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Crash of the Pop-Culture Party

This election was stranger than fiction, but don’t look to Frodo

Imagine that you’re reeling from the devastating loss of a presidential candidate you supported. Perhaps you’re also dealing with a chronic illness, worried about losing your (price-gouging, impossible-to-navigate) Obama-provisioned health insurance, and up to your eyeballs in debt. You’re drowning in anxiety and grasping for some way to represent your situation, some historical analogy or useful comparison. You might think, “Wow, this is just like when Frodo was stabbed by a cave troll in the movie The Fellowship of the Ring and everyone stared in shock, but then they went crazy with anger and killed the troll together. And Frodo was saved by his mithril armor, which clearly symbolizes the prophylactic power of a well-regulated insurance market.”

If this isn’t how you think, if the great fantasia of geekdom isn’t the prism through which you view life and politics, then you may be missing out on the sort of post-election soul-searching in which many liberals are currently indulging. Throughout the web’s social media feeds and content farms, shell-shocked voters have turned to the shiny emblems of pop culture for anesthetizing succor. “Maybe Obama getting elected was Star Wars,” the comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted. “Trump is Empire Strikes Back. Get behind Booker or Warren—they’re our Jedi in 2020.” The writer and game designer Jane McGonigal was first to respond, excited by this proposed trilogy: “THANK YOU for looking this far ahead. This is exactly what we need to be doing. Thank you.”

Corporate-branded fantasy entertainment is not a model for political thinking.

It’s more than the occasional Twitter personality popping off about how “winter is coming.” The retreat into juvenilia is epidemic. Dumbledore’s Army is now recruiting, reports BuzzFeed. The Hunger Games is “our most relevant dystopia,” a YA model for the coming horrors, explains Vox. The election is The Walking Dead, says Mashable. No, it’s like The Purge—because of voter ID laws or racist violence or something.

While this turn to the many cherished worlds of fiction may well be helping people work though their bewilderment, it reveals not imagination but a dismal lack thereof. By refusing to engage with the world as it is, by seeing in every political disaster an opportunity to indulge in escapism and dime-store nostalgia, pop-culture liberals overlook the very real horrors already looming for swaths of the population, including those who have never seen Doctor Who. It is its own kind of filter bubble, a self-contained world of soothing bedtime stories.

Like so many others, I’ve gorged on corporate-branded fantasy entertainment most of my life. I have strong feelings about Battlestar Galactica and 30 Rock and am embarrassingly familiar with the Starcraft universe. But these are not models for political thinking, nor are they any kind of map for the present crisis. By their very design, blockbuster fictions excite cultural anxieties only to soothe them, leaving consumers spent and satisfied. We’ve been told in recent years that movies such as Captain America: Civil War are rehabilitating our pop culture, unleashing its “subversive” and even “revolutionary” potential. Instead, pop culture has succeeded in watering down our definitions of those words.

To hear some pundits insist, with perfect seriousness, that it was important for Taylor Swift to speak out on Hillary Clinton’s behalf ahead of the election was to realize how celebritized our virtue-signaling politics has become. When disappointed liberals quote The Hunger Games in the coming weeks, they will only be redoubling the slick and foolish liberal embrace of Hollywood and pop culture that was so fully on display during Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign. Think of HRC mugging on SNL, dazzling the stars of Broad City, or palling around with Lin Manuel Miranda. Lena Dunham and Katy Perry no doubt have illuminating political opinions, but those opinions are the wrong vehicle through which to reach voters in Wisconsin, who have concerns that rate higher than snagging tickets to Hamilton—something Clinton likely would have noticed had she, say, spent any meaningful time in the state.

When disappointed liberals quote The Hunger Games, they redouble the foolish liberal embrace of pop culture that was on display during Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign.

As Freddie de Boer and others have argued, these pleas for celebrity attention seem to reflect a liberal desire to see their politics validated, even given a halo of glamor, by fellow elites. Clinton’s pithy tweets and Jay-Z concert appearances appeal to the already converted while offering nothing to the millions of American workers wondering if, just maybe, the woman who gives secret $250,000 speeches to bankers lacks a common touch. But for those for whom pop culture icons matter—even as they preach a squishy social liberalism while saying almost nothing about American imperialism, climate change, or income equality—these familiar references are as powerful as a Trump dog whistle is to a Stormfront reader. They signal an inclusiveness and recognition that, like Patton Oswalt’s Star Wars analogy, manages to be politically useless but personally uplifting.

One of the features that makes Peter Thiel and other Silicon Valley titans so disturbing is that their political thinking seems to be derived mostly from the entertainment of their childhoods. Palantir, Thiel’s billion-dollar surveillance-and-analytics startup, is named for the “seeing stones” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, and the influence pervades the firm, which names its offices and conference rooms after locations in Middle Earth. Elon Musk, who has said that education should be like a videogame, dismisses climate change as a problem that we can escape by fleeing on his rockets to Mars. The tech industry thrives on a moonshot sensibility, preaching fantastical change while voting, as San Francisco recently did, to take tents away from homeless people who can’t afford to live in their small utopia. Limitless imagination is practiced alongside a quotidian pettiness.

Now Thiel has successfully backed a politician who, despite launching a hostile takeover of the pop-culture-averse GOP, is himself a celebrity. From first to last, Donald Trump is a media creation, a product of this surface-deep entertainment culture. Like Hillary Clinton and her numerous celebrity endorsers, he is obscenely rich—an entrenched, if deeply reviled, member of an economic elite who, in the American myth-making tradition, has somehow recast himself as a populist. Until a couple years ago, he and Clinton were friends. And with the election safely over, our elites will join ranks against us once again, even as they call limply for us all to come together. You need only look at a post-election interview with Oprah, who said she thought Donald Trump had been “humbled” by his victory, to learn that it will be the rich and famous who will do the most to legitimize his presidency. Trump is, after all, one of them.

Standing in for a shared sense of history, cult films and the YA books of our childhoods offer a comfortable sounding board for liberals as they process an election outcome that seems to them unreal. But as we move forward, these entertainments will not be able to give us what’s so lacking in the here and now: a sense of an ending.