Democracy & Government

Trash, Art and Politics: What Pauline Kael Taught Us About Trump

Trump has taken the psychological underpinnings of pop culture and applied them to politics.

What Pauline Kael Taught Us About Trump

President Donald Trump gestures to the crowd of supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center as he takes the stage during a rally on Aug. 22, 2017. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

Be careful what you wish for, goes the adage. Progressives would desperately like to see Donald Trump impeached or, failing that, defeated in 2020. The first, I think, is highly unlikely, both because Republicans would be loath to impeach him and then face the wrath of his devoted followers, and because if ever there were a case for plausible deniability, Trump is it.

As for 2020, Trump’s detractors seem far too optimistic about his faltering electoral prospects, as if defeat is a foregone conclusion. I wouldn’t bet on it.

This is no crafty Machiavellian we’re talking about. This is an incurious fool, someone probably too dumb to collude with the Russians on his own. As for 2020, Trump’s detractors seem far too optimistic about his faltering electoral prospects, as if defeat is a foregone conclusion. I wouldn’t bet on it.

But let’s say that Trump is impeached. Or he runs and loses. Good, right? Except that I suspect the consequences of either could be even more disastrous than the Trump presidency itself. Trump isn’t going to go quietly. Neither will his Republican base. We already can envision the charges of a coup d’etat (former White House strategist Steve Bannon talks as if it’s happening now) and howls that the establishment took the people’s president away from them. New York Times columnist Charles Blow even hinted at the possibility of an armed insurrection.

I wouldn’t go quite that far, but a political insurrection that would completely realign our parties and revise our polity is certainly a possibility, with Trump commandeering the GOP into an alt-right cult of personality. Trump promised to upend the American applecart. He could probably do so better from outside the government than within it. He could turn all of America into Charlottesville.

And here’s why. We hear that while Republicans are demographically homogeneous — white, old, middle- and upper-class — they are motivationally diverse: social conservatives, religious conservatives, non-tax and no-government conservatives, hawkish conservatives, libertarian conservatives. The idea is that they are a somewhat loose confederation of naysayers. But this analysis misses a very deep, underlying cohesion that may be the real glue binding conservatives and the now populist Trumpistas who have joined them: they all harbor a sense of umbrage against so-called American elites, including the Republican leadership. They feel as if some malign cluster of forces has conspired to control their culture, as if the world is twisting away from them. And they want it back.

This may be the real basis of the Trump movement — the anger against social control — subsuming, as it does, an antagonism to anything and everything that seems to promote a “right” way of thinking and behaving. This animus extends from scientific evidence of human contributions to climate change, to Obamacare and the Dream Act, to taking down Confederate memorials, to the mainstream media, to political correctness and to basic civility.

It isn’t each of these things that rankles. It’s the authority with which they are supported or promulgated — basically, the source — that vague “them” out there. Or put another way, Trump’s movement is personal. The Trumpistas don’t like being told what is good for them, and they will resist it, even when it is good for them and for America. It may also be why so many Sanders supporters, according to a recent survey, defected to Trump. They hate officialdom, too.

One of the most astute and prescient analyses of Trump and his warped populist revolution is not a political piece at all, nor is it contemporary. It’s an essay by the late film critic Pauline Kael titled “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” published in Harper’s, and although the piece is ostensibly apolitical, it was written early in 1969, not long after the election of President Richard Nixon.

What Kael understood is that the American predilection for trash wasn’t a failing of taste so much as it was a deliberate resistance to it. We hate whatever you like.

Kael, brilliant, widely read and knowledgeable, was an intellectual, but she detested the idea of received wisdom, especially when it came to art. When Kael became a film critic in the 1950s, the movies were divided between alleged high art — mainly foreign films and didactic American social issue movies — and trash, mainly the movies that Hollywood churned out and Americans saw and often loved because they were unpretentious and demanded nothing.

For Kael, “trash” was anything but pejorative. She held brief for these low-born pictures. She loved their sense of liberation, their off-handedness, their happy artlessness. But she also loved the fact that they were everything “official” America, the America of good taste, despised. As she put it in the essay:

“[A]udiences who have been forced to wade through the thick middle-class padding of more expensively made movies to get to the action enjoy the nose-thumbing at ‘good taste…’ It’s a breather, a vacation from proper behavior and good taste and required responses.”

Elsewhere in the essay she writes:

“Perhaps the single most intense pleasure of movie-going is this non-aesthetic one of escaping from the responsibilities of having the proper responses required of us in our official (school) culture… Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of art.”

What Kael understood is that the American predilection for trash wasn’t a failing of taste so much as it was a deliberate resistance to it. We hate whatever you like. She knew that deep in the American psyche and soul was an implacable contrarianism — a desire to tear down the structures the elites had erected. She knew that early on, America, with its deep antipathy toward a disdainful Europe, was cleaved between us (meaning ordinary folk) and them (meaning the rich, powerful, educated). It still is.

Anything that has any sort of respectability and official imprimatur is automatically opposed by Trump and by his followers.

I write often about the convergence of pop culture and politics. But this may be the most significant: the way in which Trump has taken the psychological underpinnings of pop culture and applied them to politics. Trump is to politics what trash is to movies. He is the contrarian-in-chief — our own irresponsible leader who has made irresponsibility part of the pleasure of politics, at least for his supporters. Science, expertise, experience, education, the media, traditional values, even war heroes and the Pope — anything that has any sort of respectability and official imprimatur — is automatically opposed by him and by his followers.

Trump lives and governs in defiance of everything we had ever been taught to honor. He even made a point of staring at the sun during the eclipse seemingly because no one was supposed to do that. His proud ignorance, his repudiation of every moral principle, his corruption and greed, his disdain for political wisdom or any wisdom — these are his ways of tapping into that contrarian vein Kael identified. There is a rabid hunger among a segment of Americans to rebel against the official. For most of our history, it had been starved. Trump feeds it.

Of course, it is one thing for people to rebel against cultural commissars and prefer trashy movies to high-blown ones, and quite another for them to rebel against the very institutions of government, not to mention the very idea of reason. In popular culture, the rebellion was an outlet — a way to express grievance and to assert a kind of cultural power. In politics, the consequences of trash are larger and far more ominous.

Trump may not have been the first politician to run against the elites; Andrew Jackson has that distinction. But he was the first who vilified the entire government structure, indeed the entire culture, as the product of elites, and the first who swore that he would trash the country. He didn’t run to change America the way politicians ordinarily do. He said he was running to destroy the very scaffolding of American society and disempower its architects. Art and trash, Pauline Kael knew, could coexist, even merge. But professional government and amateur government cannot. No matter. To Trump, and to his supporters, authority is the enemy. Chaos is the cure.

And that is why a Trump defeat may be so terrifying and why he has this country over a barrel: We are damned if he wins and damned if he doesn’t. Having finally found someone who will voice their rage at the so-called know-it-alls, his supporters, who are already predisposed to believe that nearly everything is an elitist conspiracy, would doubtless view any attempt to depose him as an elitist assault on their newly won power. And they would do so with his full encouragement.

You can just imagine how Trump would treat impeachment. It would be “us versus them.” You can also imagine how he would treat an electoral defeat. In fact, we already know. He couldn’t possibly lose. It would have to have been rigged by those elites. And you can only imagine the fury he would unleash among his supporters.

Al Gore was praised for conceding the 2000 presidential election because that’s what we do to keep America intact. When you are not held to any standard, when you live to violate standards, when your supporters expect you to take down the system, concession is not what you do. Rebellion is.

Trump took the low-grade virus of anti-elitism and so enlarged the definition of elites that he made the virus an epidemic while simultaneously delegitimizing the antidote. So be careful what you wish for. Trump in office is at least Trump mildly constrained. Trump out of office? That could be a rampaging disease that endangers democracy.

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, TIME magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.