Voters cast the entire world in a brutal reality show when they elected Donald Trump. And none of us can change the channel.
The unexpected support of white women and white young men gave Donald Trump the presidency, making The Cabin in the Woods, 2012, a prescient allegory of this weird and terrifying election season. A horror-comedy film that deconstructed all the tropes, The Cabin in the Woods, built a storyline around five college kids who stumble into a supernatural trap designed to lead to their horrible deaths. The stoner, Marty, discovers a hidden camera and moans, “Oh my God. I’m on a reality-TV show.”
By now, the entire world is aware that a Republican-identified reality-show host is now the President-elect of the United States. The full political implications of Trump’s leadership have yet to be parsed, but it’s naive to pretend that television in general–and reality television in particular—hasn’t irrevocably altered the way we understand the terms of everyday life. Reality television now encompasses the business of newsiness, which is no longer the news, for we watched the 4th estate abrogate its journalistic mandate in favor of gossipy innuendo and rage-filled clickbait. What motivated network CEOs to give Trump a “staggering” amount of free coverage, more than double that of Hillary Clinton? Why did journalists treat Trump like a celebrity instead of a presidential candidate? The answer: billions in profits, the direct result of barraging viewers with outrageous antics by a candidate they were incapable of critiquing. And thus the United States became Trumpland, and his campaign the highest rated show on Trump TV.
“You may not love reality shows, but now’s the time to realize you’re living in one. We all are,” Michael Atkinson wrote in Rolling Stone. “We’re the studio audience, an undifferentiated, neutered chorus of off-camera hoorays and boos. We no longer know what it’s like to live in a state of non-entertainment.” It’s 2016, and the presidency has morphed into a representation of a simulation competing for the highest ratings—still quaintly called “votes”—and there is no going back from this new normal. Future elections will be certainly more vulgar and more violent as we call for heads (“Lock her up“) and howl for blood (“kill them all“) as studio executives force game show contestants—formerly called “candidates”—to chop off actual heads. On camera. For ratings.
This may seem the stuff of Black Mirror, the hit show that explores the dark intersection between shiny technology and human moral decay, but it’s also a fairly literal description of the new American reality inside our collective cabin in the woods—the archetypal pastoral setting where bourgeois hipsters flee in order to exercise muscles dedicated to manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. There’s nothing like having your own personal Walden to make you feel superior, and few things are better than being nature to make you feel as if you’re truly alive. But a group of five have been lured to this lovely remote spot in order to die. Why? And why are haggard office guys not only watching them on hidden cameras, but running a dead pool to see who gets hacked to death first?
Eventually, after three of the five are dramatically killed by supernatural creatures and lethal security features, Sigourney Weaver shows up in a prim blue suit, hoping to convince the final two survivors—representing the Virgin and the Fool—to sacrifice themselves in the name of the greater good. It was a bit of inspired casting to have badass grunt Lt. Ripley go corporate management in order to save the world, turning her into a precursor and a surrogate for Hillary Clinton, who did her best to keep bigger monsters at bay even as she was resented for being a stone cold bitch for speaking as the calm, unflappable, and infuriating voice of reason. Through her, however, the virtuous white woman and the stoner idiot finally understand that the entire set-up—from the lure of empty promises to the shameless manipulation—is a pragmatic compromise designed to forestall disasters of apocalyptic proportions.
For everything leading up to their carefully orchestrated sacrifice exists in order to prevent the resurgence of truly unstoppable horrors that threaten to rise once more, should the rituals of appeasement fail. Horrors referred to, in the film, as Ancient Gods. Horrors whose modern names are fascism. Economic collapse. World war.
Defiantly, Marty the Fool and Dana the Virgin retort with all the idealism of untested youth: “Maybe that’s the way it should be. If you gotta kill all my friends to survive, maybe it’s time for a change.” This being the exact phrase used by the white people of Trump Nation to explain their fanboy adulation for the newly elected president of the United States.
The Director replies wearily: “We’re not talking about change. We’re talking about the agonizing death of every human soul on the planet, including you. You can die with them, or you can die for them.”
Then, out of nowhere, she gets killed. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
Bruised and bloodied, The Virgin and The Fool make their choice. It is not the logical one, but there are no more adults in the room. Everyone else is dead. They sit together, friends at last, sharing a final toke. (As it happened, last night saw terrific victories for the nation-wide push to legalize marijuana,)
The Fool: I’m sorry I let you get attacked by a werewolf and then ended the world.
The Virgin: No, I think you were right. It’s time to give someone else a chance.
The Fool: Giant evil gods …
The Virgin: Wish I could have seen it.
The Fool: I know. That would have been a fun weekend.
The foundations of the edifice begin to shake and crumble as an enormous human hand rises from the deep, obliterating our screens, signifying that the fiction has reached out and grabbed the operative framework of the real world. A real world where white women and white men would rather “drain the swamp” and obliterate a global political ecosystem designed to maintain international stability because, you know, it’s “fun” to set the world aflame. Or, in the words of filmmaker Michael Moore, a Trump victory would be the “biggest fuck you” in human history. He’s correct, because can be no history in the era of post-truth.
From now on, there is nothing left of us on TV. The horror of this comedy is that it’s not make-believe. It’s reality.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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