David Lynch, one of our great film and TV auteurs, a poet of the American grotesque who reveals the demons dancing underneath our feet, said something sort of nice regarding Donald Trump. The internet responded with a collective scream that put Laura Palmer’s to shame.
Noting he was “undecided” on Trump’s administration, Lynch told the Guardian that 45 “could go down as one of the greatest presidents in history because he has disrupted the thing so much. No one is able to counter this guy in an intelligent way. […] Our so-called leaders can’t take the country forward, can’t get anything done. Like children, they are. Trump has shown all this.”
Without reaching the level of an endorsement, Lynch marked the distance between an ongoing national crisis and the white, wealthier intellectuals whose routines are largely unaffected by it. To find the silver lining in Trumpian collapse, you must first have the privilege of indifference.
And so, quite by accident, this famous weirdo spoke to the appeal Trump holds among normies. He shed a light on part of the president’s legacy we hardly ever talk about — a clue to why, after each new atrocity, and as the nest of corruption unravels, his base continues to dig their heels in. They share his explicit racism and adore his authoritarian style, yes, but they also like that he’s breaking stuff: norms, treaties, trade agreements, the discourse itself. They don’t care what damage results, so long as they don’t bear the fallout directly.
That single word in Lynch’s bit of hesitant praise — “disrupted” — is key to this attitude of removal.
If you’ve been following Lynch’s admittedly confused politics, this quote might come as little surprise. The director has covered the gamut of disinterest and libertarianism, voting for Bernie in the 2016 primaries and praising Ronald Reagan’s old Hollywood cowboy schtick. Lynch is not ideologically consistent, nor, by his admission, knowledgeable about government. And after Trump shared a Breitbart article trumpeting Lynch’s support, the director walked back his comments with a Facebook post:
But even that message misunderstands our moment. Immigrants, the LGBT community, non-whites, and women seeking basic health services don’t have the luxury of imagining that Trump might stop being a monster. He is not going to treat all people as he “would like to be treated.” His soul won’t “sing.” To hope so is insane. We’re way past that, David!
Neither does the accusation of “causing suffering and division” really land, because what Lynch said he liked in Trump is that the president “disrupted the thing so much.” Well, what thing does he think is getting disrupted? Surely it wasn’t an entire tapestry of democratic traditions that, uh, protect a free press and preclude us from throwing children into cages? Or was it? Anyway, it’s disrupted!
Lynch’s optimistic nihilism — that Trump, in his raving madness and sheer incompetence, could somehow give us a fresh slate by destroying a broken system — echoed remarks the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek offered in the run-up to the 2016 election. Asked who he would vote for, were he American, Žižek did not hesitate: “Trump,” he said. Although “horrified at him,” he saw Trump as the catalyst of structural revolution.
“In every society there is a whole network of unwritten rules, how politics works, and how you build consensus,” Žižek said. “Trump disturbed this. And if Trump wins, both big parties, Republicans and Democrats, would have to return to basics, rethink themselves, and maybe some things can happen there.” You notice another telling euphemism here: disturbed. Trump will disturb, he’ll disrupt and he’ll finally unmake the very conditions that allowed him to steal the White House. Then we rise from the ashes, maybe.
There are just two rationalizations for taking this Etch-a-Sketch view of history. You could claim — not credibly — that everyone will suffer the necessary pains of transformation. Or, far more likely, you realize that everyone will suffer except for people like you. I know this because in the darkest corner of my white heart, I feel this chilling solace, too. It is the comfort that tempts me, despite his cruel policies, to see Trump as more of a dumbass than an effective demagogue. (OK, he can be both.) It’s what lets Lynch sit back and appreciate the aesthetic horror of this presidency, and encourages Žižek to envision the end of “absolute inertia.” It’s why voters well aware of Trump’s failings support him regardless: because he “shakes things up.”
It’s clear those voters didn’t expect any seismic change to their own existence, but for Trump to make other lives worse — and thereby secure some unquantifiable conservative good like a “secure border” or “religious freedom” — while hastening the implosion of an entrenched political order.
When Lynch succumbs that same cheap anti-establishment reflex, he values a cynically reformist view of D.C. above the safety of marginalized people threatened, detained, assaulted and killed in an increasingly hateful climate. Whatever our complaints about the two-party nightmare, the path to a less dysfunctional state cannot pave over the bodies of citizens. There is no guarantee, not the slightest indication, that the wreckage of Trump’s term(s) will serve as a stage for sudden enlightenment.
If you’re telling yourself that it has to get worse before it gets better, ask yourself: Worse for whom? ICE hasn’t knocked down my door. I haven’t lost my healthcare. It’s easy to say “let it all burn down” when you have no sense of the fire.