We love to imagine the end of America: California sliding into the Pacific in flames; New York quiet, desolate, and disordered after some unspeakable horror; tornados barreling through the plains; tsunamis engulfing coastlines; that white hot silent moment when a nuke ignites and the terrible screaming wind that follows.
It’s a particularly American trait. We may not have invented the dystopian genre—that credit belongs with the Fathers of Science Fiction: Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.—but we certainly have spent many years perfecting it. In every era, we imagine how the problem which pre-occupies the present may engulf the entire future: Fahrenheit 451 (1953) imagined a future defined by censorship; Planet of the Apes (1968) imagined a future after nuclear war; Soylent Green (1973) imagined a future defined by overpopulation; Bladerunner (1982) imagined a future defined by corporate overreach; The Matrix (1998) imagined a future defined by media misinformation; Idiocracy (2006) imagined a future defined by mass stupidity and cultural decline.
In the 2010s, dystopian themes shifted from a minor note to a major one. We can blame the slow recovery from the Great Recession and tumultuous election of Donald Trump for that. Early 2010s dystopia fare pick up on the oligarchic themes of Occupy Wall Street: The Purge (2013) and Hunger Games (2014) most prominently. While The Handmaid’s Tale (2017—) becomes a distillation of all fears Trump: Christian nationalism, misogyny, racism, migration, and of course: civil war.
In an age of reality TV politics, The Handmaid’s Tale proved perfect fodder, providing iconic cosplay looks for protests or Kylie Jenner birthday parties. Media in the 2020s—as in the 2010s—will likely maintain this ouroboros effect. Media that ignites the imagination and gives narrative structure to messaging wins the day. Though I don’t know that we should expect reality TV and social media to always be the origin point for these aesthetics.
Watch this video:
Two things strike me about this video:
The aesthetics feel ripped from a Christopher Nolan movie:
Is this the political equivalent to the Louis Vuitton Fall 2021 Mens show filmed in The Dark Knight (2008) bat cave? The scoring has a knock-off Hans Zimmer vibe adding anxiety to the death trap desert scenery. This is a repudiation of the Trumpian Fourth of July on steroids carnival barker vibe that most recently overtook the GOP.
The messaging is subtle—not garish:
There are two big takeaways here: quality of life is declining in the United States and Big Tech is not only accelerating this trend, but acting as a censorious despot that prevents common people from speaking up. The Wall makes a cameo. Its role is implicit, aesthetic—it protects. It’s rather a departure from its first appearance in the American psyche after The Golden Escalator incident. Which of course got Donald Trump fired from NBC’s The Apprentice in 2015 and transformed his campaign from gonzo publicity stunt to actual campaign. See: Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018).
Doing some further digging after watching the video go mini-viral on Twitter—it scored ~500K views on Masters 20K follower account—I realized Masters is President of the Thiel Foundation and Principal at Thiel Capital. He also co-authored Zero to One (2014)—a book highly influential in tech and the business community more broadly—with Peter Thiel himself, the billionaire VC who famously spoke at Donald Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention.
What’s most interesting to me about this video is that despite Masters pro-Trump stance, Trump is nowhere to be found. He’s marking out a future for an embattled GOP that draws more from Christopher Nolan’s aesthetic of decline and ambient threat. As in Nolan’s recent climate change inflected dystopian thriller, Tenet (2020), Master’s claims the future will not hold our present in high regard. Unless things change, they will blame us for their misfortune.
THE END OF THE GERONTOCRACY?
I’ve been wondering for a while what the GOP will look like post-Trump. While many are predicting a Trumpian dead-end, I’m skeptical. I will concede Trump still dominates in GOP polls. (See: the CPAC straw poll.) And I have seen the data on the recent decline in Republican party affiliation. Taken together Trump’s loss in the 2020 Election, many see these data points as indicators that the end is nigh.
But is this a return to the wishful thinking of Ruy Teixeira’s prediction in The Emerging Democratic Majority (2004)? Teixeira and his co-author John B. Judis proposed demographic shifts, primarily a growing minority and college-educated share of the electorate, would ensure a durable Democratic coalition that could progressively govern the United States. The media hype around the much cited book often left out one prong this overly optimistic forecast—the white working class. The waffling defection of non-college whites to the GOP explains both the rise of Trump—and his defeat to Biden. (I should note for those interested: Teixeira remains cautiously optimistic.)
And yet the 2020 Election was not the Blue Wave the Democrats wanted. In fact, the Democrats as a party, underperformed relative to Joe Biden. This leaves me wondering, is it the Republican party the American people were tired of—or was it just Donald Trump?
During the Trump years, I embarked on three American Safaris for various clients. They question was always: Why did Donald Trump happen? What the fuck is going on out there? Dutifully, we would go to places like Dallas, Charlotte, Miami, and Cincinatti to report back on what evil had leached into the groundwater of the hinterland. Predictably (outside a few incidents) no such evil was found.
Most Americans—Trump-voting and Hillary-voting alike—had broadly similar complaints. Housing costs were too high. Wages didn’t grow fast enough. Healthcare was a god-awful mess. Student loans meant delaying adulthood and family formation. You met normie Bernie Sanders supporters who did not at all fit the blue-haired Brooklyn socialist mold. Like the sharp brunette from Fort Worth who posited the dystopian visions that accompanied Donald Trump’s election were the mirror image of how conservatives responded to the election of Obama.
If you never leave Twitter, you don’t expect a perky Texas cheerleader to claim if Bernie had won, they would have voted for him over Trump. And yet, there I was in a cozy ranch-style home in the Dallas suburbs being told that was precisely the case.
My big takeaway from the experiences was twofold:
Americans overestimate the influence of the culture war:
Culture war theatrics appeal to the media-addicted and affluent. If you have a good job and savings and feel secure enough in you economic position to embark on big ticket American Dream ambitions—namely, home-ownership and having kids—then you can indulge in the Twitter drama. But remember only one in five Americans use Twitter. And of those users, 10% of users create 80% of the content. Twitter is influential—but it isn’t representative. When cable news and the media more broadly use it as a heuristic for “what people are talking about” we should take those segments and articles with a grain of salt.
American elites really are alienated from everyday people:
Part of the reason American Safaris became such a thing was that corporate marketers really don’t have time to do much beyond work. The dual drivers of hypercompetition and career as identity means many people whose job it is to ostensibly understand people spend all day with their colleagues in meetings, on Zooms, in Slack, replying to email, and sometimes reading decks. I remember hearing a story from a colleague about how one brand paid five figures to be taken on a field trip to Williamsburg by an agency. I burst out laughing, Williamsburg was a 15 minute train ride from their office. And yet a month of planning was dedicated to the excursion. This, in and of itself, just isn’t how everyday Americans live.
Returning to Blake Masters: what I find interesting about his aesthetic approach is that he understands the American Dream was manufactured by Hollywood. It’s fundamentally a cinematic idea: implicit on a bright horizon. As my friend Keaton Ventura pointed out in his essay ”Post-Christopher Nolan” a few years ago:
Whether or not a franchise is ending, it has become most marketable to hype each installment as a dark, grand finale to amplify the urgency.
Blake Masters is marketing his 2022 Senate run similarly. From a home decorated in the preferred Millennial minimalist style Kyle Chayka once dubbed Air Space, Masters lays out the bread and butter issues powering economic resentment across the United States.
It’s not so much a manifesto, as a trailer for the American Dream: Return from Oligarchy…
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