognize that Trump is a canny performer who taps into enduring fantasies Americans have imbibed for decades—not from the news or political talk shows, but from TV, movie and console screens.

I’m licensed to car­ry,” he explains. If I were there, if some­body were there, if we had some fire­pow­er in the oppo­site direc­tion, those peo­ple would’ve been gone.”

Such shoot-from-the-hip rhetoric, which has swollen his poll num­bers, has defied con­ven­tion­al wis­dom about what you can let your id blurt out on the cam­paign trail.

Much ink — too much — has been spilled on the bizarre phe­nom­e­non of a bom­bas­tic, self-pro­mot­ing real­i­ty-TV star and real-estate mogul cap­tur­ing Repub­li­can pri­ma­ry vot­ers’ hearts by spurn­ing tra­di­tion­al scripts. But that’s the point with Trump. We need to think about him not through the frame­works of pol­i­tics, or how the main­stream news media cov­er cur­rent affairs. Rather, we must rec­og­nize that Trump is a can­ny per­former who taps into endur­ing fan­tasies Amer­i­cans have imbibed for decades — not from the news or polit­i­cal talk shows, but from TV, movie and con­sole screens. Too often we for­get how polit­i­cal val­ues are embed­ded in and advanced by what pass­es for just enter­tain­ment.” Some of these val­ues are pro­gres­sive, oth­ers quite regres­sive. But a per­sis­tent trope is that there are sim­ple solu­tions to com­plex problems.

One incar­na­tion of this fan­ta­sy, a noble one, is about politi­cians speak­ing truth to pow­er and, in the end, redeem­ing nation­al pol­i­tics. This is the Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton dream, in which James Stew­art takes on the press (to one reporter, Why don’t you tell the truth for a change?”) and cor­rupt politi­cians, fil­i­bus­ter­ing for truth and decen­cy on the Sen­ate floor and sham­ing a col­league into con­fess­ing his wrong­do­ing. An impressed radio com­men­ta­tor casts him as one lone and sim­ple Amer­i­can hold­ing the great­est floor in the land. What he lacked in expe­ri­ence, he’s made up in fight.” Only an out­sider could see and speak the truth. A more recent ver­sion of this fan­ta­sy was War­ren Beatty’s 1998 Bul­worth, in which a cor­rupt politi­cian, think­ing he’s about to die, spouts obscen­i­ty-laced raps about almost every injus­tice he sees, from the mass incar­cer­a­tion of black men to the need for social­ism, and expe­ri­ences a spike in his pop­u­lar­i­ty as a result. While these media dreams — which Trump both chan­nels and per­verts — speak to our bet­ter angels, a lone hero sim­ply speak­ing his truth” to the estab­lish­ment has rarely, by itself, changed anything.

Anoth­er ver­sion of this mass-enter­tain­ment fan­ta­sy exploit­ed by Trump fea­tures the tough, mas­sive­ly armed lone hero — think Die Hard, or most Schwarzeneg­ger films — who tri­umphs against mur­der­ous hordes, be they ter­ror­ists, crim­i­nals or for­eign armies. In her 1993 book Hard­bod­ies, Susan Jef­fords laid out how these action films of the 1980s meshed beau­ti­ful­ly with both Ronald Reagan’s cow­boy image and his for­eign pol­i­cy stances, and came to stand for a vision of our nation­al char­ac­ter as hero­ic, aggres­sive and deter­mined.” As Trump pro­claimed in a recent Repub­li­can debate, We need tough­ness. We need strength.”

Trump also relent­less­ly pro­motes the delu­sion that stereo­types are most­ly true and thus should guide our pub­lic poli­cies. For most Amer­i­cans, enter­tain­ment and news media are the pri­ma­ry sources of infor­ma­tion about Arabs and Mus­lims (two groups often con­flat­ed). What they see, over­whelm­ing­ly, are both groups por­trayed as ter­ror­ists. As the author of a 2013 study on stereo­types in video games put it, Being an Arab video game char­ac­ter is almost syn­ony­mous with being a ter­ror­ist.” Trump’s pro­pos­al to ban Mus­lims from enter­ing the Unit­ed States draws from this stereo­type to present the com­fort­ing illu­sion that racial pro­fil­ing is a sim­ple way to keep us safe. Add the pro­pos­al to take out” the fam­i­lies of ter­ror­ists and you have a soupçon of strat­e­gy from all the God­fa­ther movies.

These media-dri­ven macho fan­tasies are clear­ly pro­vid­ing sus­te­nance to some, giv­en the size of Trump’s ral­lies and his stand­ing in the polls. But they are also why, accord­ing to the most recent polls from Wall Street Journal/​MSNBC, 56 per­cent of Amer­i­cans have a some­what neg­a­tive” or very neg­a­tive” view of him; for women 18 – 49, the very neg­a­tive” rat­ings are 58 per­cent. In the real world, when politi­cians per­vert truth telling” to pro­pose vio­lent and hate­ful poli­cies, fan­ta­sy even­tu­al­ly morphs into nightmare.

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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