Pleasantville: The Promise of Trump’s America

Photograph by Malin James

Photograph by Malin James

I wrote the original draft of this post a few months ago. Suffice it to say, a lot’s changed since then. One of the ugliest presidential elections in history is finally over and, after months of contention, the results were pretty hard to swallow.

It’s not that Hillary Clinton lost—she’s a complicated figure and the reasons for her defeat are equally complicated. What disturbs me is that Donald Trump, an openly racist misogynist who never held public office, handed people a fantasy wrapped in violence, and enough people swallowed it to win him the election.

Many of the people who voted for Trump would not consider themselves to be racist, xenophobic or misogynistic – a lot of them voted for Trump “despite” certain issues, but that “despite” is still a problem. What happened last Tuesday can best be described as a reaction to a package deal. Sure, Trump’s (freaking chaotic) platform included a ton of racist and misogynistic rhetoric aimed at women, Muslims, Latinos, queers, trans people and pretty much everyone who isn’t cis, white and male, but he tied all that hate up in a promise to Make America Great Again, and that promise resonated with a lot of people.

Make America Great Again. It’s standard political rhetoric – a phrase that sells a vague ideal, one a candidate can define flexibly so supporters attach based on their own personal contexts. In this case, Make America Great Again harkens back to the conservative golden age of post-WWII America. This period in U.S. history has taken on a nostalgic sheen, one in which the economy thrived, people had jobs and everything was safe. And white. And run by men. In essence, Trump promised his constituents Pleasantville, and that promise was enough to outweigh the racism and hate he wrapped it up in.

For those of you born in the 21st century, Pleasantville is a Toby Maguire movie from 1998. The citizens of a fictional town called Pleasantville live in squeaky clean, 1950’s black and white world until social and sexual revelations turn everything technicolor. It’s a clever send up of the nostalgia we have for a past that was, under the glossy surface, repressive, judgmental and deeply homogenized.

Trump evoked this nostalgia with his bonkers, often illegal promises to Make America Great Again. The wall he’s going to build along the Mexican border? That’s a promise to keep foreigners out of Pleasantville. Threats of deportation? Same. His plans for a “Muslim registry”? Yeah. That too. Every bit of xenophobic bile is a brick in the foundation of that promise, and that’s not even counting his treatment of women.

Here’s what disturbs me. People wanted the Pleasantville he was selling enough to overlook the violence, misogyny and human rights violations that would inevitably come with it. Whether or not his voters liked the whole packaged is irrelevant at this point. They didn’t mind the ugly enough not to vote for that nostalgic, deeply traditional throwback to a “safer” time, despite how literally un-safe it makes half the population.

That’s the thing about Pleasantville. It’s a lovely, seemingly safe place – seemingly safe because the safety it promises is contextual at best and a lie at worst. It’s a place full of social masks and people passing for “normal” in a traditionally straight, sexually conservative, patriarchal society. It’s a safe place to be if you’re vanilla, straight and white, and it’s the promise Trump ran on. It’s the promise he won on. Which means, it’s the thing we have to be careful of in the next four years.

Sex, race, gender and sexuality. These issues have always been political and, as exhausting as it is, this is normal. This is good. This is the opposite of homogeneity. As long as our bodies remain deeply contested political entities, it means they remain deeply contested political ground rather than territory conquered in the name of an imaginary past.

Trump and his rhetoric—both the hate speech that appealed to the Klan and other marginalized whites, as well as that promise of a newly “great” America—would normalize the homogeneity that we, as women, immigrants, minorities, queers, trans people, liberals, allies and anyone else who fails to toe the line, defy by existing out in the open and without apology. Now, more than ever, we are the body politic, and that means we need to engage, and stay engaged, long past when the disgust, disillusionment and anger wear off. The socially safe America Trump promised doesn’t exist. It never has, and the promise of it shouldn’t be normalized as an unfortunate side effect of a disappointing election.

Human beings can only live with stress for so long before we grow numb to the stressor. It’s seen most often in cases of domestic abuse, a comparison I do not make lightly. Trump’s own lawyers testified that he gaslights them so routinely they have to meet with him in pairs. With Trump’s newly vetted influence, people will eventually get used to the idea of his presidency. It will normalize as an exhausted populace digs in to wait him out. And that’s the real danger now. What he proposes is not normal and, while I know his supporters feel otherwise, the values he’s espouses in conjunction with his vision of a “great” new America cannot be normalized, not without a lot of people paying a very high price.

I’m not saying this to scare people. People are scared enough. I’m saying it because there are still things we can do to keep moving forward, rather than sinking openly and gleefully into black and white.

  1. Donate to charities and institutions aimed at helping people under direct threat. Whether it’s time or money, they’re going to need all the support they can get. The ACLU, the Trevor Project, Planned Parenthood and the NAACP are good places to start, but there are lots  of others too.
  1. Subscribe to reliable news outlets – the New York Times, the Washington Post and Bloomberg News are about as reliable as it gets, but there are a bunch of others too. And if you like your news in audio form, check out NPR. Wherever you get it, vet your news so you know what’s actually going on. Read things you disagree with. It’s the only way you can reliably decide what to believe.
  1. Most importantly, support each other. Have useful discussions. Advocate for equal treatment under the law. If you see someone struggling, help them. Community is one way to set a foundation for changing things between now and 2020.

Some of us will slip under the radar because we’re white or middle class -because we can “pass”. A lot of people don’t have that luxury. If nothing else, it’s become obvious that there is a deep longing for the illusion of safety in the promise of Pleasantville, an illusion that people voted for, regardless of the cost to others. Whether you wave your freak flag loud and proud, or quietly support a charity while protecting your job or family, please try to stay engaged as much as you can. Educate yourself. It’s going to take a lot of of well-informed fuck off‘s to the lure of Pleasantville to get though the next four years.

10 Comments

  1. Thanks for a very thoughtful essay, Malin. Many, many people are feeling confused and hurt. Sadly, there are also many who really have no idea what they have unleashed on the world. I am not a vindictive person, so I really hope that the latter don’t find out the hard way what they have done.

  2. I just keep thinking about the fact that Hillary won the popular vote by over a million votes and that in any other democratic country, that would mean she won the election. Pleasantville seems a good analogy for what Drumpf has promised the US – but there’s no going back to that time (thankfully). There’s a long, hard fight coming up, and you’re right – we all need to really be IN it.

    • Thanks, Jo. It’s not the kind of post I was hoping to write after the election. Bottom line is you’re right. We do have a fight coming. Nothing for it but to dig in and meet it.

  3. Very well said, Malin. And much appreciated. You (and many others, friends, family, and strangers who are reaching out) are strengthening my resolve. And the practical actions to undertake during this time, and that to come, are excellent. We will NOT be pushed back! (and thanks)

    • Thanks, Michael. I’m glad it resonated. Took me ages to wrap my head around my feelings enough to have any cogent thoughts at all. I think it’s really encouraging that so many people are rallying and ready to push back.

  4. Well done! The election was surprising for the reasons you outlined. “How could this happen?” is what I said for days. I think people didn’t care about his behavior, voted within party lines, wanted someone outside the political arena, and quite frankly – didn’t vote at all. If someone wanted to vote for him they were sure to do so; if they were disenchanted with the process and didn’t like either candidate – they didn’t vote. This helped his cause a great deal I believe.

    I absolutely love your presentation of what to do next. Instead of complaining and mud slinging we need to do what you suggested (support causes, support each other, stay informed). “Reading things you disagree with.” Not many people understand the importance of this. Hopefully the potential changes that may incur the next four years will educate all of us to respect the election process and maybe, just maybe, if there is some pain and suffering it will make us stronger in the future.

  5. Thanks for this, Malin. It feels like social justice in the U.S. had been progressing from J to K (with Z being nirvana) and since Nov. 8th, we’ve been set back to C striving for D. Even though we’ve had 20 days to process the news I’m still feeling somewhat paralyzed. I’ve worked on my non-erotic writing, but am completely numb when I try to create anything sexual. I’m so filled with hatred and fear. It helps knowing there are intelligent, sensitive, energetic people like you in the world. Thank you.

    • Thank you for that Melina. For what it’s worth, I’m struggling with writing on sex and sexuality in much the same way right now and have likewise been working on my non-erotic work. We are living through a bizarre step back socially and that’s a really unsettling thing. My biggest hope is that we’re able to keep nudging forward as best we can. Even if we only get from C to D, if we can keep from backsliding further, it’ll be something, and at a time like this, something is better than nothing.

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