Do you smell that? It’s societal napalm, son. And boy does Donald Trump seem to love the smell of it in the morning (or any other time of the day). When President Trump dropped the travel ban via executive order, it exploded like a firebomb across our nation and the world.
There may be a number of movies that seem to fit our current national drama -- the intrigue of “All the President’s Men” and the straight-faced wackadoodle of “Dr. Strangelove” come to mind. But it is the themes of megalomaniacal isolation and diffusive volatility that make the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now” so fitting for the Trump administration.
Trump is the high-achieving, now far-gone Colonel Kurtz, ascended to power and singing an isolationist Siren Song that draws much of the country into its own political and social heart of darkness. Since his inauguration, when before a microphone, Trump routinely intones in the same creepy-calm Kurtzian cadence delivered by Marlon Brando in the movie. Like Kurtz, Trump is given to writing, rising in the predawn morning to Tweet something inane and combustive. Though he, himself, praises his insights with absolute certainty of their pure genius.
Also like Kurtz, Trump is surrounded by a tribe of frenetic, fact-fearing minions who insist that the confusion and disarray that everyone can see is a thing of our own making. They address obvious problems with spuriously genuine excuses that ultimately amount to an even more dismissive twist on a common dismissive saying, “Hey, it isn’t what it is.”
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These toadies -- Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, et al -- can all be compiled into the character of the Kurtz-worshipping photojournalist played by Dennis Hopper. Hopper’s character displayed an unquestioning loyalty and a singular focus on protecting the madman at the top of the hill.
And if the natives get restless, if they appear ready to mount a collective resistance then, as the Dennis Hopper character suggested in the movie, “Just zap ‘em with your siren, man. Just zap ‘em with your siren.“ The siren here being the high-pitched wail of “fake news” and “mainstream media bias.”
The film “Apocalypse Now” is based on Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness.” In the book, the protagonist, Marlow, is sent upriver to bring the gone-amok Kurtz back from the place of madness which he had made for, and of, himself. The film and the book are predominately occupied with the long arduous journey upriver toward Kurtz. And so it is with us.
We are all in the same boat. The scary thing is, we are only now at the mouth of a clearly untamed and foreboding river, hoping to dodge disaster, hoping that procedural, constitutional and electoral protections will shield us along the journey. What awaits at the head of this river is not Kurtz; instead it is the 2020 election. And from all indications, it’s going to be a slow dark ride between here and there.
No, we are not traveling toward Kurtz. Unlike the movie or the book, our vainglorious Kurtz is not ensconced in some far away fiefdom, exacting his madness on an oppressed few.
No, our Kurtz is not far away. He is right here with us. Right now. The horror. The horror.
The writer lives in Myrtle Beach.