Season 6 of “The Walking Dead” began streaming on Netflix a month ago. As of today, I’m more than halfway through the season. In other news, Donald Trump is still running for president, and calls to remove Andrew Jackson from the old Place d’Armes are becoming louder, and being met with more aggressive opposition. Taken together, these three phenomena tell us a lot about the Zeitgeist of 2016.
Based loosely on the comic books of the same name, “The Walking Dead” is one of my favorite TV shows. I’ve always been a fan of horror, and of apocalyptic disaster stories. I’m a big fan of fantasy in general, dystopian or not, and see a healthful role for the fantastic imagination in a free-ranging consciousness. But fantasy is a lot like drugs. Some people can handle it; others can’t.
There are obvious reasons why many critics see a conservative ideological agenda in “The Walking Dead,” with its depiction of a shattered and Hobbesian world taken over by zombies. Guns are absolutely necessary, no one can be trusted, the government is a pathetic failure. Pacifists will not only get themselves killed, but all their friends, too.
On the other hand, the new community rising from the ashes of the old is decidedly multi-cultural, including different races as well as a panoply of sexual orientations. The debate over how conservative the show’s messaging is meant to be has gone on at least since season 3. More recently, some critics have claimed that the show preps the ground for the particular species of right-wing American kookiness known as Trumpism.
The importance of high walls comes to mind, but also the general tenor of paranoia, which is one of those rich veins of the human imagination that, like drugs, needs to be handled with care. I believe it can be spiritually healthy, and fun, to give in and visit with the paranoiac inside all of us — but just make sure the visit’s a quick one and that you have a round-trip ticket back home.
Paranoia is, of course, the driving force behind Trump’s entire campaign. Not just the fear that “the system is rigged” (which is plausible enough), but that an apocalyptic war for survival is at our doorstep. As his latest ad running in Louisiana puts it, “We are under assault.” Who or what is assaulting us? Good horror writers know it’s scarier if the threat is unspecified.
One reason “The Walking Dead” carries the smell of Trumpism has to do with the show’s Deep South geographical locations. The cities are a lost cause. Atlanta was abandoned long ago. The battle to survive is being waged in the boondocks and exurbs. Thus the comparatively low cost of filming outside urban areas ends up contributing to a perhaps unintended ideological message. Rural people are the good guys, and most are from working-class backgrounds.
Suburbanites who once engaged in more intellectual labor are hopelessly unfit to survive in the new, leveled world order. They lack “common sense,” that ineffable quality that conservatives of low educational attainment are convinced is their special expertise.
On Sept. 26, National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” interviewed a Trump supporter who would be easy to imagine as a minor character on “The Walking Dead.” Jimmy Arno lives outside Atlanta, the ruined city where the battle to preserve civilization by destroying it first took off.
An auto mechanic, Arno represents the show’s ideal of the working stiff with a basic skill of great value following social collapse. He agrees with “Rick Grimes,” the former sheriff’s deputy who leads the show’s roving band of survivors, that the cities are already too dangerous to go anywhere near: “If you go to Atlanta or to a major city, you’re liable to be shot or attacked,” Arno opined.
He’s counting on Trump to end the lawlessness of the cities — whether that means running off zombies or some other dangerous sub-humans (perhaps the fictitious border hoppers who appeared in Trump’s first television ad.
But, unlike the candidate, Arno acknowledges the possibility that Trump will flop on Election Day and is already making plans. He’s vesting his hopes in a roving militia group. “ … And should martial law, civil war, whatever, break out in this country, they will uphold the Constitution and rebuild our laws.” The calamity that might necessitate such an action isn’t the epidemic that has set the dead walking. Arno is dreaming of “the war that’s going to take place when Hillary Clinton’s elected — if that happens.”
What’s most interesting about dystopian fantasies like “The Walking Dead” is the element of utopian wish fulfillment they also make room for. All those social benefits that have accrued to “the elites” (whether economic or cultural) could be washed away in a cleansing tide that bobs with their corpses. The society that once favored Joe College with all the good jobs will finally be gone. (“Away with you,” reads a graffiti warning on an abandoned building during the show’s opening credits.)
In the zombie apocalypse, grit, physical strength, and skilled labor (construction trades, mechanical engineering, shooting) are all that matter anymore. In other words, the sector of society poised to survive catastrophe looks a lot like the rural working class. Of course, the show’s multi-racial heroes would be odd men out at a Trump rally, if not thrown to the ground and stomped. But perhaps they are not entirely antithetical to the show’s message.
They fulfill the white populist fantasy that one day even brown, yellow and black Americans will see the supremacy of white leadership and finally get with the program. After all, Trump’s own campaign commercials make a point of zooming in on the handful of non-white folks in his audiences.
Countless articles have been devoted to figuring out why the white working class is in such sad shape (as the candidate depicts it) and yet seems to be so taken with Trump, a rich guy who’s added to the millions his father gave him by routinely ripping off tradesmen quite like Arno.
The problem for the Democrats has been figuring out how to dissuade Trump supporters without insulting them. As Clinton hastened to make clear after her explosively ill-advised remark about “deplorables” in the Trump camp, you can’t fit a group as vast and vaguely defined as “white working class” into one garbage can.
The lingering question is why some people who should know better do bad things, like back an unstable narcissist with no political experience for president of the United States. Get over the idea that they’re all Jimmy Arnos.
Recent analysis shows that a big chunk of Trump supporters are not economically disadvantaged victims of globalism — though low educational attainment does seem to be a common denominator.
Why would people who work for wages with their hands identify with a guy who lives in a Manhattan penthouse and who, I’d bet the whole casino, can’t change a tire, drive a nail, or hit the side of a barn with a shotgun? It’s because he enables some people who identify as working class (white, male, older, without a college degree) to express their anger at the rest of us for supposedly not giving them enough credit for their contributions to our country.
This is why Trump’s No. 1 selling point is his embrace of “politically incorrect” speech. Giving the finger to fellow Americans is the right most cherished by Trump supporters. Economic anxiety is overplayed by the pundits. If voters were truly concerned with income inequality, including how it’s been exacerbated by international trade deals, their candidate was Bernie Sanders.
Sanders offered a rejection of neo-liberal globalization but one unleavened by the racist and nativist appeals so thrilling to Trump’s base. Trump’s repeated attacks on “political correctness” — the right, if you will, to call women fat pigs and Mexicans rapists — should clarify that the real terrain of struggle for Trump supporters is cultural.
Jimmy Arno, in his interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, expressed outrage that a school even in his neighborhood was the site of a Black Lives Matter protest. Why are Trump supporters so enraged by a movement that decries police killings of civilians, including unarmed civilians? Could it be that they feel “under assault” whenever a non-white person opens her mouth?
In New Orleans, the assault on white people is detected, most recently, by calls to remove Andrew Jackson from the square in the French Quarter that has borne his name since 1815.
The first thing to note about this latest battle over symbolism is that it’s not really about the historical Andrew Jackson, and not really about New Orleans, for that matter. It’s the myth that moves folks, pro and con. That’s OK, since public monuments are far more about public mythology than factual history. The main gripe of the people who want the statue down is that Jackson was a slaveholder. It’s a slippery slope, but also a hard argument to counter in a nation that claims to love freedom: If slaveholding is the shibboleth, Washington, Jefferson, Bienville, and many others would also have to be toppled.
Though it’s unarguably clear why descendants of slaves find Jackson’s commemoration offensive, it’s trickier to explain the fierce emotional reaction of the people who want to continue celebrating his life. For some, at least, it has to do with shoring up a more positive sense of identity among rural Southern whites. The myth of Jackson mixes George Washington and Davey Crockett. He’s the kind of boilerplate American frontier hero Charlton Heston should have played … Oh, wait a minute: Heston did play Jackson! — in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1958 epic, The Buccaneer.
A year later, another great guide for understanding the Jackson myth was provided by Johnny Horton’s pop country hit, “Battle of New Orleans.” The song makes clear that Jackson isn’t as significant to New Orleanians as he is to people outside New Orleans who nevertheless want to claim some kind of cultural ownership of the city.
Our rural white neighbors care a lot more about Jackson than residents of Orleans Parish do. The very first line of the song lays out a geography of cultural identity in these terms: “In 1814 we took a little trip, along with Col. Jackson down the mighty Mississipp’.” In other words, the experience of Americans under Jackson was a lot like a foreign deployment. Cecil B. DeMille’s movie also distances the great American general from slimy aristocrats with French accents — New Orleanians.
This version of Jackson comes much more from the 1950s than from the 1830s, but that’s the point. My first argument against Jackson in the Square was that he represented the Americanization of the Creole city, and in particularly bad ways. Though I was reluctant to view Jackson as an uncomplicated symbol of white supremacy, I changed my mind when David Duke showed up to tell my neighbors that they had no business seeking to influence public symbolism in their own city.
At least one reason Trump supporters want to give the finger to the rest of us is that they feel the rest of us have given the finger to them. Not so much economically as culturally. They perceive a denigration of their culture in “the media,” and they’re not entirely wrong.
Two 2016 books, Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash: the 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” and J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” do a great job, in different genres, of documenting the ways in which white country working people have been culturally marginalized. In an interview on the PBS “Newshour,” Vance, who grew up poor and white in Kentucky and rural Ohio, expressed his concern that Trump’s defeat will exacerbate the desperate sense among rural, working- and welfare-class whites that they are alone in a country that has become hostile to them.
Removing Jackson from the heart of one of the white rural South’s favorite tourist destinations will surely add to this sense of alienation, and stoke a yen to lash out against those of us — liberal prigs! — who would tear down a cherished symbol.
I don’t see any other recourse. Speaking as a native New Orleanian, I can think of dozens of people actually from here who would be better choices for commemoration in the city’s epicenter. As soon as David Duke showed up to defend Jackson’s statue, whatever might have been left of Jackson as a symbol of anything but hatred for the city’s black majority evaporated.
I find this blue vs. red debacle profoundly uncomfortable and counter-productive, but this is the impasse to which the us vs. them cultural politics of unscrupulous Republicans like Trump and Duke (and many others) has brought us. Distancing our city from the deplorable Trump yes-men across Louisiana is imperative. If the current political chaos brings down a statue perpetuating the zombified myth of Old Hickory, well, it’s about time.
C.W.Cannon’s next novel, “French Quarter Beautification Project,” is now available for pre-order at Lavender Ink/Dialogos Press. He teaches “New Orleans Myths and Legends” and other courses at Loyola University.