Thursday, May 12, 2016

Oedipus Wrecked: The Failure of #NeverTrump

I used to hate it whenever Hollywood turned its condescending Freudian lens on Christian conservatives and their traditional families.  Inevitably the various prudes and bigots that occupy flyover country turn out to be secret homosexuals or nymphos, projecting their frustration and self-loathing onto the liberated heroes of the story. See American Beauty for the most obnoxious example. The increasingly bizarre and melodramatic behavior of conservatives in the disastrous #NeverTrump campaign, however, has me reconsidering my judgment.

Earlier this week I caught yet another Freudian lens flare in a Hollywood treatment of the middle American man - 2015 Jack Black indie The D Train. As always with Freud, the view is distorted by weird sexuality, but for the first time I found it matching what I was observing in reality. (Sidenote: this is not a vindication of Freudian Hollywood; I think they are largely to blame for gaslighting the weak minds that constitute so much of conservative punditry). And now I can’t help but slip on the Black Rose colored glasses and take a more jaded look at a hefty chunk of the conservative movement.

First, a quick rundown on the obscure D Train. I first heard of it at Sundance, where my favorite lefty critic* lauded it as the ultimate transgressive bromance (if you can’t guess why, I’ll spoil below). The public did not share his sentiments, sending it down to one of the worst wide releases in box office history when it opened this time last year.

It was easy to see why they did. Dan (Jack Black), a sadsack family man from Nowheresville, recognizes sexy high school alum Oliver in a Baywatch-style commercial. Smitten, Dan launches himself onto a desperate gambit to convince Oliver to descend from Mt. Olympus and slum with the mortals at their upcoming 20-year high school reunion. What starts as innocently as growing out a soul patch to douche-up his provincial bumpkin look quickly snowballs. He lies to his boss and his wife to finagle a trip to LA, and then follows Oliver on a wild night of debauchery that has him snorting cocaine, hopping strip clubs and finally… having sex with Oliver in his hotel room. Behold the American patriarch!

That little twist was enough to get me to see what else was on the schedule, but the ideas and images were sticky. And, as I read Scott Greer’s piece on the #NeverTrump movement's refusal to learn from defeat, disturbingly relevant. I’m not thinking so much of the gay twist on the bromance (though I’m sure there’s some material there), but the unmistakable Freudian insecurities exposed in all the Trump drama.

The first striking takeway: how exactly Jack Black’s Dan resembles the social conservative figureheads of #NeverTrump. So many of them squeeze together in the same range on the weight spectrum - teddy bear chubby, just a few pot roasts short of obese. They are surprisingly loyal to the clean-shaven look (only the bald ones seem to go for beards), showcasing the jowls and pasty complexions born of sheltered existence. In D Train Black tops it off with a wet-combed schoolboy part to maximize the frumpiness and close in on doppelganger status for hardcore #NeverTrump pundit Steve Deace.

This isn’t just mindless pudge-shaming (not that there’s anything wrong with that). If this election season has taught us anything, it’s that the simplest visuals often expose real psychological weaknesses. Consider Jeb Bush’s sad, flabby visage and the bullied prep school softness it implied - how closely did the book match the cover! Ditto for Ted Cruz, whose melted Reagan mask of a face suggested an anachronistic phoney, and John Kasich, whose slack-shouldered posture, baggy suits and slovenly eating habits branded him as a crazy vagrant, squatting where he wasn’t wanted.

So do the layered chins, dumpling cheeks and hungry eyes of the #NeverTrumpers suggest a soft, ample underbelly of vulnerability. Even moreso than Jack Black, who dramatically adjusted his usual class clown chubster look for the part, these guys come out of central casting for put-upon bully-magnets, along with that kid who got one of Jeb Bush's signature tortoises. I mean, if Samwell Tarly came out with a #NeverTrump campaign in a Black Watch Commander election, would anyone have been surprised?

Under the putative thought leadership of such individuals, social conservatism has careened from one disastrous defeat to the next. What drives them so consistently to defeat? For a clue, take a look at some of the Twitter bios. I’ve noticed that many of the pious NeverTrumpers make a big show out of trumpeting their husbandhood and fatherhood. Their idol, Ted Cruz, is a representative example. His bio leads off with “Father of two, @heidicruz’s husband.” GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak identifies himself as “lucky husband.” Blogger Matt Walsh (pay no mind to his carefully cultivated rugged aesthetic - he’s a bleating sheep in wolf’s clothing) drops in “father of twins.” RedState editor Ben Howe opens with “Single dad.” National Review editor Jim Geraghty says he’s a “dad by day and night.”

Methinks the patriarch doth protest too much. For it is the most patriarchal aspects of Trump that seem to drive this wing of #NeverTrump up the wall. They cringe when he busts balls, scoff when he boasts and mock when he patronizes (e.g. the Taco Bowl hysteria on Cinco de Mayo). But nothing triggers them like Trump talking down to women (or is it mansplaining?), from the “blood out of wherever” crack sending Erick Erickson crashing to his fainting couch, to the incredible mania that broke out when Trump refused to take Michelle Fields’ wild accusations seriously and fire his campaign manager. Most telling was the instantaneous and near-universal condemnation these guys meted out on Trump for entertaining the idea of “punishing women” if abortion were banned. This from men who will never turn down an opportunity to thunder (from a safe distance) over the murder of the unborn.

These men will exult in the implied strength of the paternal title, but any exercise of that power sends them into convulsions. Consider Kevin Williamson’s bile-drenched denunciation of Trump as “father-fuhrer.” Because normal, well-adjusted men immediately associate strong male leadership with Adolf Hitler, obviously. They remind me of the Hollywood cliche of the boy who witnesses his father beating his mother and grows up into an unstable, brooding avenger of all of the world’s golden-hearted hookers. The Crowe character in LA Confidential springs to mind.

Far be it from these men to take matters into their own fists as Crowe’s bruiser did. They prefer to empower women to do the fighting for them (even as they huff and puff about the prospect of women in combat and men in women’s restrooms- oh the womanity!). Thus Rich Lowry waxing orgiastic about Carly Fiorina’s surgical emasculation of Donald Trump. And the manly tittering of #NeverTrump at the thought of Donald being scared of Megyn Kelly. The logical endgame of this approach is backing Hillary, which has already begun.

Again the evidence of projection is obvious. These men wield women as an object of worship and terror because they find them awesome and terrifying. Consider a revealing mini-drama: in the days before the ill-fated Cruz-Fiorina #NeverTrump alliance, Deace left his filter off and called out Fiorina for going “full vagina” in the GOP debate. He soon deleted the tweet and beat his chest in apology after his wife said he was being vulgar and disgusting. But it wasn’t over - he had to be scolded by Fiorina herself and good old Megyn Kelly before his guilt could be truly expunged. Meanwhile Ben Howe managed to escape a similar fate for calling Melania Trump a whore by exercising a quicker Twitter finger on the delete button.

The Freudian diagnosis of #NeverTrump punditry then is a case of an Oedipal complex run amok. The father-fixation, the castration anxiety, heck even the penis envy - what else can explain the furor over the “schlonging” of Hillary, or the celebration of Rubio’s career-shattering descent into d*ck jokes? They view the patriarchal Trump both as an overpowering rival for attention and a direct challenge to their own, still incipient manhood. He takes their viewers, their readers, their mantle of anger, their influence, their party… all as a matter of patriarchal prerogative.

In the myth, Oedipus faces down his father in a game of chariot chicken on a narrow road. A young man at the height of his powers, Oedipus defeats the old man and leaves him dead in the ditch, continuing along his path, marrying his mother (there’s another romantic boundary for you to transgress, D Train creators!)  and taking his father’s throne. In Freud, the Oedipal male faces his father from a position of pre-pubescent weakness. If he pursues this conflict he is doomed to defeat and ensuing neurosis; his only positive resolution is identifying with his challenger, and modeling himself after him.

In insisting on their own game of chariot chicken with a formidable patriarch, the #NeverTrumpers have exposed themselves as weak little boys. They now lie defeated in the ditch, surrounded by the wreckage of the “conservative movement.” They have none of Oedipus’ deeds, but all of his rage. Now they follow in his example by gouging out their eyes to spite the new face of the GOP. Would that they take Freud's advice, identify with their victorious opponent and model themselves after him.

*Subversive, funny and insightful, Mancini stands head and shoulders above the Millennial herd of pop culture critics in the same way that the South Park creators have towered over their Gen X vulgarian fellow travelers. Like South Park, he’s a better destroyer than creator, but he’s not as disciplined in playing to his strengths - his ventures into cultural optimism are made absurd by his rosy view of sexual anarchy.