What A Shit-Smeared Italian Art Film Teaches Us About Donald Trump
I want to be clear: this is about a man and his campaign.
There are many reasons, we’re discovering, that Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton last week. We have to admit that many are legitimate, even illuminating.
He found support from disaffected communities reeling from the negative effects of globalism. Their plight needs to be addressed.
He capitalized on anger about a recovery that missed whole areas of the country. That cannot be ignored.
He embodied the role of political outsider and agent of change in a time when many voters do not feel the government is working on their behalf. That distrust is real and palpable.
Ultimately, the voters who created a groundswell that swung the election for Trump were doing so out of genuine concern for their country. We need to respect that and contend with their marginalization.
You see, I want to make those points clear, because this essay is not about the voters that elected Donald Trump. This is about the man, his message and the team he assembled. Because this message was not really about solutions to issues: it was a cannon-blast of threats and loathing. His campaign promised walls, religious tests, discriminatory policing and burning down the Obama legacy.
Well, presidents have to contend with their campaign promises. The elder Bush promised not to increase federal taxes. The younger proposed privatizing Social Security. Barack Obama vowed to close Guantanamo. The relative merits of each man’s tenure aside, America expected certain things from each of them. And each paid a price for failing to deliver.
So, I feel compelled to assess the Donald Trump of 2016. The Trump of violent rallies, unhinged debates and Twitter rants. That Trump won the enthusiastic support of Klansman, 9/11 Truthers and Vladimir Putin. That he also galvanized turnout from a genuine movement does not change the vileness of his campaign.
Really, Donald Trump has no American precedent. You could smash together Jackson, Wallace, Perot and Palin, and you’d still be missing some essential component. As his presidential campaign reached its shocking conclusion, I found myself turning to film to explain him, but it was hard to think of one that presaged the Trump candidacy. A Face in the Crowd or Bob Roberts or Bullworth didn’t seem appropriate. Portrayals of populism focus on charisma, and Donald Trump is only charismatic to a localized segment of the public. His unfavorable rating is unmatched in the history of presidential election polling.
To me, the essence of Trump is visible in a GIF that made the rounds after his seemingly disastrous third debate.
The debate is over, but Donald does not leave his podium. He remains planted to avoid shaking Hillary Clinton’s hand. The GIF captures him viciously tearing pages from his notebook. Then, he abruptly stiffens his back and stares forward with dead eyes. It’s an eerie couple of beats, a fevered transition from defeat to defiance.
This is the shot you always see at the end of the movie when the rich jerk villain has gotten his comeuppance.pic.twitter.com/nh1WRD6AZ2
— Robert Tracinski (@Tracinski) October 20, 2016
I fixated on this GIF more than I’d like to admit. It’s gangsterish, totalitarian, but also unhinged. Then, watching this repeated moment, I flashed on the cultural artifact that might explain Donald Trump: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film, Salò: 120 Days of Sodom.
Salò is in many ways a haunted film. Pasolini, an ardent Communist commentator and all-around iconoclast, was murdered by a male prostitute before it premiered. The murderer now says he was suborned by crypto-Fascist elements eager to be rid of the outspoken director. Salò’s subject matter is fittingly incendiary. Adapted from the Marquis de Sade’s unfinished opus, it concerns four powerful men who enact a weeks-long pageant of debasement and abuse on a group of kidnapped youths. While these libertines were pre-Revolution aristocrats in Sade’s work, Pasolini sets the action in northern Italy at the tail end of World War II.
The Aesthetics of Subjugation
Really, the leap from sadism to fascism is not huge. Sade’s contention was that a truly free man must seize pleasure by any necessary steps. This could mean orgies, buggering an unwilling partner, even committing murder. It’s an open question whether this was meant as satire, or the genuine beliefs of an emotionally unbalanced, entitled prick.
In Salò, the fascist aesthetic has two components. First, achieving extreme pleasure through personal will. One of the first assertions of the film is that “all is good when done in excess.” The film’s powerful men are not satyrs. Rather, they consider themselves connoisseurs of depravity. They spend the first passage of the film critiquing their abductees: measuring appendages, looking for crooked teeth. Their victims must be, well, perfect 10s. They hire prostitutes to hold salons on sexual perversion and “fuckers” to perform sexual violence on the victims.
The second component of Pasolini’s fascist libertinage is the commoditization of humanity, which brings me to my first horrifying realization about Donald Trump.
I’m a progressive, but I share an American capitalist worldview with my conservative friends. Namely, we commonly believe that this is a nation of opportunity and that most of its citizens want to succeed. Of course, the right and left disagree about how to aid this success, but most of us agree with the basic assertion.
In May, I realized that Trump does not agree. This became apparent during what now seems like a comparatively tame indiscretion of his campaign: the friction with Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the presiding judge in the class-action case against Trump University. Donald insisted he couldn’t be impartial because – though a naturalized American citizen – the judge’s forbears are Mexican. This Indiana-raised judge, evidently, comes from an un-American culture.
Something is warped about Trump’s conception of people: not just Curiel, but also the Khan family, Alicia Machado, refugees. The constitution of these people doesn’t matter. In his eyes, a darker skin tone, different religion, or heavier build makes someone not fully human. It reflects a vision of the world where some people have interior lives, and others are just meat to be served or cast aside.
This isn’t armchair psychology. I don’t claim to know what’s in Donald Trump’s mind. Similarly, I cannot claim to categorically understand why Pasolini made a film as engrossing and repellent as Salò. I know only what I can see and hear. And I see a man without empathy for huge swaths of humanity.
Beautifully Rendered Horror
We must address Salò’s painterly beauty. Pasolini had a classicist’s eye, like Peter Greenaway or Carl Dreyer. His compositions have the symmetry of a Renaissance scene. His interplay of light and shadow is stark and lovely. The actors deliver Sadean dialogue like poetry, underscored by Ennio Morricone’s alternately peppy and languid arrangements. Such elegance places Salò’s horror in sharp relief.
The libertines are not virile masters. They are severe, impish, dumpy, ferret-like and bland. They tromp around in drab suits, chins tipped haughtily upward.
Conversely, their victims are young and lovely. Truly, no director can portray youthful sexuality like Pasolini. Check out his Decameron, a treatise to desire: for life, for art, for each other. He lovingly photographs these nubile bodies to a more subversive end in Salò. The camera lingers, but it does not leer. It is exploitative, but this exploitation is a step removed. The trappings are beautiful but also visibly rotten. The audience experiences no prurient joy, not even bloodlust.
Now, let’s apply this beauty/rot dynamic to Donald Trump’s brand. We are meant to believe that he is a tastemaker, an impresario. Yet his properties all look like a casino cashier’s station, and his personal charm is that of a talkative cab driver. Still, he managed to market himself as a brand. That requires skill. Also, it required us not to think about context, to disregard his racist newspaper ads, his slumlord tactics, his giddy belittling of others. If we ignored those characteristics, we could laugh at his other harmless excesses.
The 2016 campaign brought his racism, misogyny, and cruelty to the fore. But as Trump won primaries, the veneer of his bile changed. We, the American people, gave him the grandest arena in the world. The Republican Party handed him a convention and just under half of the electorate. Trump commandeered a debate stage and harangued a flawed-but-qualified former Secretary of State. He blathered and whined and threatened his opponent. Last week, he took to a podium and announced that she had conceded.
When Salò premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1977, the organizers described it as an “agonized scream of total despair.” I emitted something like that at 2:30 am after Clinton conceded. Trump’s ascendancy was like the forced wedding in Salò. There’s an attempt at ceremony, but then it devolves immediately into molestation (including a fair amount of the grabbing Trump and Billy Bush laughed about).
Masking Cruelty as Ideology
“We Fascists are the only true anarchists,” opines the Duke, as the four men huddle to discuss theses. To them, subjugation is a philosophical pursuit. What does the search for perfect pleasure require? It begins in more predictable ways: groping, screwing, sodomy. As they delve deeper into their manias, the tactics become farther removed from normative sexuality. But even as we leave the Circle of Manias and enter the Circle of Shit, these men couch their vileness in philosophy. Of course, they can’t always recall if they are quoting Baudelaire, Nietzsche or Saint Paul.
As previously noted, Trump’s quest for the presidency was driven by appetite as well. He wasn’t an ideologue, a career public servant, or a wonk. He was raw id, hungry for accolades, encouragement and spoils. Salò illustrates that authoritarian thinkers can feign method, but they invariably revert to blows and bodily fluids. So, time and again, Trump had to refashion his latest gnashing mania as semi-coherent policy.
Well, now he’ll be forced to acknowledge that no amount of retrofitted white papers can validate mass-deportation or a massive border wall. Trump realizes already that repealing Obamacare on day one is not viable. It turns out a pissed-off threat can’t be magically transformed into a platform.
As we enter the second half of Salò, the scenes begin to resemble a Hieronymus Bosch triptych. Standard awfulness gives way to bizarre awfulness. Victims eat nails. The libertines hold a competition to identify the finest pair of buttocks and promise the winner swift death. There is, notoriously, a banquet of feces.
As the torments become more unpredictable, Pasolini turns his attention to the tormented. The libertine’s manor is a space of perpetual fear, and such settings rarely foster bravery. Unsurprisingly, the victims turn on each other. They ingratiate themselves to their captors. They succumb to despair.
The only heroic act of Salò is undertaken by Ezio, a guard, who is caught having an affair with a black servant. He raises his fist in resistance before being summarily executed. It is a futile gesture. His fate is the same as everyone else’s. In moments of historical calamity, there is no right way to act.
The 2016 campaign was this kind of calamity. Initially, the candidates were going to debate the Obama legacy and inequality, but it became about one man’s contempt for everyone: refugees, veterans, Gold Star families, and sexual assault victims (among others). Consequently, many ostensibly serious conservatives needed to contend with the Trump storm. With a few notable exceptions, they folded. They endorsed him, then panicked as he did one unacceptable thing after another. Consider the squishy Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz, who walked back his support after the “pussy grab” tape emerged. Actually, he made a show of denouncing Trump, invoking the dignity of his own daughter. Then, he reversed course in time for election day.
Well, maybe they’ll all receive rewards for their acquiescence. I mean, Chris Christie didn’t, but others might. Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, Jerry Falwell Jr. – they brokered what dignity they had for proximity to the Oval Office. All told, they will still have to eat a lot of shit.
Salò ends as it must: with death, the only natural endpoint of total control married to total appetite. In these final passages, Pasolini captures both the dread and absurdity of the Circle of Blood. The last ten minutes of Salò are unlike anything I’ve ever seen on film. It’s part Hostel, part Cries and Whispers, and just a bit of Peter Sellers. The closing shot leaves me shivering, wondering what direction Pasolini’s work would have taken, had his life not ended so abruptly.
So, what will the Trump endgame be? We’re a week removed from his victory, and the talk is conciliatory. After his victory, our president elect quieted down. His staff even tried to scrub some next-level xenophobia from his website.
It would be a shame if, in our natural desire for unity, we forgot how this man conducted himself. The results are numerable. Race-based hate crimes are up. Children of color are experiencing harassment. The “alt-right,” that cute moniker for American white nationalists and modern-day fascists, has proudly emerged from the dark shadows of the internet. Their main cheerleader will be his chief strategist, for Christ’s sake.
Yes, we’re in uncharted territory.
Am I suggesting that his presidency will end with ceremonial torture and executions? Well, that would be deeply paranoid thinking, a pastime I’ll cede to his cohorts at Infowars and Stormfront. Based upon his campaign promises, I suspect people will be hurt. Rosie O’Donnell, probably. Certainly, any reporter that investigated him. The women he probably assaulted. Syrians fleeing a civil war he seems not to understand. Anyone with a foreign-sounding name.
In Salò, Pasolini warned of a far-right impulse to exploit humanity – the young, the poor, the marginalized – for capitalistic ends. It presaged the grotesque rise of Silvio Berlusconi, who in many ways was Italy’s Donald Trump. That orgy-loving media magnate was fond of historic revisionism when it came to Italy’s Fascist tendencies. I have little doubt Trump will casually wave away any questions about his white-robed, Star-of-David posting, Twitter egg army.
So, we must remember how his campaign made us feel: disgusted, impotent, enraged. If he wants us to forgive, he’ll need to take this job seriously and work his fucking ass off.
However, if you find yourself shrugging off Donald Trump’s reprehensible antics as showmanship, I suggest you sit down and watch Salò. It will disgust and sadden you. It shows the naked glee of hungry authoritarians. The bitter nausea Salò inspires is the correct reaction to Trump.
Watch the trailer for Salò below (NSFW):