February 5, 2017

A Presidency Eighty-four Years in the Making


Among other things, during his first week in office Donald Trump used executive orders to begin gutting the Affordable Care Act, banned the use of taxpayer money to fund non-abortion services by healthcare organizations that also provide abortions, ordered work to resume on the much-disputed Dakota Access pipeline, pushed to reinstate the CIA’s right to torture people in secret prisons, pulled out of the TPP, banned people from seven overwhelmingly Muslim nations from entering the United States, ordered work to begin on his notorious wall across the Mexican border, gagged the EPA, canceled a CDC conference on climate change, and proclaimed January 20th, the date of his inauguration, to be a National Day of Patriotic Devotion. At the same time, Trump threatened to send federal forces into Chicago to put an end to all the gun violence there by, well, shooting people. Sections on civil rights and climate change were deleted from the official White House website, which also became English-only, and after Trump decried the fake news phenomenon that helped get him elected, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway forwarded the idea of “Alternative Facts.” The newly-inaugurated president also filed papers with the federal elections committee, and according to the Washington Post is already stockpiling funds for a 2020 campaign.

            And to think everyone thought it would take at least a couple of years before things got really fucking scary.

            As darkly comic and inevitable as I found all this—he was the People’s President after all, and only more so when you recall the “people” in question are a bunch of ignorant, inbred, drooling buffoons—two things made themselves apparent. First, as David Read wrote nearly a year ago in Smashpipe, the Constitutional notion of a peaceful transition of power may have just become a thing of the past. And second, as a political outsider with no working knowledge of what “Balance of Powers” means, the new president has decided to bypass the legislative branch wholesale, choosing instead to simply Rule by Decree. It’s so much easier that way.

            You think about it, he accomplished more in his first week in office than Obama did in his first two years. As everyone else seems to be doing, let’s ignore for the moment the plentiful historical lessons that might seem apt here, like the detention and deportation of thousands of Italians during the first Red Scare, the planks of the 1925 NSDAP party platform, and Roosevelt’s refusal to let Jewish refugees into the country in the late Thirties. Instead, let’s see what the movies can teach us. As baffling and terrifying as at least a few Americans find all this, the reality of the way the new regime is shaping up was laid out with shocking prescience and in glorious black and white eighty-four years ago.

            In the midst of the Great Depression, the major Hollywood studios produced a string of fascist fairy tales which touted the idea that the nation’s only salvation lay in the form of a benevolent but iron-fisted dictator. Mussolini’s efforts to turn around the Italian economy and rid the country of the Black Hand left him looking mighty heroic in the eyes of millions of Americans (including several intellectuals and politicians), and Hollywood couldn’t help but take that infatuation to heart.

            Of all the friendly fascist films released in the early Thirties, none was more direct or telling than 1933’s Gabriel Over the White House, written by Carey Wilson (based on a T.F. Tweed novel) and directed by Gregory LaCava.

            The always sinister Walter Huston stars as Judson Hammond, a good-hearted but dull-witted sort whose Man of the People persona gets him elected president. Unbeknownst even to Hammond himself, he’s merely a political puppet propped up by a party machine that knows he’ll do exactly what he’s told. But when Hammond slips into a coma after a terrible car accident, something strange happens.

            When he wakes from the coma after weeks teetering on the brink of death, he’s a different man. In a blink, this one-time naive patsy has suddenly transformed into a steely-eyed political strong man with ideas of his own. More specifically he’s a man possessed by the spirit of the Angel Gabriel, who’s apparently been sent down to earth to help Make America Great Again.

            Toward this end and in short order, President Hammond dissolves the Senate and Congress, concentrating all power within the Executive branch. He then declares martial law, puts the Army of the Unemployed back to work by instituting a federal works program, singlehandedly battles the Mob after they open fire on the White House with tommy guns, and strong-arms all the nations of the world into signing a peace treaty by threatening to obliterate any holdouts with an unimaginably powerful new weapon.

            Keep in mind that in 1933, this was all presented and accepted as a mighty fine thing, and perhaps the only viable way to pull the country out of the Depression. Watching it with the historical context in mind, it’s easy to see how audiences might have found it all quite attractive. Gabriel received good reviews and made a decent amount of money. Then that Hitler, darn him anyhow, had to come along and ruin everything.

            Warner Brothers quickly yanked the film and kept it locked in the vaults. Apart from a few rare screenings on TMC, it would remain unavailable for over eight decades, only re-emerging a year ago. Perhaps the executives at Warners were reading the papers, taking note of the mood of the country, and realized audiences would once again understand the film as it was originally intended.

            A decade ago while writing about Gabriel Over the White House, I glibly argued it was a film about what might happen if George W. Bush slipped into a coma and woke up as Dick Cheney. I see now how short-sighted I was, not taking the coming Post-Satirical Age into account. Looking at it again now, it may help explain why the new president’s grim and dispiriting inaugural address was so peppered with Depression Era slogans.


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