I finally understand why people used to say television rots your brain. It’s because it does!
As President “My Brain Is Good, Actually” Trump ably demonstrates, it’s possible to watch so much filmed media that one loses the ability to distinguish between a camera-ready reality and the other one, the one we inhabit when we’re not staring (or glaring) at a screen. As citizens of a nominal democracy, if President Brainworms believes something it necessarily affects us, whether it’s real or simply a specter conjured by the demons who run cable news; and because Mr. “Actually, My Wife Doesn’t Hate Every Single Second She Spends In My Miserable Presence” can’t parse reality, or even read, it seems this has been the year we’ve collectively lost our ability to, just, like, can, even.
That’s why I picked this year to spend time on something I’d never really spent time on before: I picked up a remote and, goddamnit, I tried to consume movies and television. Results were mixed. While I now understand approximately 30% more of what people talk about, I really do feel like I’ve entered the sunken place. It’s not because film/TV is intrinsically bad, or anything—just that things there are so neatly organized that it’s numbing, like a good narcotic. Sometimes, like when I’m watching “Twin Peaks,” it’s hard to come up for air. To look at the push notifications—no, I don’t know why I keep them on either, although I guess I always wanted a front-row seat to the apocalypse—and return to a place (mental, emotional) where it’s not possible to see where this all leads, or how it ends.
On this side of reality, narrative never wraps up neatly. It eventually becomes what we call History, and all of those storylines are applied posthumously. There’s no moral! And if you doubt that, ask yourself: How does President “Just Let Me Fuck The Bomb, Come On Guys, Just This Once” fit in, and what’s he meant to teach us? Right now he appears to be fully committed to bringing about the end of the world, either because he’s a Terminal Narcissist—by which I mean he can’t conceptualize dying, and so he’s hell-bent on taking the rest of us with him—or because he legitimately cannot understand how or why the things he does are connected to the world at large unless it’s in the form of a headline or chyron. We—and by that I do mean us, the writers and pundits and talking heads who have used Extraordinarily Large Boss Baby to grow our audiences, whether personal or organizational—kinda let this one happen. We whiffed. It doesn’t matter that Wet-Brain-In-Chief is a legitimate news story; I know we were just trying to do our jobs, and that we really did hope, in our heart of hearts, that he’d turn out to be just another ~normal~ president. But it doesn’t look like we’re going to have much of anything for much longer because we seem to be perilously close to the end of civilization.
I mean, did you see that headline from the consortium of climate scientists who calculated we’ve already unleashed a mass extinction event—otherwise known as an event that will kill most life on this planet—the 6th in 540 million years? Bet you didn’t. That paper was signed by 15,372 scientists, who absolutely know what they’re talking about. This is it, guys. The big one. And that’s if Humanity’s Largest Adult Son doesn’t go ahead and bring about the Nuclear End Times, because the powers of his office grant him unilateral authority over how our species dies.
I know it doesn’t seem too urgent, not yet. People are just trying to get through each day without losing too much of their dignity in the process. But that doesn’t absolve the poor, confused, enraged, economically anxious, racist masses—and by that I mean the entire country, the whole sorry, mixed-up lot of us—from our responsibility to protect the rest of humankind. In a cool, fucked up way, that makes us the protagonists of this chapter of the entire history of man.
Didn’t you always want to be a hero? Now’s your time, baby. This very second.
There’s this book that every screenwriter reads, by this brilliant writer who’s mercifully dead already, called Save The Cat. Have you read it? If not, you should. Pretty much every American narrative film in existence follows the same rules—screenwriters call it the narrative monomyth. It is the set of rules that say exactly when your protagonist should be humbled (but not destroyed), when they should take up the challenge that’s in front of them (after refusing it once), when they should find a mentor (in their darkest moments) who can guide them through their overcoming, and into their inevitably brilliant destiny. This book outlines that process in an easy-to-read, accessible, and above all useful way. It works every time. All the media we consume follows this formula, or intentionally deviates from it in a way that reveals its presence in absentia.
Here is the problem: Reality doesn’t work like that. People don’t work like that. That unpredictability is what’s beautiful about humans, what makes us different from the rest of life on this planet. (That, and metacognition.) But our tendency to see life as a story often obscures things that are right under our noses; or if not obscure, that propensity to narrative minimizes things in a way that’s undeniably harmful.
It’s easy to see every hardship as a temporary obstacle, things that we can eventually overcome with enough drive, effort, and élan. That’s why Steinbeck described America as a nation of temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and not as a land where the rich hate the poor and that hate is codified into both law and policy. And now, 2017, is the new Gilded Age. If you’re not winning, if you’re not a winner—and listen, be honest with yourself, you’d know if you were; you wouldn’t feel that niggling in your gut, or that microsecond of self-doubt when you read the first part of this sentence—then you are destined to lose. That’s the American Dream. Winners win, and you can tell they deserve it because they’re winning. It is a fun, and easy parallel to Calvinism. Are you in the elect or nah? If you don’t know then you better act like you are, else you’re outta here. Conform or perish, kid.
Anyway. Donald Trump is the ugly, evil fruit of our big narrative blindspot. We can’t recognize him as the enemy of humanity because we’ve been enraptured by the story he tells about himself. The self-made man who started with only a million dollars in his bank account and a rich father; the guy who isn’t racist but wants to ban every muslim and immigrant from this country; the guy who doesn’t hate black people but never misses an opportunity to disparage them, or turn them into a #fun #uncle #tom like Ben “I Speak Slow As Fuck So You Can’t Understand My Meaning, ‘Cause I’m Just Here For The Ca$h, Baby” Carson; the 71-year-old grandfather to a fundamentally rotten family who never learned that actions have consequences—because, for him, they don’t. They never have.
This isn’t an argument for nihilism, although that’s been the American idiom for as long as there’s been an America. Consequences won’t ever mean anything to President Fuck unless we do something. What I really mean is that we have to change the way this country operates, and to do that we have to wake up to the reality that’s staring us in the face, They Live-style: Things are not fine in this country. And it doesn’t have to be this way—it never did, in fact, but we accepted it because that’s what the people who have money and power say, and it has brought us seconds from eternal midnight. This is easy rhetoric but there’s no easy solution to America’s Problem, which is something that goes further back than the founding of this country.
The Problem: The fundamental, ingrained belief that some people are worth more than others. Every recent Republican act has said this by what and who it prioritizes; you can’t negotiate with most conservatives (and neoliberals) because their arguments reduce to the same fact—that some deserve to live, while others do not. There is no way past that. It’s not an obstacle any protagonist can overcome. My suggestion is to stop negotiating. Negotiating means meeting in the middle, operating on their terms / psychic turf, and that is already a surrender to the fucked-up belief that people are intrinsically unequal. This goes as much for politicians as it does for dorm-room debaters.
To make America equitable would be a truly radical project, because I believe the founding fathers themselves didn’t want that for the country they created. (Hello, slavery!) I am not saying it would be a utopia. I don’t think utopias can exist. But it would be a hell of a lot better than the broken, rusting, hellish system we’ve got.
Let me explain. The latest entry into the time travel canon is Hulu’s “Future Man,” which is about a guy who beats a video game and in doing so becomes the person who can save humanity from a mind-meltingly bad future dystopia; he’s obviously not up to the task, not at first, because this is TV and we have to obey the monomyth. Through a series of dick jokes and hijinks with his beautiful costars, this guy becomes The Guy Who Can Save Humanity. It’s a pretty good show. It’s escapist. Easy to digest. It is a small joy, in these trying times, to watch a show that is fundamentally about the value of consequences.
My gripe with “Future Man” is deeper, with the genre itself. Time travel says that actions in the present have ripple effects we can’t predict in the future. But why don’t we ever see anything that runs in the opposite direction—that says, hey, here’s a small good I did, I wonder what it’ll mean in a century?
There is a lot of work to do. Vote. Call your representatives, sure. But what’s more important is replacing the people who don’t serve us, the unwashed masses. That person could be you—yes, you. Even if you don’t see yourself as a political figure, there is a leading role you’ve been cast for, literally for the good of humanity. Donald Trump is an existential threat to mankind and to all life on Earth, which is currently the only planet we’ve got. There is no predicting the end because there’s no predicting reality.
What I want you to remember is this: In every story we tell about ourselves about extinction-level events, we always try—no matter what the odds are. We get up and we get to work. Our purpose is clear, and we are calm and wise and cool and collected. There is one enemy; we’re locked on. And if we go down we do it together, in glory, for the sake of every single person who’s ever lived.
FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.