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A culture of paranoia: for every West Wing, there are ten Houses of Cards

January 12, 2021

Try as I might, I find it hard to detach myself from the firestorm of opinion, paranoia, recrimination and fear sweeping across the United States in the run-up to Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Reading and watching all the stuff being said and shown about last Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol, you’d think that the whole thing was a surprise – something unheard of, let alone anticipated. In fact, it seems to me that Americans have been rehearsing such an event in their imagination for some time now.

Think of all the apocalyptic movies and TV series in which sinister forces wreak destruction on the established order. Starting with Dr Strangelove, in which a rogue general nukes Russia, in the movies we have the Manchurian Candidate, Absolute Power, Olympus Has Fallen and any number of other movies featuring conspiracies, evil presidents and coups d’etat.

Then we have all the TV series which explore these subjects more slowly. House of Cards, Homeland and a series that comes closest to anticipating the Capitol insurrection. In Designated Survivor, which I reviewed under the heading of Blissful Evenings with the AntiTrump a couple of years ago, the sinister forces actually get to blow the building up during a joint session of Congress, decapitating the government and leaving Keifer Sutherland’s mild-mannered Tom Kirkman, a junior cabinet secretary, to pick up the pieces.

Only Kirkman and the saintly Josiah Bartlett in The West Wing offer an antidote to the stream of chaos and subversion.

Which came first, I wonder? The paranoia or the product? Or did the one feed the other to produce a spiral of anxiety? For sure, those movies and series have left their mark on the public conscious. Tweets, videos and speeches since Trump became president could almost be the product of Hollywood script writers, full of warlike phrases that could just as easily have come from the mouth of Gerard Butler in 300, the movie in which the Spartans take on the might of the Persian army at Thermopylae.

Much of the really hairy rhetoric started after 9/11 convinced the current generation of Americans that their nightmares can actually come true. Aided by the internet, conspiracy theories took wing, and the likes of Homeland convinced us that they really are out to get us, whoever “they” might be.

Now Americans, and the rest of us to some extent, are quite prepared to think the unthinkable. Which brings us to the inauguration, and the days leading up to it. We’re told that there will be further actions in the next week, including protests not only in Washington but at every statehouse in the country.

That being the case, if you were conspiracy-minded and believed that Trump’s recent appointees in the Defence Department connived in the slow response to last Wednesday’s pitch invasion, and that active members of the military, police and fire departments took part, you might wonder how Biden can be kept safe as he stands at the podium to take the oath of office.

Those glass screens would no doubt stop a sniper’s bullet. But what if a couple of rogue fighter pilots in F-16s armed with Sidewinder missiles took it upon themselves to blast Biden and the assembled throng to smithereens? What provisions are in place to prevent such an occurrence? Will the Capitol be equipped with surface-to-air missiles? And how can the organisers be sure that the operators will be minded to use them against an incoming threat?

The logical conclusion of such dark thoughts might be that the best way to keep the new president safe would be force Trump to attend, in handcuffs if need be.

Perhaps Jack Ryan is standing by, and Morgan Freeman, the most-battered movie president in history, is standing by to take the reins. But this way lies madness. No doubt the organisers have all the bases covered.

That said, isn’t it remarkable, and symptomatic of the age, that the scenarios played out on-screen should have so colonised the minds of once-rational people that they feel that they’re living in a movie, and in many cases can’t distinguish between fact and fiction?

Once an element of calm is re-established, and America emerges both from Trump madness and the ravages of COVID, it will be interesting to see what the TV and movie producers will come up with next. Themes of healing, peace and love, costume dramas from a kinder world?

I doubt it. I suspect that cabals, Bilderbergs and lizards will continue to scurry across our screens. But we live in hope.

From → Art, Film, Media, Politics, Social, USA

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