We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom.
We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping flesh, as if it is some sort of macabre ballet. Rap music has institutionalized violence against women and the police — to the tune of billions in profits, largely as a way for suburban kids to find vicarious street authenticity. And this idea of metaphorically cutting, bleeding, or shooting those whom you don’t like without real consequences has seeped into the national political dialogue.
For example, why does popular culture wink and nod at the widespread metaphorical killing of Republican presidents? Liberals used to believe that words mattered and images had consequences; the casual glorification of carnage trivialized violence and only made it more acceptable — and likely.
Why does popular culture wink and nod at the widespread metaphorical killing of Republican presidents? Liberals used to believe that words mattered and images had consequences.
In 2017, the obsessive hatred of Trump led, for instance, to many obscenities: Madonna told us she dreamed of blowing up the White House, comedian Kathy Griffin posed with a bloody facsimile of Trump’s head, Snoop Dog shot a Trump likeliness in a video, a Shakespearean company ritually stabbed Trump-Caesar every night on stage, Johnny Depp joked, “When was the last time an actor assassinated a president? … It has been a while, and maybe it is time.”
But such kill chic is hardly new — and hardly a result of Trump’s sometimes reckless tweets or undisciplined outbursts.
In 2012, a model of the head of former president George W. Bush turned up on a pike in HBO’s Game of Thrones, “by accident” of course. But by then kill-Bush chic was already a tired genre. In the heat of the 2004 election, Alfred A. Knopf had published Nicholson Baker’s novel Checkpoint. It was little more than a boring dialogue of characters dreaming about how to assassinate President Bush. (It’s now “updated” by To Kill the President, by British writer Jonathan Freedland (aka Sam Bourne), a thriller about assassinating a Trump-like president.) In October 2004, long before Johnny Depp’s John Wilkes Booth rant, Guardian guest columnist Charles Brooker lamented that there would be no presidential assassin to kill Bush: “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. — where are you now that we need you?”
The list of “assassinate Bush” public expressions could be expanded — they appeared in a variety of genres, such as Gabriel Range 2006 “docudrama,” Death of a President, which portrayed the successful killing in 2007 of George W. Bush (replete with a president funeral scene).
Between the kill-Bush and kill-Trump chic was the welcomed, calmer hiatus of the eight-year tenure of Barack Obama. True, his critics were often crude, questioning his birth certificate and dredging up stories of his supposedly dissolute youth. But there was, thank God, never an assassination chic among celebrities and in the popular culture associated with Obama, despite the strong passions he often incited. Had there been anything between 2009 and 2017 like Checkpoint or Death of a President, the edgy artist in question would have been ruined if not brought into court and jailed in the manner of the scapegoated Benghazi video-maker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula or perhaps at least surveilled like the journalists Sharyl Attkisson and James Rosen.
More often, Nobel laureate Obama earned hagiography, as journalists hyperbolically compared him to a God or enthused that he was capable of making one’s leg tingle. That piety was often encouraged by Obama himself, who had announced his intention to cool the planet and lower the seas (given recent frigid winters in the American heartland and the near-dry canals of Venice, he may have partially succeeded).
In fact, there was a sort of kill chic that occasionally surrounded Obama — but of a completely different sort.
In January 2016, Obama hosted rapper Kendrick Lamar at the White House. (Lamar’s hit “How Much a Dollar Cost” was said to be Obama’s favorite song of 2015). Another Lamar song “BLOOD” (with the lyrics “and we hate the popo”) took on the police at a time when police shootings were in the news. The cover of Lamar’s just-released album at that time, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” depicted a dozen or so African-American young men on the lawn in the front of the White House, celebrating with champagne bottles and hundred-dollar bills over the corpse of a white judge at their feet, who sort of resembled Ronald Reagan, with his eyes x-ed out.
Reverse the roles and imagine an invitation to the White House for a country-western singer who had produced such a racialized cover, and one could expect another impeachment resolution. I suppose the Kendrick cover art was meant to imply that the revolution had succeeded — the old white guard was not just gone but, happily, dead, and the time was upon us to bring on the cash and drinks to celebrate the new guard in the White House.
Ignoring Lamar’s racist art and anti-police lyrics is like having your picture taken in 2005 with Louis Farrakhan (“The Jews talk about ‘never again.’… You cannot say ‘never again’ to God because when he puts you in the oven, you’re in one indeed!…‘Never again’ don’t mean a damn thing when God get ready for you!”). Embracing Lamar gave Obama street cred, but with plausible deniability: After all, a public figure cannot be responsible for all the cry of-the-heart expressions of an artist or social activist.
More recently, Obama unveiled his official presidential portrait by the hip artistic sensation Kehinde Wiley. Wiley is an identity-politics conceptual artist who emphasizes his own black and gay identity as essential to his work. He previously had courted controversy on two occasions for recalibrating well-known paintings from the past — reworking the scenes of violence in interracial fashion. In these two paintings, a black woman, sword in one hand, is holding up the severed head of a white women she has just decapitated. Or as Kehinda Wiley once described his black-on-white severances to New York magazine, “It’s sort of a play on the ‘kill whitey’ thing.”
What explains the rules of a rather disgusting genre of assassination, decapitation, or kill chic? Most obviously, presidential conservatives are targeted, while Obama flirts with those who artistically indulge in fantasy interracial killings. And the rules over the last two decades seem pretty clear:
1) By their supposedly immoral natures, conservatives have deserved such obscene fantasy invective (Trump with fatal bloody knife wounds and Bush’s head on a pike are almost natural).
To achieve progressive agendas, one can explore all the violent avenues of the imagination.
In contrast, liberal leaders are moral people. Even to fantasize that their leaders might suffer the same fate is repugnant. The means are different because the ends are, too: equality and social justice versus white privilege and exploitation. Simply put: To achieve progressive agendas, one can explore all the violent avenues of the imagination.
2) Given the long history of racial oppression in the United States, there can be no resort to “what if the roles were reversed?” contextualization (e.g. a talentless pop artist as Trump’s official painter, with a past of substituting blacks for white victims in famous paintings of decapitation, explaining that the reversals were a sort of play on the “kill blacks thing”). Imagining or depicting white decapitation or the murder of a GOP president is an anguished, warranted cry of the oppressed, whereas reversing the racial roles would be proof that racism endures. The art world by nature poses as antithetical to the powers that be; to imagine that it would turn on the establishment forces of social justice is not just unrealistic but absurd.
3) Metaphorically assassinating a Bush or Trump has no real-life ramifications. Lowering the bar of what is culturally acceptable has nothing to do with violence such as a Bernie Sanders supporter shooting Representative Steven Scalise and fellow Republican congressmen. But in the case of progressive targets, lowering the bar just might have real consequences, given the Right’s innate propensity for hate and violence.
Translated, that means that the sober and mellifluous Obama can engage his culturally explorative side — and in his usual judicious tones — while not being especially bothered by the killing chic of Kendrick Lamar or Kehinde Wiley whom he patronizes. All that is a welcomed edgy expression of authenticity and presidential versatility.
And perhaps in the same warped manner, so is the art of ritually killing Bush or Trump in film, art, and literature, through knife, bullet, and bomb: artistically pushing the envelope — and all for a noble cause.