After a year of increasingly divisive rhetoric, the Presidential election is finally upon us. Whatever happens on Tuesday, we will be entering another stage.
Whether Mr. Trump wins or loses this election, we as a society need to keep our mind on the big question: How did we get here in the first place? How did a person like Trump—openly racist and sexist, an unrepentant bully, someone who jeers at everyone he doesn’t like—become a serious candidate for the highest office in the land?
Trump has not existed in a vacuum. He has been supported by a vocal group, disproportionately disaffected white men who see him as their standard bearer.
Why Trump? Why now?
In 1993, we were recovering from twelve years of Reaganomics. Bill Clinton was President. The Golden Era of Eisenhower, when white men had exclusive rule over the nation, was long gone. It is this Golden Era that Trump invokes when speaking of making America great again.
These were uncertain times for the White Man in America, and out of these times came a movie that resonated: Joel Schumacher’s “Falling Down.” In the film, Michael Douglas’s William Foster is divorced, unemployed, and living with his mother. Every day, he pretends to go to work, ashamed to tell his mother about his work situation. He cannot visit his daughter due to a protection order.
On his daughter’s birthday, Foster finally breaks. Stuck in traffic, he decides to abandon his vehicle and walk across Los Angeles in order to deliver a present to his daughter. The film follows his break-down, as he gets increasingly more violent and unhinged.
The film also follows Sergeant Martin Prendergast, played by Robert Duvall, as Prendergast tries to catch up with Foster. Eventually, the two meet, leading to a violent confrontation on a pier.
“Falling Down” represented the increasingly frustrating that many white men felt about a stagnant economy and a general loss of cultural power. Foster, a former defense contractor, felt betrayed by the system: “I did everything they told me to,” he tells Prendergast, “I helped to protect America. You should be rewarded for that.”
Foster also struggles with what he sees as a decay of society. In one scene, he stops in at an Army Surplus store run by a Neonazi who tries to bond with him. “We’re the same, you and me,” the Neonazi says. Foster responds: “We are not the same. I’m an American. You’re a sick asshole.”
When Clinton speaks of the two baskets of Americans supporting Trump, these are the two she’s talking about. The Neonazi is part of her “basket of deplorables,” the alt-right xenophobes who embrace Trump’s hatred of all things different.
But Foster is in the other basket, a white male who might be decent enough in his heart, but who is feeling overwhelmed, disenfranchised, and angry at a system that he feels is leaving him behind. Today, Foster would most likely support Trump over Clinton.
At the same time, Foster’s rage is drenched with a sense of entitlement and privilege. He becomes angry when a fast food restaurant refuses to sell him breakfast because it’s two minutes past the transition to lunch. He accuses a Korean convenience store owner of theft for overcharging for a Coke. He mocks a homeless person for lying in order to get spare change. He attacks construction workers for fixing a road that he feels wasn’t in need of repair. He shoots at some wealthy golfers who try to hit him with a golf ball. He punches up, he punches down.
When I think of many of the comments I’ve seen over the last year in support of Trump, especially those coming from white men, Foster echoes in their words. All the problems of the world are someone else’s fault. It’s the gays, it’s the Mexicans, it’s the Muslims. They say blacks are getting shot by the police because they’re violent and non-compliant, not because there’s a problem with law enforcement. They insist that Clinton is going to take away their money and their guns, just as Obama did.
What makes “Falling Down” powerful is that it allows the viewer to see Foster’s perspective; some viewers even saw him as a hero, not as the anti-hero that Schumacher intended. It allows us to explore the rage of the White Male who sees a past where he had more power, more respect, and more prestige.
In the end, though, Foster is not let off the hook. The final moral of the film is delivered by Prendergast, who is spending his last day before retirement chasing down a psychopath. After Foster complains about his betrayal, Prendergast responds: “That doesn’t give you any special right to do what you did today.”
I myself am a white man. I was not born into wealth but I was raised middle class by college-educated parents. I grew up with certain expectations about how the privileges I did have would protect me through life.
I’m not as financially stable as my parents were. My house is nowhere near as nice. I have significant debts. I could connect with Foster’s anger, as well as with the anger of the other white men who feel that Trump is offering them a way out.
I don’t, though. I have come to see that, no matter how frustrated and betrayed I may feel at times, I’m still better off than many of my fellow Americans. Much of my situation is due to my own mistakes. Blaming the Other is not going to change my situation.
I’m not optimistic about being able to reach the deplorables like the Neonazi Army Surplus owner in “Falling Down.” But, as the dust settles from this nasty and often divisive Presidential election, I think that it’s crucial that we find a way to come together, to help the Fosters among us work through their rage and frustration and realize, as Michelle Obama says, “We all know better. Whether we are Democrats, Republicans, or independents, it doesn’t matter. We all understand that an attack on any one of us is an attack on all of us, and we know that that is not who we are.”
We know better. Let us stop focus on falling down and focus instead on standing back up.
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Photo credit: IMDB/FallingDown