Strangelove and Stranger Fiction

A new vehicle crashed into the multi-car pileup that is Donald Trump’s campaign this week. A reporter asked Trump whether he’d ever consider a nuclear strike on North Korea, assuming they possessed nuclear weapons themselves. Trump declared that he would and defended the potential loss of American life, “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”

In fact, Trump didn’t say that. General “Buck” Turgidson, a character in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, did. Deranged General Jack Ripper orders a nuclear strike on Russia and General Turgidson is called into the President’s War Room to strategize on how to stop the bombing. In the end, they’re able to stop many of the bombers, but one slips through and releases its payload, triggering a doomsday machine.

Given his track record, it’s not so hard to imagine Trump using those words. A President Trump might act like a blend of Ripper and Turgidson; creating problems then desperately attempting to minimize the damage. The film came to mind while watching the third Presidential debate. Trump raised the issue of nuclear proliferation, comparing our nuclear arsenal to Russia’s. 

Hillary Clinton, unwilling to stand by and let Dr. Strangelove 2 be produced, responded to his mention of the warheads, “This is a person who has been very cavalier, even casual about the use of nuclear weapons.” It’s true. Trump has said a lot of scary things about nuclear warfare. At least he hasn’t tried to estimate casualties.

Luckily, he is very unlikely to be President. Polls show Hillary well ahead. There won’t be an international crisis that will require Donald Trump to decide whether to press a proverbial red button. Ultimately, as I thought about Dr. Strangelove, the connections to Trump moved past nuclear policy. The movie is funny because none of the characters realize that they’re in a comedy.

To them, tragedy is imminent. Time ticks on and they inch closer and closer to annihilation. Their frenzy becomes the audience’s farce. And as is often said, comedy equals tragedy plus time. Even during the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick was able to insert nuclear warfare into that equation and produce humor.

Trump seems intently keen on playing the tragic Macbeth. He lives in a world where disaster looms. America has been losing and who knows what will happen if we don’t do something to shake it all up. He casts a wretched picture. Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are dangerous, women are numerically rated, election are rigged, journalists collude, foreign governments take advantage of our mistakes, political opponents should be jailed, and sexual assaults are normalized.

There is no reality he can’t construct, no lie he can’t legitimize, and no fear he can’t monger. His campaign has become his supporters’ favorite film because it’s real to them and speaks to their concerns, fears, and hopes. They laugh with him, not at him, unlike those of us who don’t subscribe to his vision.

Sometimes it appears like Trump actually knows he’s in a comedy. Moments of levity have popped up here and there in this campaign. At the final debate, while Hillary recited things that Trump has claimed are “rigged” against him, he interjected that his television show The Apprentice didn’t win an Emmy, but “should’ve gotten it.” The audience laughed. I laughed.

But as Clinton pointed out immediately after, “This is a mindset. This is how Donald thinks, and it’s funny, but it’s also really troubling.” Trump broke the fourth wall, deflected from the fact that he wouldn’t agree to accept the results of the election, and distracted me enough to temporarily disregard the distressing preposterousness of that position.

His disarming, deceptive charm came out again at the Al Smith Memorial dinner, an annual New York fundraiser at which Presidential candidates roast each other. Historically, they have been tame. That’s at least how Trump started off. He was calm and his jokes subtly mocked Hillary in a slow, wistful tone. She laughed, I laughed, and the crowd was enjoying it.

He even seemed on the verge of offering a rueful declaration that his campaign had been a long-winded joke and that it was finally time to ease up and laugh about the whole thing. But then, after a gross joke about Hillary being corrupt, he plunged back into the reality he has created and attacked her with assurance and abundant antipathy. The movie was back on and Trump was again on the outside of the joke.

Trump’s time is running out. The legitimacy of his vision will take a huge hit on Nov. 8.  He won’t obtain any political power and he won’t consume the world in nuclear war. But Trump’s side of the joke will still go on. This is what really scares me. On Nov. 9, even without political authority, he will still wield tremendous cultural power.

Trump might try to discount the results. He might inadvertently or deliberately incite riots, and for the coming years, he will be critic-in-chief, coloring the reality of his supporters who will still look to him to interpret the forces that affect their lives. For Trump and his followers, the movie goes on, regardless of whether their world exists or not.

Lucas Carmel PO '19 is studying politics and history. He also does improv and works with the Rooftop Garden Project.

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