Thursday, 16 June 2016

Through the Mirror Darkly: The Gothic Dimension of the 2016 Presidential Election (Part I)

The following is an edited version of a presentation I delivered to the Mensa Society International Conference in Toronto on June 11



“The Gothic thrives in a world where those in authority – the supposed exemplars of the good – are under suspicion.” 
– Mark Edmundson, Nightmare on Main Street, 1997.
The Gothic is a “demonic history text … in which its common thread is the singularity and monstrosity of the Other.” 
Louis Gross, Redefining the American Gothic, 1989
If I were to deliver a political overview about the current Presidential election campaign, I would be substituting Hilary Clinton for Barack Obama. Given that I'm more interested here in delving into Gothic undercurrents, I think it is more apt to explore the values that represent vastly divergent visions of America, and they are best personified by the President and the Republican Party’s standard bearer, Donald Trump. Obama embodies a multicultural, inclusive perspective, a worldview that exemplifies the best of twenty-first century America. At the same time, he champions a cornerstone of traditional American culture, that of civic nationalism – a citizenship that depends upon shared values. Donald Trump represents a parochial, more atavistic view of America, a throwback to an earlier era when racist and misogynous beliefs had legitimacy for large numbers of Americans. His incendiary rhetoric also suggests a belief that citizenship should be based on ethnicity or race, an ideology that almost destroyed Europe in the 1940s, was revived during the genocidal Yugoslavian wars of the 1990, and is once again acquiring populist currency in parts of Europe, a form of ethnic nationalism that flouts the rule of law, celebrates the strong man, and fosters a contempt for and persecution of minorities and immigrants by tapping into a seething geyser of xenophobia and Islamophobia.


American Gothic, by Gordon Parks (1942).
My reference point for the Gothic is not the historical painting, Grant Wood’s 1930 American Gothic, the most iconic in America (even for its countless parodies). Gordon Parks' 1942 photograph of the same name is more significant given that an African-American woman with her broom and mop is staring out at us with an out of focus American flag behind her. She is more emblematic of someone in a state of quasi servitude. This photograph also suggests that some Americans harbour a more ambiguous relationship with America because their value as citizens is not as esteemed as others. Over a half a century later, Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize winner for literature, expands upon this idea by exploring how European-American authors have marginalized and ignored African-Americans, or used them as a screen to project Caucasian savagery (even deprived them of their humanity by demonizing them). Although her slim 2008 monograph, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, largely draws upon literary texts from the American canon to develop these ideas, I suggest that her insights can also be applied to the larger culture.

When most people think of the Gothic they generally look to novels and films which may depict a corpse in the dungeon of a mouldering castle, a porous boundary between life and death with a strong whiff of the supernatural. Yet there are Gothic conventions that extend well beyond these tropes. They include the demonization of the other, the double (or doppelgänger), and the present in thrall to the past and transgressive behaviour in which taboos are broken - and forbidden secrets are spoken and barriers are crossed. In his Nightmare on Main Street, Mark Edmundson argues that besides texts and films, the reportage of sensational crime stories and political coverage is often given a Gothic sheen. One of his examples is the June 24, 1994 Time cover of O. J. Simpson’s mug shot shortly after he was arrested for the murder of his ex wife, Nicole Brown. The cover reveals a digitally-altered image that darkens him rendering him, according to some critics, a more menacing presence, reinforcing a canard that darker males were inherently more dangerous.



In 1989, after the rape and near murder of a Central Park jogger, Trump called for the death penalty for the five juvenile suspects – four African-Americans and one Hispanic – labelling them as “roving bands of wild criminals.” He took out full-page advertisements in the New York papers. The following is an excerpt:
Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence. 
This kind of demagoguery fed the volatile atmosphere that led to their conviction and imprisonment despite the DNA evidence that later exonerated them and the 2002 confession of rape by another man. When Trump was later asked to comment, he double downed by calling the court decision a “disgrace.” In the weeks just prior to the 2016 election, he repeated what he said over twenty five years ago by saying that they were guilty and should have been executed.


Trump later came to national attention as the spearhead of the birther movement, a spurious fraud that played to the fantasies of Obama's worst haters and another canard that sought to deny the legitimacy of the President’s election arguing that, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the President was born in Kenya and therefore constitutionally ineligible to be President, a prime example of Trump’s dog whistle politics – a coded message that appears innocuous to the general public, but that has an additional interpretation meant to appeal to the target audience, for example, to racists – and evidence for Toni Morrison’s argument that Americans have attempted to marginalize African-Americans. This attempt to delegitimize Obama prompted many powerful responses, including a viral image portraying the President as Caucasian and a statement that said it plainly: “If Obama were white, his place of birth, patriotism and Christianity would never have come into question… and everyone in politics and the media would be celebrating the Obama recovery.”

As Kevin Courrier in Critics at Large pointed out back in 2012, actor and director Clint Eastwood updated Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, when he interviewed Obama in an empty chair during the Republican convention, indicating that “when somebody does not do the job, we got to let 'em go.” Some viewers may have found the surrealistic occasion amusing but that did not stop ominous responses from being posted online. One image was the hanging of an empty chair, which surely would have provoked memories of the notorious Jim Crow past where African-Americans were savagely lynched during the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, again support for Morrison’s claim that African-Americans have been depicted as either invisible or have provided a screen for whites to project their own savagery.


It provoked also for me a Gothic association: the 1931 release of the film Frankenstein wherein the “monster” – as opposed to the “creature” in Mary Shelley’s 1816 novel – embodies American stereotypes about the black man. The “monster” is hulking, sub-human, brutish and criminal. An example of art imitating life occurs near the end of the film when enraged villagers wielding burning torches, reminiscent of a lynch mob, chase him to a windmill and set fire to it, burning the “monster.” Twenty years earlier, in 1911, a black man was seized from a hospital and burned alive.


The Frankenstein motif is most relevant when considering the meteoric rise of Trump. He is the monster that the Republican Party sired, given that for years Republicans have long exploited white backlash to mobilize working-class voters, while enacting policies that actually hurt those voters but benefit the wealthy. He has channeled  the antagonism that has been a driving force for Republican electoral success for decades. They have covertly and coyly encouraged the toxic rage that Trump has expressed with a megaphone. His obnoxious use of ethnicity is a loud echo of how Republicans have been using bigotry against minorities and gays to whip up voters for decades. Republican Governors have attempted to deprive minorities of the right to vote allegedly to eliminate voter fraud, but the real goal has been to disenfranchise certain people who would most likely vote for the Democratic Party. When Trump attacked U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, whom he says cannot be impartial trying a case involving Trump university because the Indiana-born judge is “Mexican,” he was following a Republican attempt to overturn a same-sex decision by having a gay judge removed from hearing a case on the grounds that the judge because of his sexual orientation could not be impartial. More generally, for years Republicans have attacked the integrity of judges if their decisions were in opposition to their political views.


Cruz by Mike Luckovich.


This brings us to the 2016 presidential election in which Gothic conventions and imagery abound. When the former speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, reviled Ted Cruz as “Lucifer in the flesh,” cartoonists had a field day. Or consider the misogyny – violence against women has long been a dominant Gothic trope found, for example, in The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis – that Trump has unleashed during this election campaign. When Megyn Kelly challenged Trump on his insulting views toward women at the first Republican primary debate in August 2015, he – with the support of Fox News executives – took great exception to her comments by dismissing them as “political correctness,” his code for giving permission for others to vent their ugliest subterranean feelings. He later maligned Kelly with misogynous bile calling her a “bimbo” and conjuring a Gothic image: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” Eight months later, Kelly interviewed Trump one on one after the Fox executives supported the candidate. The segment was devoid of any fireworks, with Trump offering no apology for his remarks. Isaac Clotliner writing in Slate excoriated Kelly for conducting a “fawning, boring, and pointless interview.” I would add irrelevant, given that increasingly there are reports that Trump's misogyny has had the desired effect among his followers. At Trump rallies, buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers are being sold with blatantly nasty images and messages about Clinton.


In  the CBC program The Fifth Estate in March, Trump is shown as a bellowing demagogue, a purveyor of personal insults and a panderer to his supporters by reviling Mexicans and Muslims as the racial other. The former are equated with rapists and drug dealers, and the latter are associated with terrorists. Trump's bumptious vitriol even suggests that the vast majority of American Muslims are complicit to the acts perpetrated by a tiny number when he says,"they know where the bad ones are." His simplistic solutions to these hot-button issues are bombastic promises to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans, calling for a ban on Muslims entering America and rounding up and deporting eleven million undocumented immigrants. That he has retained a raucous and unthinking cohort of loyal supporters is evidence that he has tapped into an existing cache of psychosis and he’s exploiting it for political gain. Todd Gitlin has perceptively written: “the dog whistles have been superseded. What we hear now is the raw thing itself, the old-time irreligion, the rock-bottom roar of a sewage stream that always lay beneath the surface but now has erupted.” More recently, Trump has tried to equate immigration in general and free trade with fear of both homegrown terror and the new global economy. What this rank demagogue has made unambiguously clear is that he will transgress any boundary of decency or truth to win power.






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