If you really want to know where Trumpism came from, you might spend 15 minutes watching Twelve O:Clock High, the 1949 flying epic starring Gregory Peck as “General Savage,” a hard-tack, uncompromising USAAF (United States Army Air Force) officer who takes over a B-17 squadron so that the old USA can show the rest of the world how they won World War Two…again.
The humour begins during the opening credits, when a very serious message about how authentic the movie is (“real combat footage!”) also assures us that, in 1942, the only Americans fighting in Europe were the brave boys of the US Air Force, and that they “stood alone,” in one breathtakingly arrogant swoop denying EVERY OTHER ALLY that had been resisting since September, 1939. Not to mention this little matter of Stalingrad… No wonder the Russians want to run Washington.
The tough-talking, hard-drinking, utterly MALE story that follows tells us of the importance of grit, courage, and uncompromising hardness that makes for military greatness. If you can stand to watch this unfolding, you will better understand what informs the psyche of post-war America. Bill Maher pointed out, in the weeks leading up to the November elections, that Trump and his cronies are 1950s guys, a last gasp of a social cohort who touted duck-tail hairdos, who thought a good punch in the face was a normal solution for a difference of opinion, who drank a lot of booze, and who poisoned the air with cigarette smoke and the airwaves with the carefully groomed narrative of American exceptionalism.
As a late Boomer, I get Twelve O’Clock High. I remember seeing the film in about 1960, and being awed by the scariness of the world they lived in. (My uncle had been a bomber pilot.) But you can’t watch this movie in the 21st century without feeling like it was as foreign as, say, the public ceremonies choreographed for the people of North Korea. It is, however, instructive to re-visit such a film and remember that when Trump makes statements about the world that sound insane, he is merely expressing the conditioning of his youth.
Make no mistake: much of what Trump says (taken at face value, rather than as conniving political ploy) is literally insane. Solving the USA’s problems with prescriptions from the 1940s is nuts: the values evinced by those who faced the Nazi scourge have little in common with the values that we share and need today. Equally irrelevant is the social miasma in which Trump lives, surrounded by those who merely reflect back at him the “alternate truth” he floats in. If you live in a golden temple in a high-rise tower, you are by definition out of touch with reality; that Trump is dangerously so is amply proven by everything he says and does.
I don’t think many people under the age of sixty could possibly bring themselves to watch the aforementioned film, not because it’s black and white, not because it doesn’t have a decent story arc (not to mention some authentic combat footage), but rather because its prescriptions for survival are so very, very irrelevant. And that’s what’s so bizarre and frightening about the current state of US power: the neocons who have control of the US government are perfectly equipping us all for life in 1942.
If this is the terrible danger in which we find ourselves, it is also a source of hope. This is the last time when the USA can go so mistakenly, so shockingly backwards. The Fifties Guys are already on Geritol, and before long, they’ll be on a slab. Take comfort. Our progressive hearts will inevitably push forward, and it is not General Savage who will lead: it will be women.
In the meantime, if you want to see a really cool Peck performance, I must highly recommend Duel in the Sun, directed by King Vidor (one of my favourite Hollywood names). Peck plays the spoiled, nasty, sexy cowboy son of a rancher in a performance that’s as baroque and compelling as his rendering of General Savage is stiff and formulaic.