Finding America in the Twilight Zone - with Donald Trump as President
These are scary times. After three years of Donald Trump as the U.S. President, it is looking like we could be in America’s twilight hours as a true democratic republic. Before Trump became President of the United States I blogged about TV shows and the entertainment industry. After he was elected, I found doing so to be a near impossible task. It seemed to be a frivolous pastime in a world that was taking a dark turn in ways I had never imagined modern history would see again. Yet, seventy-one years after the end of World War II, it clearly was. After all, the same xenophobic and racist fears that had sunk England into Brexit six months prior had just propelled a man with those same tendencies into the White House.
Perhaps my thinking was naive, but it’s not as though I had been completely oblivious to America’s “cultural” divide and some problems in our political system. From my teenage years and well on into adulthood, I had always shown a certain interest in politics and history. As Trump’s presidency commenced though I was truly blindsided by the Republican party’s abandonment of some the basic tenants of our Constitution. The need to gain some understanding of how America’s aspirations to become a truly diverse society with “liberty and justice for all” had seemingly made a 180-degree turn had me devouring both the news and history books.
Doing so over the past three years has been an interesting journey, one that has brought me full circle. So, what has brought me back to seeing the value in things like television? Watching old reruns of The Twilight Zone.
Yes, Virginia, There is Value in Entertainment…Even in that Thing Called Television
There has always been a mixed view of television’s place in America. It’s been bemoaned as a time-waster and a step-child to the art of film. Today, the latter has changed, at least for shows that are not premiere cable and streaming. Network television still tends to get a bad rap, and many suggest the network show formats are on their way out. That idea seems more like pundit talk than reality. Out the top 20 most watched shows in America’s 2018–2019 television season, 13 were scripted network shows, while only one was on premium cable. (It was Game of Thrones, of course.)
The truth about entertainment, and television in particular, is that tends to bring Americans together. For better or worse, it is weaved into the fabric of our culture. Television, even in today’s era of streaming and binge-watching, creates a shared experience to be discussed. It does so, even it’s no longer an experience we’ve all watched at the same time. TV is still “water-cooler talk.”
Now, it is fair to say that different types of TV serve different needs. Some television is pure entertainment — like watching a basketball game or talent competition show — and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all at times need a mental break.
However, a good scripted television show tends to make people think about the best and worst of who they are — or could be. It also asks the viewer to consider the state of the world they live in and what they think about it. Some consider this current age of television to be the best ever for these kinds of thought-provoking television shows. Yet, I was reminded of these qualities by binge-watching the old classic Twilight Zone episodes.
How did I get here? One day, in a pique of frustration, overwhelm, and a touch of dark humor, I decided to take a break and watch a few episodes of the original Twilight Zone. After all, that’s what it felt like America was living in. What a great way to escape our current surreal existence. Although the Rod Sterling series aired from 1959 to 1964 series — way before my time — I had seen some random episodes over the years.
My vague memories of the show were of quirky tales involving time travel and aliens from outer space. Surely something from so long ago that would not trigger thoughts of today’s problems. ...I was wrong.
A Brief History of The Twilight Zone
I knew little about The Twilight Zone’s creator and his role in shaping modern television. That lack of knowledge is why I was unprepared for the stark reminders the show has about what America used to stand for.
PBS’s American Masters covered the legacy of Mr. Serling. Here is their summation about the creation of the Twilight Zone series.
Fed up with the difficulties of writing about serious issues on the conservative networks, Serling turned to science fiction and fantasy. Through an ingenious mixture of morality fable and fantasy writing, he was able to circumvent the timidity and conservatism of the television networks and sponsors. Self-producing a series of vignettes that placed average people in extraordinary situations, Serling could investigate the moral and political questions of his time. He found that he could address controversial subjects if they were cloaked in a veil of fantasy, saying “I found that it was all right to have Martians saying things Democrats and Republicans could never say.”
Serling actually surpassed his goal of addressing, “the moral and political questions of his time.” Despite the quaint settings and, by our standards, bad special effects, the show oozes with what used to be, and for a majority of Americans still are, common American values. As such, watching these classic episodes soon became both a wonderful and painful experience. The episodes have a way of highlighting many American ideals - and American follies - in ways that are smart and surprising.
The show also proves that some of what we may think of as modern problems and concerns have been around for quite some time. For instance, in The Twilight Zone, you will find stories like, “Eye of the Beholder.” Its narrative calls out the shallowness - and randomness - of our standards of beauty. In a similar vein, "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" takes our shallowness and adds a more sinister point about how conformity kills the human spirit. In the world of this story everyone is forced - via extreme plastic surgery - to conform to limited choice of “looks.” It is not a pretty sight.
Of course, all of looks in the “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” are white. It is, after all, early sixties. One does not expect much in the way of diversity from that time period's media.
Nevertheless, there are a few episodes in the original Twilight Zone series that featured African-Americans in ways that, at the time, were groundbreaking. The most stunning of these is, "The Big Tall Wish.” It’s an episode with an all-black cast - telling a story that that very well could have been played by white actors. In 1960 this was unheard of. Remember, this is before, Star Trek casts Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, (the ship’s communications officer,) and before the breakthrough show Julia - starring the late great Diahann Carroll.
Other episodes tackle man’s hopes and fears about new technologies. One such episode is, “The Brain Center At Whipple’s,” which takes a dark look at the issue of corporate greed and automation. Granted, the war between the social good and technological “progress” has been going on for centuries at this point. At every historical juncture the idea is raised that technology should be halted to keep a particular status quo. Yet, it never does and, over time, the world adjusts.
Despite this historical reality, the episode still makes two salient points. It first suggests that society must plan for new ways to occupy human capital and not just toss people aside. Furthermore, it warns that when corporations look only at making money for shareholders and don’t consider both the human factor and societal needs they could end up making their own role obsolete.
The Painful Truths for Today’s Politics
While all of the above examples are striking in how they take American culture to task, there are some episodes that serve as painful reminders of what America seems to be falling into now. Those episodes are the ones that show us the hallmarks of tyranny and its costs to society.
The lines are very clear in The Twilight Zone. Nazis are clearly not very fine people, and no one pretends the Holocaust didn’t happen. The wrongness of xenophobia - specifically about Mexicans no less - is a topic as well. As for how the Nazi movement could end up taking root in America, the season 4 episode, “He’s Alive” gives us a handbook on how good ordinary people can be swept up by the tricks and techniques used by evil dictators throughout the ages.
One episode in particular though, is especially striking and specific. It hits like a deliberate metaphor for what we are witnessing with Trump, the GOP - and the issue of his impeachment trial in the Senate. Naturally, it was not written to be that — not unless Serling was not only a storyteller, but a soothsayer….
If You Only Watch One Episode, Watch,“It’s a Good Life”
The title of The Twilight Zone season 3, episode 8 is, “It’s a Good Life.” Like most Twilight Zone episodes, the short and simple moniker is filled with layers of irony. The little blurb describing it only hints at just how disturbing this episode is.
On an isolated family farm, a young boy with vast mental powers, but lacking emotional development, holds his terrified family in thrall to his every juvenile wish.
Lest you think that these “vast mental powers” are about intelligence, they are not. No, this child’s power is the ability to create whatever he wants, whenever he wants - including the ability to will things “to be dead.”
Sterling, as in all of the original Twilight Zone episodes, is the narrator of this episode. This one, though, starts out a bit differently. Rather than cutting in during the first scene to set up what we’ve been seeing, he begins right after the opening title sequence. Standing in front of a map of the United States he tells us about a small town called Peeksville.
On a given morning not too long ago, the rest of the world disappeared and Peeksville was left all alone. Its inhabitants were never sure whether the world was destroyed and only Peeksville was left untouched, or whether the village itself had been taken away. They were, on the other hand, sure of one thing. The cause. A monster had arrived in the village. Just by using his mind, he took away the automobiles, the electricity, the machines, because they displeased him. And he moved an entire community back into the dark ages, just by using his mind.
The “monster” is the seemingly light-haired, blue-eyed boy (we’re told he has blue eyes - it’s in black and white) named Anthony, who makes three-headed gophers and then when he’s done - wills it dead. He’s done the same to a neighbors dog when its barking disturbed him. Other things maimed, distorted and/or killed, include his father’s cows and another neighbor’s children! If the town is lucky, some of Anthony’s victims get wished away to the cornfields.
Given the powers of Anthony, one can understand why the adults in this town are terrified of him. Even worse, they dare not let their fear show, less he do something to them as well. He can read “read minds and emotions.” As such, every action the child does is greeted with a smile and some version of, “That’s good. That’s very good what you did.”
While watching this episode, the knots in my stomach grew tighter and tighter. The sense of how trapped the townspeople felt was all too familiar, as was the anger at this out-of-control kid. He even hates when people sing, and so, no one dares to.
We learn about the singing issue early on. Serling makes a point of saying that “Aunt Amy” at one point had some control over Anthony, until one day she forgot not to sing. Then, Anthony ‘turned her into the smiling, vacant thing you’re looking at now.” Another interesting tidbit is brought up in some of the first interactions of the townspeople in the first as is the angry accusation a neighbor makes to Anthony’s parents about having had him, a point that is brought up again during the episode's climactic scene.
Because nothing is accidental in this series, these seemingly minor details deserve some thought. What is the reason for specifically making it known that the Aunt once had “some control” over the monster? Why are people blaming the parents - who are clearly as terrified of Anthony as everyone else?
The answer is never stated, but it can be inferred. As much as the child is an anomaly, he couldn't have gotten to the place we are seeing without some help. There had to have been a time before the window where the episode begins where something could have been done about Anthony - but no one did.
Why not? We don’t know. Perhaps the parents thought it was cute that a baby could make a bottle appear whenever he wanted and didn’t think about the implications. The fact that Anthony’s aunt thought she could control him suggests that at some point she realized the extent of his powers, but thought she could somehow benefit from them.
This brings us back to the case of Aunt Amy. As we see in the climactic scene, a single man creates an opportunity to do something about Anthony and save the town from his insane tyranny, but everyone is too scared to even move. Everyone but Aunt Amy. It's a subtle thing, but her reaction is not the same as everyone else's. (You can watch that clip here if you’d like: https://youtu.be/QxTMbIxEj-E?t=78)
What can be seen when viewing Aunt Amy’s reaction to the events is that she actually gives the idea of clocking Anthony over the head some thought.
Now, whether it's whatever loyalty/affection she once had for him, or it's that Anthony has zapped her ability to act on her own thoughts, we don't know. However, she clearly considered taking the action.
The way the episode ends also puts the focus on Aunt Amy. As she was when we first met her, she is complaining about the weather. This repetition of Amy being the only person in town not towing the line of saying everything is “good” becomes even more significant given that she just had the opportunity to take Anthony out. It'a a reminder that she does not have the same level of fear as everyone else. We don't know exactly why this is, but enforces the idea that there is some kind of connection between her and Anthony. That connection is the only explanation as to why he doesn’t take her negativity as a reason for her to be wished into the cornfield. He didn't even do so when she was singing. Yet, the barking dog was gone in a flash. Anthony wants Aunt Amy around - and Aunt Amy, for whatever reason, doesn’t want him gone.
A Powerful Metaphor, A Painful Reality: Trump is America’s “Anthony”
As a former independent turned democrat, watching “It’s A Good Life” seems like a perfect metaphor for what we are witnessing the Republican party do with Donald Trump.
Remember that embarrassing cabinet meeting in June 2017? Trump had when everyone at the table had to stand up and say (in simple fawning language as to not be misconstrued) how great Donald Trump was at being President? It was the first of a series of times where cabinet members go out of their way to heap sycophantic praise on him. You can read a transcript from July 2019 that has more of the same. It’s both hilarious and depressing.) It is similar to the way everyone tells Anthony that everything he does is "very good."
It's not only at official meetings that things like this occur. Reports abound that behind the scenes his aides work to appease Trump and keep him calm. In fact there are entire books about Trump as President that echo that theme. Still, the best description to date is still that of former GOP Senator Bob Corker. After one of Trump’s twitter rants/attacks he tweeted this.
Of course, Corker was only able to say the above once he announced that he was retiring from the Senate.
If only leaving the horrible world of Trump behind was as easy as leaving a job. Alas, unlike Anthony in The Twilight Zone, Trump and his enablers don’t exist in a world separate and apart from the rest of us. His actions lead to havoc in our world and at times have led to the deaths of innocents.
Still, at least in that moment Corker was able to speak up and say the truth. For the most part, the members of the Congressional body that are Republicans continue to tell us all that everything Trump does is fine. The list of “good” Trump deeds gets worse by the day. Here are just a few of the things Republicans have given their stamp of approval.
- Letting foreign governments and lobbyists fill Trump’s pockets with cash via staying at his hotels - which he has never divested himself from.
- Taking the word of Russia’s Vladimir Putin over our own intelligence agencies.
- Making a policy to separate children from their parents at the border that includes keeping those kids in tent-city concentration camps (at least six children have died in this process) - and all without a single plan to reunite the parents with children.
- Abandoning our allies in the battle against ISIS/ISIL so that they were left to be slaughtered by Turkey.
- Deciding, without even notifying the Congressional "Gang of 8," to have Iran's top military leader General Qasem Soleimani, assassinated - a move both a democratic and republican President declined to take because it was tantamount to an act of war.
- Extorting a foreign government to interfere in our elections by insisting they “investigate” his perceived main political opponent for our upcoming 2020 Presidential election.
The above list doesn’t cover all of Trump’s misdeeds. Still, that last entry is the one that has even the moderate wing of the democratic party say “enough!” The clear abuse of power that put the sovereignty of U.S. elections on the line forced the Democrats in the House of Representatives to Impeach Donald Trump. They have given the country the opportunity to remove this menace to society.
In our normal world, our elected representatives would put country over party. As such, the facts as presented would necessitate the removal of Trump from office. However, given the aforementioned list of things Republicans have deemed as "good" acts by this president, these clearly are not normal times. Just like the townspeople in "It's a Good Life" feared Anthony, the GOP members of Congress seem terrified to say anything that might make Trump mad.
Taking the role of Aunt Amy in America's version of "It's a Good Life" is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Like Amy's complaining about the weather, McConnell has occasionally been willing to state a position that is different from Trump. That has not kept him from excusing, defending, and even at times facilitating Trump's atrocious actions. That's because, in McConnell's words.
The thing is, McConnell and the GOP want to do things that the majority of Americans do not want. One of ways McConnell has schemed to achieve the changes a minority of Americans want has been to stack the courts with conservative judges who will help advance what is essentially a modern Confederacy agenda. This is a discussion for another day, but limiting the rights of groups of Americans based on certain traits is right in line with the ideals of the Confederacy. The GOP has been trying to change the courts ever since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The above is why the one person who could stop this out-of-control child we have as President is doing nothing to stop him from completely destroying American democracy. In truth, he doesn’t actually believe in our democracy. Once you realize this, it is not surprising that our current rules of law, including the Constitution’s call to protect our elections from foreign interference, mean little to McConnell, or Trump’s Republican party.
Those who say we should just wait for the election forget that we are dealing with a party that has been championing voter suppression for the last decade. Meanwhile,the GOP’s Senate majority apparently is fine with the idea that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. They have consistently been blocking funding for states to protect their elections from being hacked. Then there’s the matter of them all protecting a President that has publicly asked two different countries — Ukraine and China — to interfere in our elections on his behalf. …We have just crossed over to…The Twilight Zone.
Unfortunately, this situation we are in is not a television script. We can’t just turn the channel. Sure, it is possible that enough members of the Republican's Senate Majority could suddenly remember they're supposed to be protecting the country, not their Senate seats. McConnell could suddenly decide to have a fair trial process examining all the facts that have been pouring out about Trump's actions with Ukraine.
While anything is possible, probable is another story. For any of the things in the previous paragraph to occur, the GOP would have to abandon their agenda, one they have been working on since the days of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. Again, that’s a story for another day. For now, just consider the fact that the argument Trump’s lawyers are using, and the GOP Senators are agreeing with, is the same one than made Nixon resign from office to avoid being impeached. They are basically saying, “If the President does it, it’s not a crime.”
If we the people don’t push back hard on this, they will follow through on this idea, block witnesses, and acquit Trump. At that point, they will have likely doomed American democracy to Anthony's corn field. Yes, we all will organize and vote, but Trump has already told us he plans to ask for foreign help in his re-election, and the GOP has ramped up their voter suppression activities — on top of blocking funding to help states fight any direct hacking of their voting machines. There is also the matter of our Constitution being ripped to shreds if the Senate goes through with no witnesses and documents and acquits Trump.
The difference in the metaphorical story, “It’s a Good Life” and what we’re living through, is this. It appears that for some members of the GOP, including people like Mitch McConnell and Attorney General William Barr, sending liberty and justice for all to the corn field has been the plan all along.