We have not lately – not until Trump’s election – seen or heard the dog whistle politics of racism, sexism, Nativism, and homophobia so eagerly thrust aside by a Presidential candidate and, with such glee: traded for openly racist invective, division, misogyny, nativism, and more…
It is no accident, as the historians love to say, that this past television season, the breakout show was Stranger Things, which I watched and loved, along with many of you, I am sure. Stranger Things is a romp through 80’s nostalgia, from Steven Spielberg’s E.T. to Alien and more.
Aspects of the 80’s for which I myself am less nostalgic were also peddled by the show – in particular the Reaganist antipathy to government, as such. Reagan was famous for his witticisms, which he kept on index cards in his desk, piles of them. One of his most famous lines was this: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” This sentiment, also a piece of 80’s nostalgia, is central to the show, Stranger Things.
In the show, the bad guys are from the government and their “help” is a nightmare. The local sheriff, by contrast, is a flawed hero whose intelligence and courage will save the day, more or less. Himself presumably on the public payroll, he does not code “government” because he is local. Government means Washington in 1980’s Reaganism. It is notably only for white communities that the local sheriff is the better representative of justice by contrast with the federal government. Noticeably there are very few minorities in Stranger Things.
Stranger Things is importantly prescient in this moment, our moment, because it explores the distinction, newly permeable, between what is out in the open, and the secretly subterranean crap that underwrites it and lies beneath it.
In Stranger Things, the world we know and love is underwritten by a place called “the upside down” – in which what is normally unseen – the repugnant –is regnant. In the Upside Down, a yucky carnivorous gelatinous monster feasts on people and impregnates them with its own progeny. What is that yucky gelatinous stuff? It could be anything; or many things …
Racism? Sexism? Homophobia? What opens the door to it? What lets it in? In the show, the monster gains access to the normal world by dint of the rogue and irresponsible science of government technocrats whose ambition knows no bounds and who do not hesitate to engage in torture to get what they want. And then of course they get more than what they want. Things go awry, as Mary Shelley could have told them they would.
The gelatinous monster lives down below the earth on which we walk, lurking there, normally unseen and unsuspected. But the divide between our world and the monster’s is breached, and the gelatinous monster breaks in, grabbing people, eating and impregnating them. This keeps happening because of technocrats who think they know what they are doing and, confident they are right, are arrogant in their use of power and surveillance, willing even to torture to achieve their aims. They use a water tank that references water boarding. The screams of the child whose telekinetic powers they want to harness will not be easily forgotten by those who watch the show.
These people – scientists, technocrats, lawless, self-proclaimed knowing representatives of the public’s good – let’s call them for a moment the Democratic Party – open the door to forces that are unspeakable and are normally more contained. Because of their actions, the gross evils of the world can now get in. As the Observer reported on Nov 10, 2016: the Clinton campaign decided early on that “it was in the best interest of Clinton, and therefore the Democratic Party, that Trump was the Republican presidential nominee. Polls indicated Sen. Rubio, Gov. Kasich, or almost any other establishment Republican would likely beat Clinton in a general election. Even Cruz, who is reviled by most Republicans, would still maintain the ability to rally the Republican Party—especially its wealthy donors—around his candidacy. Clinton and Democrats expected the FBI investigation into her private email server would serve as a major obstacle to Clinton’s candidacy, and the public’s familiarity with her scandals and flip-flopping political record put her at a disadvantage against a newcomer. Donald Trump solved these problems.”
But, in fairness, the villains of Stranger Things, the people – scientists, technocrats, lawless, and self-proclaimed knowing representatives of the public’s good who open the door to forces that are unspeakable and are normally more contained – could also be called the Republican Party: the government scientists are clearly interested in awakening, fostering and then nurturing and maintaining the terrible forces of the Upside Down (think: Tea Party). The government agents clearly think there is here a powerful weapon they can leash to their politics. They clearly hope to control and instrumentalize it, just as they believe they can control and instrumentalize a girl, named 11, whose telekinetic powers prove forceful enough finally to break through.
In other words, the Upside Down and our regular world are finally connected through the unwitting agency of an innocent child whose body is taken by others as a vehicle for their own projects; what the government agents do, then, is not that different from how the monster makes some people’s bodies into the vehicles of its own wants and desires. Forced impregnation codes Republican (pro-life). The liberty-abrogating enlistment of some for the purposes of others? That codes Democratic, from a Republican perspective. Call it taxation.
How then do we code the young girl’s rage at the takeover of her body and her life by others for purposes that are not her own? It is her explosive rage (think Carrie), that punctures the firewall between our world and the Upside Down. Perhaps this is anarchy or populism, raw, emotional REFUSAL.
Thus the argument for federal oversight on human rights, voting rights, redistribution, social welfare, environmental protection, has no language, no traction, no reality in the world of Stranger Things – which I now recognize as an even guiltier pleasure than I thought it was while I was watching it. Others will tell the story of how the US media – which made MILLIONS of dollars on this election, what a windfall – made Trump possible: the free airtime, the legitimating coverage (“they are both flawed”…), and so on.
But, it is notable that print media was better, sometimes MASSIVELY better. The Washington Post in particular wrote expose after expose. But in the world of the Upside Down all that matters are the appetites, not facts. There is no traction for truth in that gelatinous world.
Which brings me to what happens after the breach, in our world, what we are seeing now: The media cannot legitimate this Presidency quickly enough. It is as if, if we were living in the world of Stranger Things, the media have decided the monster is not THAT gelatinous, and people are having its babies, so we may not like it, but he is the President-elect, after all, and he deserves a certain deference.
The material result of that deference could be seen in People Magazine, whose own reporter was groped by the man they quickly moved to coronate: “starting the morning of November 9, the first morning Trump became the President-elect, [there was] a definitive shift: People began to cover Trump and his family in a noticeably more positive light. Their first tweeted-out story cheekily exclaimed “He’s hired!,” a reference to Trump’s “you’re fired” Apprentice catchphrase.… and then the magazine featured pictures of his family, noted the fashion savvy of his wife, and speculated about whether he would turn the White House to gold with his new decorating plans (watch out subcontractors …. better get big up front deposits for that job). No mention was made of what happened to Midas.
On the same day, that very evening, thousands, tens of thousands of people, hit the streets in cities across the country, protesting the election of this man and rejecting everything he has stood for, has legitimated, and will now mainstream. The front page of the New York Times reported on all this, but – like People magazine – the New York Times made a choice. It covered the protests, but put the protest stories below the fold. Above the fold was their lead story: about Trump and his victory.
This division is not what democracy looks like. But it is what the US looks like, always hasty to sweep things under the proverbial rug and get on with legitimate business, or the business of legitimation. So, as citizens, we will all have a choice to make going forward: Do we allow ourselves to be absorbed in to the gelatinous normalization of a Trump presidency? Or do we hold on to our moral compasses? Notably, in Stranger Things, compasses go haywire near the openings to the Upside Down. Do we find ways to give the truth some traction? How do we hold on to our outrage and give it purpose?
For starters, we have to turn the NYTIMES Upside Down. Read below the fold, not above. Reverse their priorities. To do this, you need to nurture your moral compass. Hold on to what you KNOW. Don’t be talked out of what you heard in the Access Hollywood tape and do not forget what you saw at the rallies. You know what you know.
We also have to volunteer to work for organizations that will be under pressure, not only for the do-gooding (though, why not?) but also and even more importantly for the membership. Victims taken to the Upside Down by the ravenous gelatinous monster are – so far in the show – always alone, caught in solitude. Action in concert is the only protection against the gelatinous monster.
“The world turned upside down” is the refrain of a song from Hamilton, the words are said to come from a British drinking song of the time. English soldiers, processing the end of Empire, use the phrase that connotes revolution and, for them, loss. The phrase is sung mournfully by the English in the show, while those – like Hamilton – who are working for the American Revolution rap it out by it’s name.
We are now in the Upside Down. And it is up to us what to make of it. I note that the kidnapped boy in Stranger Things, is a little bit gay, cast as a Mama’s boy, a darling child, who is – of course – bullied at school. He is finally (SPOILER ALERT) rescued by his mother and the sheriff. They risk everything to go to the Upside Down and kidnap him back. He is almost dead when they get to him. He has managed to survive, barely to survive, alone with all his fears, by doing what needed doing. He found his way to a little clubhouse, a kind of holding environment, and he hung on. His mother and the sheriff get to him in time. Barely. And then they go home. They repair the breach that allowed the monster to get in. Will we have a happy ending?
It won’t surprise many of us that, as he returns to health, the boy coughs up what seems to be a residue of the Upside Down, some sort of gelatinous thing, that washes down the drain. Within him, it seems, occupying his body, is the stuff against which he was trying to defend himself, and to which we are all vulnerable. The young boy – innocent and fey – is a Trojan Horse. What are we?
Written in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, this piece is reposted from the Contemporary Condition. Photos with the help of Jairus Victor Grove