Trying to explain the political allure of Donald J. Trump — the billionaire real estate mogul turned reality TV star who’s mounted an unfathomably successful run for the Republican presidential nominee — among the poor, uneducated masses who constitute his base (people with whom he shares almost nothing in common) has produced its own sub-sector in the hot-take-industrial complex.
The Atlantic once explained Trump’s rise by using his popularity in the state of North Carolina as a microcosm. The Daily Beast asked a Ku Klux Klan leader to explain Trump’s populist appeal, while on Medium, Oliver Willis of the non-profit organization Media Matters for America used professional wrestling as a metaphor for Trump’s ascendence. The Week has tried (and failed) multiple times to explain Trump: once with with a single word (“sucker”), another time by drawing parallels between Trump and the Nazi invasion of France. One of its writers even had the audacity to explain Trump through the prism of Christianity, the world’s largest religion. And yet an answer still eludes us.
Don’t pay heed to these less-woke writers. Their target is true, but their aim is off. The Trump phenomenon cannot be understood through religion, region, military history, hate groups or Hulk Hogan — the answer lies in Zootopia, the kid-friendly, animated feature that has grossed Disney more than $200 million in its mere three weeks in theaters.
Every great children’s movie — Inside Out, Toy Story, Wall-E, Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon — is simultaneously explicit enough for children to understand, yet clever enough to entertain the parents. And Zootopia toes that line wonderfully — it’s an aesthetically gorgeous, fully-realized world inhabited solely by anthropomorphized animals. Best of all, the jokes are genuinely funny for adults. I doubt many children will get the joke when they see a Department of Motor Vehicles staffed entirely by sloths, understand that the arctic shrew Mr. Big is actually an allusion to Vito Corleone or realize that the rhetoric the animals use with one another is meant to mirror the microaggressions women and minorities are subject to in the real world.
Case in point, when Judy Hopps — the film’s plucky, young leporid protagonist — reports for her first day of work at the Zootopia Police Department, the cheetah working reception calls her “cute.” “You probably didn’t know, but a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute’, but when other animals do it, that’s a little …” Hopps responds, her voice trailing off. Very problematic, that Mr. Cheetah. He needs sensitivity training. Later, Hopps succumbs to some micro-aggressiveness of her own when she commends a fox — the “white trash” species of Zootopia — on being “articulate.”
Zootopia’s larger narrative, though, is a tidy noir mystery concerned with institutionalized discrimination: More than a dozen Zootopian predators (a panther, a grizzly bear and an apparently deadly otter, among others) have gone missing lately. Hopps, the first of her species to ever work as a police officer, and Nick Wilde — a sly, conman fox voiced by Jason Bateman — soon discover these animals have “gone savage” and started violently attacking the prey in Zootopia.
This is all rather troubling in a utopian society that has progressed to a point where predators no longer hunt the prey. Instead they ride the bus together, work together and befriend one another. But when Hopps misspeaks at a news conference, saying that the predators are genetically predisposed to violence, it sets off a panic. Prey start scooching away from tigers on public transit, and an ignorant pig protester screams at a cheetah to “Go back to the forest!” (Cheetahs are from the savannah, the female cheetah reminds him.) The news media portray predators as beasts prone to sudden outbursts of violence, and prey politicians exploit the hysteria and fear for political gain. Predators need to be surveilled, possibly even sequestered, for everyone’s safety, they suggest.
The unintended timeliness of my watching this film was eerie. I woke up Tuesday morning to learn that Islamic State terrorists killed 31 people in Belgium and injured another 300. Trump and Ted Cruz responded to the attacks by reiterating their calls to close U.S. borders to all foreign Muslims, with Cruz and other Republicans going so far as to say we need to monitor Muslim communities in the U.S. The Islamophobia in the real world was uncannily similar to the species-ism in Zootopia.
Zootopia, of course, has an only-in-Hollywood twist: It turns out the predator hysteria was a conspiracy engineered by Assistant Mayor Bellwether, a ewe, to usurp sitting Mayor Leodore Lionheart (a lion, obviously). Bellwether’s ram henchmen had been poisoning predators with a substance that made them feral in order to stoke anti-predator sentiment and make prey the dominant class. But all ends well: Hopps and Wilde uncover Bellwether’s sinister plot and harmony is restored. Hopps feels ashamed for having ever thought predators were naturally dangerous animals, and the mania dissipates. She and Wilde even become partners on the police force, setting us up nicely for a Zootopia buddy-cop sequel.
The lesson for us humans is that a few bad apples do not represent the entirety of their racial, ethnic, regional or religious affiliation. That people, for the most part, are good, and we should live alongside them in a spirit of acceptance and coexistence. All of which happen to be the exact lessons Trump and his supporters rail against.
In The Cycles of American History, historian Arthur Schlesinger posits that change in America occurs in cycles of progress and regress. Liberals gain political control and instigate social progress, so conservatives get nervous and wage a counterattack.
Which is exactly what the U.S. is currently experiencing with Trump. As American society has undergone unprecedented social change over the past decade or so — electing the first black president, legalizing gay marriage, enacting Obamacare—it’s left a bunch of conservative white people feeling scared and alienated; like prey who’ve lost their country to a bunch of non-white predators set on dissolving American values.
Trump knows this intrinsically and is preying upon those very insecurities. “Make America Great Again” is a blatantly regressive slogan — it claims that the old way was better, when we held the predators at bay. But better for whom? “Make America Great Again” is really a campaign to reclaim America as for and by white people.
In Zootopia, there was a sheep that incited fear against predators to seize power and enact a police state. In Trump, there’s a candidate trying to get elected by inciting fear against the Muslims, Mexicans, minorities and migrants who want to harm us, steal our jobs and waste our tax dollars. We are the prey, they are the predators, and only Trump can protect us, the thinking goes.
That’s a message even children can understand. Unfortunately, many adults can’t see it for the hollow rhetoric it is.
John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL, where he last wrote about why adult men are so bad at maintaining friendships.