Prior to 2017, the inauguration of Donald Trump as the President of the United States seemed like an impossibility. Even after he was voted into power, there was confusion and calls for recount. Just like Brexit, it seemed like one of those things that would be much talked about but would never actually come to pass. Unfortunately, just like our own surprise vote in favour of exiting the European Union, Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, and gained control of one of the leading world superpowers and all of its resources.
While it sounds like some bizarre, dystopian nightmare, as Trump continues down his path of isolationism – constructing border walls, pulling out of trade agreements and buddying up with foreign leaders accused of crimes against their own people (we’ve all been privy to those cinematic promotional videos from the Trump-Kim summit) – it becomes clear that this nightmare is the frightening reality that America faces.
Think about every dystopian movie franchise you’ve ever watched. At the beginning of every major societal overthrow, there are these ‘founding father’ type characters, the leaders – those that have the money and means to rise to power, and are happy to pay those around them to fall in line. Once they’re in the prime position, they consolidate their power quickly by surrounding themselves with loyal followers. Films such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games and even the Star Wars franchise tell tales of villains seizing power in this way. The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) shows us a far-right, fanatical Christian faction rising to power, stripping their citizens of their rights and their identities in order to consolidate their control.
Sure, this is an extreme example, and it’s not as if Trump’s administration are forcing their fertile women into institutionalised rape due to the declining birth rates. But they did immediately sign an executive order banning citizens from seven ‘Muslim-majority’ countries from entering the US – including some that were legally US residents. Although this was overturned several times, just this week the executive order has been upheld by the supreme courts who have deemed it ‘constitutional’ to implement such a ban. It may not be Handmaid’s Tale material, but it’s not such a rosy picture either. While the 2016 presidential election may be the democratic version of these dystopian uprisings, some of the first actions Trump took during his time in the White House feel alarmingly close to home when watching films such as The Purge or Handmaid’s Tale. Trump’s consolidation of power, arrange jobs for his close family members in the White House (namely his daughter and son-in-law) feels eerily familiar.
But unfortunately, despite a few raised eyebrows from critics, it turns out that there’s not an awful lot anyone can do about it as long as they can prove that their private businesses “aren’t profiting” from their position (*wink*). This idea alone, the idea that a businessman is able to buy his way into a presidency – because let’s face it, unfortunately being rich is particularly helpful in the American democratic system – is unthinkable. But unfortunately, after 18 months riddled by scandal, protests and complete disbelief from the rest of the world, this seems to be the harsh reality.
With this in mind, it’s difficult not to draw parallels between Trump’s presidency and The Purge franchise (2013-2018). The first film introduces the concept of an annual, national purge, whereby all crime (including murder) is legalised for one night a year. The ‘New Founding Fathers’ assure the nation that, by allowing citizens the opportunity to “release the beast” and go on a murderous rampage for one night a year on ‘purge night,’ crime rate will decrease because they’ll feel less need to “cleanse their souls’”for the rest of the year. Makes perfect sense. And to an extent, it seems to be working, with their reportedly declining crime rates and happy, unified nation.
But the problem here is that those that benefit from the annual purge are those that have the money and status to protect themselves from the horrors of purge night. One of the other key actions that Trump took was the reversal Obama’s healthcare reforms, effectively stripping free healthcare from thousands of under-privileged people. On a more violent scale, this is the same in The Purge. The sick and the poor, those that can’t afford the weapons to protect themselves, are the ones that suffer on purge night. The reversal of Obamacare is particularly telling when it comes to Trump’s apparent disregard for the underprivileged – in Trump’s America, this would refer to immigrants, those unable to afford proper healthcare, and basically any other minority group you can think of. In the world of The Purge, it’s those unable to afford the means to defend themselves against wannabe murderers. Either way, Trump’s flagrant disregard for any kind of socialist reform, and his reversal of anything that might have helped the underprivileged is reminiscent of the principles of the New Founding Father’s America.
The next two films in the franchise, Anarchy (2014) and Election Year (2016), saw this political poignancy grow as Trump began campaigning for the presidency, resulting in a particularly scathing promotional poster for The First Purge that looked uncannily like Trump’s ‘Make American Great Again’ campaign posters. These films tell the story of racial and social injustice, from the perspective of the downtrodden, and Blumhouse Productions are making it very clear where their satirical fingers are being pointed. Except that in Election Year, they’re campaigning to continue a society so scared of crime and poverty that they spend one night a year hacking each other to death with machetes. These ideas – the fear of ‘immigrants and the poor placing a strain on the economy’ is an ideology of contempt passed down by the wealthy – men like Donald Trump, in fact.
The Purge (2013) explored this concept from the perspective of the upper class, those who are supportive of the purge as they watch the proceedings through their impenetrable security barriers. Ethan Hawke’s family are the epitome of the top one per cent, passively watching the outcomes of the annual murders from their multi-million-dollar fortress. The rich are not at risk here, and Hawke perfectly embodies the apathetic security system salesman, seeing only in money and crime statistics, rather than actual people. They believe in the ideology because they don’t have to see or feel the pain that their decisions inflict.
But the parallels aren’t necessarily just theoretical. Think about Trump’s stance on gun control for a second. After a series of mass school shootings at the beginning of 2018, instead of banning guns (like they did successfully in the UK in the 1980s), Trump suggests that the way to prevent gun violence in schools is to put firearms in the hands of the teachers – to defend themselves.
Is this not the very central idea of The Purge? Fight fire with fire. Prevent crime by allowing them to get all of the pillaging, stealing and murdering out of their system. Defend your kids from school shootings by… putting guns in schools.
Here in the UK, to most people the idea of having a gun in your home is a strange concept – and in all likelihood, the same could be said for most US citizens as well. And yet, when their children go to school they have to live with the knowledge that there have been 23 mass school shootings in the US in the first half of 2018. In the same way that the characters in The Purge have to live with the fact that, on one night a year, if they don’t bolt that door up tight enough, someone is legally entitled to break in and murder their entire family with no repurcussions.
As mentioned, the ones who suffer here are those without the funds or the status to protect themselves and their families, while those who makes the laws reap the benefits of others’ sacrifice. This is the attitude that shines through with every piece of legislation proposed by the Trump administration – whether it’s trade, abortion or gun legislation, Trump doesn’t suffer the consequences of his extremist views. The minorities do, in exactly the same way as the poor in The New Founding Father’s America. It seems the recipe for a dystopian nightmare is a self-serving government and a ‘fix-all’ idea to mend the countries problems. In The Purge, they have been given the illusion that they have the freedom to kill and unleash their bloodlust for one night a year, all the while still being the puppet on the end of the government’s string. In our own reality, Trump takes campaign millions of dollars in campaign donations from the NRA and in return he blocks any tightening of existing gun legislation.
It is possible that the franchise was only ever meant to be a cool concept, and that the political comparisons drawn are a cynical ploy to gain critical status. But there’s no denying that the parallels are there, and that the idea of an annual ‘purge’ is potentially not as far away as we think. It does seem like something that Trump would come up with. However, one also has to question the likelihood of Trump being actually being able to pass any laws during his term, let alone one so extreme as an annual purge. His ineffectiveness as president may save the American nation yet. But let’s hope the origin story we see in next instalment of the franchise, The First Purge on 4th July, doesn’t hit too close to home. ‘Make America Great Again’ indeed.