In Hollywood action movies the good guy always wins, and America always wins. How they win varies; why they win is seldom questioned: they are, therefore they win. For the past year, Donald Trump has been running a campaign for president on the same principles: Donald Trump always wins, therefore he will win the election; when he wins, America will start “winning again”, to quote one of his favourite refrains – because he always wins. How did we get here? There may be a clue in a 1997 New Yorker profile by Mark Singer, with a scene aboard Trump’s jet:
We hadn’t been airborne long when Trump decided to watch a movie [. . .] an old favourite, a Jean Claude Van Damme slugfest called Bloodsport, which he pronounced “an incredible, fantastic movie”. By assigning to his son the task of fast-forwarding through all the plot exposition – Trump’s goal being “to get this two-hour movie down to forty-five minutes” – he eliminated any lulls between the nose hammering, kidney tenderising and shin whacking.
For Singer, this was just another piece of evidence towards his main conclusion, which was that Donald Trump has no soul. But Trump’s taste in films and his way of watching them seem to reflect the attitude to the world and to historical cause and effect that is now so boldly manifested in his campaign for president. The details of how he would actually win the election, and of how he would get America “winning again” after that, have always been elided or blurrily incoherent. His mind simply fast-forwards beyond them to get to that final victory scene, which can then just be watched over and over again.
We can speculate endlessly as to the psychological implications of a decade of starring as oneself on reality TV, or of a lifetime of employing “truthful hyperbole” (aka being economical with the truth) as a business practice – or of simply watching the highlights of too many action movies. Whatever the cause, an important ontological border does seem to have eroded in Trump’s mind.
“My favourite was Harrison Ford on the plane,” Trump told the New York Times in December last year. He was referring to Air Force One (1997), the film he has apparently placed at the conceptual centre of his campaign. “I love Harrison Ford – and not just because he rents my properties. He stood up for America,” Trump said. Note the extreme muddling together here of reality, fantasy and, of course, real estate.
In the light of Singer’s vignette, it’s pretty obvious what took place: Trump repeatedly watched Air Force One aboard his own plane. That is, while Trump was watching President Harrison Ford fight off terrorists aboard a state-of-the-art private jumbo jet, Trump was himself sitting aboard a state-of-the-art private jumbo jet – a powerfully immersive experience.
Now the theme music from Air Force One is Trump’s theme music: it plays through loudspeakers when his jets and helicopters taxi him into the hangars where he holds his biggest rallies, and even accompanied his entrance on stage when he accepted the Republican nomination. America has had action-movie heroes step down out of the screen and into politics before; Trump, for some reason, is trying to head in the other direction – up, into the screen.
It may not be widely remembered – and an orange finger pressing on a solid gold remote control will have long ago swept it from Trump’s mind – but Air Force One begins with President Harrison Ford delivering a major foreign policy address. It is, of course, radically more eloquent and substantive than any of Trump’s own speeches:
[In Russian] “The dead remember our indifference; the dead remember our silence.” [In English] “. . . Real peace is not just the absence of conflict, it’s the presence of justice. Tonight I come to you with a pledge to change America’s policy: never again will I allow our political self-interest to deter us from doing what we know to be morally right.”
Compare the landmark national security speech Trump delivered on 15 August:
“I have long said that we should have kept the oil, in Iraq. I said it over, and over, and over again – another area where my judgement has been proven correct – I just said it so many times, virtually every time I was interviewed: keep the oil, keep the oil. [. . .] I said: ‘Keep the oil! Keep the oil! Keep the oil! Don’t let somebody else get it!’”
How to account for this discrepancy? Maybe it’s just that the movies have evolved since Air Force One. The mutation in this type of film was logical enough: there just would no longer be any plot exposition that needed to be fast-forwarded. And there certainly wouldn’t be any foreign policy speeches.
The contemporary update of Air Force One is a pair of abominable films called Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and London Has Fallen (2016). In these, the president is a blondie (Aaron Eckhart’s hair is probably what Trump thinks his own contraption looks like), the world’s non-US-citizen population is made up mostly of highly trained terrorists, and the entire burden of the office of president of the United States has been distilled to the following twin tasks: 1) to assiduously meet the demands of global-stage pageantry, while 2) avoiding getting murdered. Gone is even a token sense of policy and/or the president’s hand in it – it’s the presidency as nothing more than the militarised logistics of its own symbolism.
Maybe this is what Donald Trump has been watching these days, as he cruises and circles through America’s skies. The New York Times Magazine reports that during the search for his running mate, one of his sons, Donald Trump, Jr – spared, it seems, from remote-control duty – approached a leading adviser to the governor of Ohio, John Kasich. He informed Kasich’s adviser that the vice-president’s portfolio would include full control of both foreign and domestic policy. When the latter asked what, then, President Trump would be in charge of, the son was able to answer, simply: “Making America great again.”
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war