If you’ve been wondering what it might have felt like to be a fanatically left-wing woman in the months following President Trump’s election, the first episode of American Horror Story: Cult gives you an inkling. Our protagonist has visions of killer clowns nobody else can see rampaging through the supermarket on scooters while she haplessly lobs bottles of rosé at them. Dark? Meh. Disturbing? Not really. Hilarious? Now you’re getting the idea. “This is just like what happened to me in college after 9/11 when I couldn’t leave my apartment!” complains the woman. Yep, there’s a sure sign that you’ve completely lost touch with reality.
The seventh season of the FX Network horror anthology series, which has a different storyline each year, seems to be the first major Hollywood production to grapple with the Trump presidency on TV or at the movies. It kicked off this season’s opener on September 5 with news footage of then-candidate Donald Trump and — what’s her name? The lady who just assumed she was going to beat him? It segues into what election-night television coverage looked like from two living rooms in a posh suburb in Michigan. In one, a psychotic blue-haired freak who looks like the kind of guy who would make the Joker slightly uncomfortable joyously watches Fox News: “The revolution has begun!” he crows, and “F*** you, world!” and “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” This is the bad guy, if you were wondering.
In another, huge and beautifully appointed home in the same town, the series’ central figure, Ally Mayfair-Richards, a lesbian who owns a restaurant with her wife Ivy (Allison Pill), is having a breakdown watching CNN. “Oh my God, Merrick Garland,” she exclaims. “What’s gonna happen with Merrick Garland?” Like I said: comedy gold. The eager, well-spoken progressives in the house are already turning on one another: One guest, a city councilman, berates another, saying, “Look at our friends on the couch and tell them that they might not be able to retain their rights as a married couple because you were too busy on Etsy to go vote!” Everyone is in general agreement that Trump is going to “get us all killed” and abortion will be banned, though it’s left unclear why anyone should much care about the latter detail after the first one comes to pass. On a later episode, Ally will be so flustered by everything that’s going on that she shoots and kills one of her own employees, a Latino, but the police seem to shrug that off as an oopsie. Well-off white progressives get a mulligan for that sort of thing, I guess. We all know they mean well.
Ally is somewhat of a figure of fun — “You know we don’t like cis-normative pet names,” she tells her son — but she’s also the Cassandra here, the one whose demented visions are, all. Too. Real. Mysterious figures are spraying the neighborhood with lethal chemicals, and that murderous pack of clowns roaming the area is a costumed Manson family, carrying out acts of violence so graphically depicted that they would have been shocking even in an R-rated movie in the 1970s. Despite the savage killings in the area, everyone poo-poohs Ally’s anguish as if they’re in on a Rosemary’s Baby conspiracy, even the babysitter, a Hillary Clinton fan who bemoans the election like everyone else (“We gave a year of our lives for this. We dropped out of Vassar!”).
Though the Trump hysteria is hysterical — really, DJT fans, you have to see at least the first episode, you’ll never stop laughing — as the series goes on its politics become more diffuse, especially in the fourth episode, which is the latest one that has been made available to critics in the projected eleven-episode season. Our blue-haired friend the Fox News revolutionary turns out to be Kai, an aspiring cult leader who talks like a cross between a fire-and-brimstone televangelist and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. The point of the series is not so much that Trump is evil as that he is the cause of evil in others, his election having flipped over a large flat rock of the American subconscious to let out the squiggly, filthy impulses underneath. Kai isn’t really a political figure but an agent of chaos: All the chatter about illegal immigration and political correctness is for him just the means to unleash merry hell.
In a word, the show’s writers believe Trump’s election has amped up fear in America, on both sides. “Above all, humans love fear,” says Kai. They pile it up “as tall as the Trump Tower.” As the show is constructed, though, this plays out a bit like the shoplifter blaming security guards for her habit. Trump, after all, promised to allay existing fears — “I alone can fix it,” “this American carnage stops right here and right now.” If he promised to end abortion, start World War III, or force American women to dress like the Puritan Taliban, I missed it, and he’s also the first president ever to arrive in the Oval Office saying he was okay with gay marriage. The things about him that the Left most fears (or feared; AHS: Cult already seems a bit like a period piece from six months ago, when progressives on social media were collectively setting their hair on fire) are products of the Left’s imagination. Our progressive friends have had a hard time learning that Trump, whatever his failings, isn’t Hitler — the image that the serial killers in the show seem to be conjuring up with their trademark, a happy face written in blood, with a vertical smear suggesting a narrow mustache under the nose.
The point of the series is not so much that Trump is evil as that he is the cause of evil in others
When AHS stitches together liberal fears, a lot of ragged seams are left showing. One of the good Trump-hating liberals on the show lectures Kai, “You are afraid, we are not,” just before another Trump-hating liberal tells her shrink about all of her debilitating Trump-induced phobias, not excluding a fear of coral. Nor does it make a lot of sense when the Fox News–loving villain gives an angry speech praising collectivism: “Every single member of the hive is completely committed to a single task.” Er, remind me, which party’s last president said things like “preserving our individual freedom ultimately requires collective action”? Which party’s 2016 candidate issued a campaign manifesto called Stronger Together? Which one insists it takes a village to raise a child? To minute the most vivid left-wing fears is to produce a catalogue of projection.