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The Manchurian President

A classic Hollywood political thriller may tell us more about what's happening in America than any history book.

The Manchurian President

Frank Sinatra as Bennett Marco, Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw (center), and Khigh Dhiegh as Dr. Yen Lo in a scene from the 1962 suspense drama The Manchurian Candidate. (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

As the Trump presidency unravels, unraveling the country along with it, there is no real political antecedent, no lessons from American history on which to draw and provide guidance. We are in entirely uncharted waters.

But there is an antecedent in our popular culture that provides a prism through which to view the contemporary calamity, especially the alleged collusion between Trump’s henchmen and Russian intelligence to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency. I am not the first observer who has noted the relevance of the movie The Manchurian Candidate. But the relevance is more than skin or celluloid deep. It goes to the very heart of this bizarre and frightening political moment.

First, the fact that this implausibly plotted Hollywood thriller could now be applied, not altogether implausibly, to a sitting American president demonstrates just how far off the rails this country has gone. Outlandish plots suddenly seem credible, and not just to conspiracy theorists.

It isn’t just the possibility that we had a Manchurian candidate for the presidency. It is the possibility that we now have a Manchurian president, a Manchurian Congress and a Manchurian government.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, the film demonstrates not only how much our narrative bearings have been lost but also our political and moral bearings, and how an admittedly paranoid movie may actually be insufficiently paranoid when it comes to our new reality. It isn’t just the possibility that we had a Manchurian candidate for the presidency. It is the possibility that we now have a Manchurian president, a Manchurian Congress and a Manchurian government.

The 1962 movie, directed by John Frankenheimer and written by George Axelrod based on Richard Condon’s best-selling political potboiler, stars Frank Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco, an army intelligence officer posted with a platoon that withstands a fierce firefight during the Korean War. The platoon leader, Sgt. Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey, returns to the States and to a Congressional Medal of Honor awarded for his valor in saving all but two of his men.

It just so happens that Shaw is the son of a politically ambitious Lady Macbeth (Angela Lansbury) and the stepson of an opportunistic, alcohol-addled Joe McCarthy clone named John Iselin (James Gregory), a US senator who is angling for the presidency and for whom Raymond’s medal is a boon.

But something is amiss. Marco and the other survivors of the firefight are wracked by terrifying nightmares in which Raymond kills the two soldiers who had supposedly died in battle. Marco is determined to find out why.

A poster for John Frankenheimer's 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)

A poster for John Frankenheimer’s 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)

It turns out that the platoon had not fended off the communist attack. They had been captured, brainwashed by a Chinese-Russian cabal and then released so that Raymond, who is now both a war hero and a programmed assassin, can assist the Russians in getting their man into the American presidency without anyone the wiser. Their man is Johnny Iselin.

In assessing how this old movie speaks to the current moment, let’s begin with the surrealism. Implausible as the movie may seem, the behavior of Trump as candidate and now as president is even more improbable. In the movie, the Russians and their American helpers must, of course, act surreptitiously. After all, the United States isn’t going to let a communist stooge into the White House.

In fact, the conspirators also know they must act as fevered anti-communists — the Red Scare and McCarthyism being the Trojan Horses they can use to smuggle their way into control of the country. (A movie with a clearly liberal bent, it shows liberals as the true defenders of American democracy and the true enemies of the communists.)

This seems dated, right? When the film was remade by Jonathan Demme in 2004 with Denzel Washington in Sinatra’s role, the villains weren’t Russians, but corporate oligarchs. But as we now know from our own real-life version, the Russians are still villainous, and may not have required a complicated plot with a brainwashed assassin to undo American democracy. They just needed political hacks to collude with them to sabotage the Hillary Clinton campaign in what is arguably the biggest political scandal of our lifetime. Then, whether as payback for their help or just out of his affinity for bullies, Trump openly declared, and continues to declare, his admiration for Putin and his eagerness to work with him.

Imagine that in an American film: a candidate’s staff cooperates with Russian intelligence to sabotage his opponent, and then, once he’s president, openly embraces and even celebrates Russian adventurism and violence in what can only be a quid pro quo.

Trump frequently has said that Putin’s dictatorial style is real leadership and compared President Obama unfavorably to him. He has said that while Putin might be a killer, that hardly deserves moral opprobrium since America has done its share of killing. And, in the sincerest form of flattery, he has even taken to imitating Putin’s manipulation of the media.

Again, this is in plain sight, no sleight-of-hand or subterfuge necessary, as if Russian repression and its autocratic, anti-democratic behavior were just a small difference of opinion between two allies. Now imagine that in an American film: a candidate’s staff cooperates with Russian intelligence to sabotage his opponent, and then, once he’s president, openly embraces and even celebrates Russian adventurism and violence in what can only be a quid pro quo. Then, for good measure, throw in the assistance of the FBI to lacerate your opponent while covering up news of your Russian contacts. You wouldn’t have believed it for a second. And yet, here we are.

I called it surreal, but it is beyond surreal. It out-Hollywoods Hollywood.

There’s second way in which the film refracts American politics, by how so much of the conservative political establishment has instantly reversed course without so much as batting an eye. The modern Republican Party was built largely on professions of reckless anti-communism. Though there were courageous moderate Republicans like Sen. Ralph Flanders (R-VT), who led the attack on McCarthy, McCarthyism was one of the primary engines by which Republicans undermined Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy and won public approval by conflating liberalism with America’s enemies. This conflation is deep in Republican bones, so much so that when Raymond’s spiderish mother says that a liberal senator stands on the side of “evil,” she might be speaking for the last two generations of Republicans.

Although over the last decades it often has been difficult to discern whether Republicans were more opposed to liberalism than authoritarianism, in the last few months they have clearly recalibrated to make it clear that they are. The movie seems to have anticipated this. In The Manchurian Candidate, it isn’t really communism and its undemocratic values that the conservatives abhor. It is democratic values they don’t seem to like very much. (Raymond’s mother promises that when her husband becomes president, there will be Draconian measures that will make “martial law seem like anarchy,” which is something you can, unfortunately, imagine Trump doing in response to a terrorist attack he seems intent on provoking.)

They want power, and they don’t seem too choosy as to how they get it. As the film’s liberal senator snarls to Raymond’s mother about her husband, “There are people who think of Johnny as a clown and a buffoon, but I do not… I think if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he’s doing now.” Sadly, that, too, sounds relevant today.

The spectacle of the Republican Party standing idly by while its candidate consorts with our Russian enemies and then, as president, kowtows before them is hypocrisy and worse. Just imagine what they would have said if Obama had kissed Putin’s ring. It makes you wonder whether the attraction of authoritarianism to authoritarianism, of Republicanism to Putinism, is so powerful that democracy cannot possibly withstand it. Granted, few ever accuse the modern Republican Party of having principles. But its silence in the face of Russian intrigue makes you wonder whether the GOP welcomes the Russian dust-up as a useful distraction from its own efforts to dismantle the welfare state and undermine a more robust democracy. Not too many people would have even considered that possibility before Trump, but now? The Manchurian Candidate almost seems like prophecy.

In the film, the candidate doesn’t become president, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a groundswell to get him there. It presumes a political establishment that Iselin must penetrate to ascend, beginning with his scheming his way into the vice presidential nomination. That is why the Russians must program Raymond to kill the presidential nominee and bring Iselin to the top of the ticket, though the scare in the film is that if Raymond, coming to his senses, didn’t finally swerve the rifle from the nominee to his own stepfather, the United States would be a Russian puppet state.

This is hardly a reassuring view of politics, though this is, after all, just a movie. And yet, gloomy as the film is, it is optimistic compared to our current situation. In America today, there is no political establishment to oppose Trump, only feckless Democrats. The Republicans, aside from a few voices like John McCain’s and Lindsey Graham’s, seem in lockstep with his Russia love, their historical anti-communism notwithstanding.

That means ordinary Republicans too. Trump may appeal to only 35 percent of Americans, but those 35 percent are the rank-and-file of the Republican Party, which now has a monopoly on government. And they don’t seem to be terribly lathered by Trump’s Russia love either. In fact, polls show Republicans’ views of Russia more closely resemble those of Russians themselves than of their fellow Americans.

Something has gone so terribly wrong in America that The Manchurian Candidate seems more like a docudrama than an absurd thriller. An American government possibly controlled by a Russian puppet, a major political party turning a blind eye to what may be treasonous conduct, an FBI that cooperated by refusing to sound the alarm and the majority of the American people helpless to do anything about it. That’s not Hollywood anymore, that’s Washington.

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.