Bryan Cranston gets Donald Trump. Just glance at his interviews with CNN and the BBC last year. Trump has given the actor an opportunity to re-explore the mind of Walter White, the protagonist he played on the epic TV series Breaking Bad.
Over five seasons of Breaking Bad, White undergoes a transformation. Diagnosed with inoperable cancer and driven to breaking point, he takes to making crystallized methamphetamine to ensure some financial security for his family after he dies. Soon he becomes a drug-racket kingpin. The victim is now an abuser, challenging the world.
Episode 1 has White literally on his knees. He is a good and reasonable man but his every path is blocked. His feminist wife subtly disrespects him and looks at him with pity. He cannot perform in bed. An intelligent man, he wastes his time teaching youths who have no interest. We see him cleaning tires to earn some extra dollars. His son is crippled.
Cartel members, junkies, and the Drug Enforcement Administration all try to stop White, but the show reserves a special place in its pantheon for two tech billionaires from a very different world. This is a world White could have been a part of, but he somehow missed. Here empowered people drive expensive cars, live in California, and practice philanthropy. Their world is good, and they want to make it better. They see themselves as both generous and enlightened. Envy and the bitter perception of hypocrisy are White’s primary motivators.
White invades their world. He bursts their bubble.
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Ostensibly evil, White can also be seen as providing catharsis: a radical therapy. His words are mild, but his deeds tear asunder one politically correct temple after another, leaving them in ruins. Even White’s signature product, his 99.1 percent pure blue meth, and the show’s ever-present luminous green suggest a kind of detergent, a toxic agent dealing death both to the poisoners and the poisoned and thereby cleansing the earth.
Is this Donald Trump? He’s not so radical, but perhaps the feelings and perceptions of Walter White have something in common with those of Trump’s early and most enthusiastic supporters.
Trump may be the most moderate voice that is viable in today’s political climate.
Trump today has crashed a different, political world. Along the way, he has been accused of stoking racial insensitivity, even intolerance, and was feted by racist groups. In the final season of Breaking Bad, Walter White has to rely on neo-Nazis to kill on his behalf. And whenever we see Mexico in Breaking Bad, it is a land of murderous drug pushers who worship the Santa Muerte. Everyone else in Breaking Bad is white, and, because of his chemotherapy, White himself is literally a skinhead.
These comparisons may be momentarily arresting, but, on this point, any analogy between Breaking Bad and Trump is superficial — skin deep, as it were. For most viewers, the show’s references to race and ethnicity are only incidental, just as the alt-right controversies that punctuated the Trump campaign were mere diversions from his primary themes.
Trump is best understood as a man of the 1980s, and much about him recalls that bygone era: the décor of his buildings, his 1986 deal to buy Mar-a-Lago, his best-selling 1987 book The Art of the Deal, and his bouffant hairstyle. Fast-forward to 2017 and Trump’s guiding principle appears to be resetting the clock back to the Reagan era: In domestic policy, back to lower taxes, and in foreign policy, perhaps back to Iceland 1986, when Reagan sat down with Russia.
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Can “America First” and “back to the future” deliver? We’ll find out. What is not in doubt is the recent collapse of political prestige on both left and right. Trump did not singlehandedly burst that bubble, but he has emerged to claim much of the ground on which it once stood.
Like Walter White, Trump has imported into an elite social universe a dose of desperation from the other side of the tracks. That is their common appeal, which Cranston has spotted. Our slowness to recognize it suggests that even diagnosing the problem remains hard for us.
Meanwhile, liberal democracy worldwide is imperiled, discredited as a management tool that an elite over-class has abused and appears determined not to give up. Something must be done. If it isn’t done quickly, even Trump may be given short shrift. And his successor would surely promise more-radical solutions. Trump’s election, then, may mark not the end but the beginning of a protracted period of upheaval. In fact, he may be the most moderate voice that is viable in today’s political climate. With that in mind we should wish him well.