President Donald Trump's behavior both prior to and after taking office has triggered fears about the damage he could do to the long-term health of American democracy.
But these are not new fears. As Clive Irving noted in The Daily Beast, Hollywood for decades has sold the public nightmare scenarios about American democracy being corrupted and replaced with an incompetent or fanatical despot — keeping the possibility, and the worry, alive in people's minds. And sometimes, that worry has played a hand in deciding the outcome of presidential elections.
Irving cited as an example the 1964 election, which gave us the infamous "Daisy" ad and which saw Democrats winning their biggest landslide since the 1930s.
"In some of [Republican Barry] Goldwater’s commercials he comes across in tone and text eerily like the villain of one of that year’s best movies, the wonderfully named General James Mattoon Scott, played by Burt Lancaster, in Seven Days in May," wrote Irving. "Scott, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, is the ringleader of a covert military plot to replace a liberal president with a ruthless anti-communist hawk — Scott himself."
As Irving noted, that movie's director, John Frankenheimer, "was also the director of the mother of all presidential conspiracies, the 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate in which the plot is not a right-wing coup but a communist conspiracy to plant a pliant puppet in the White House."
Also relevant to modern fears over Trump, wrote Irving, was Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
"A rogue Air Force general initiates a nuclear strike on Russia and makes sure it can’t be aborted by the standard safety procedures. This throws both the Russian and American leaders into an urgent alliance to avert catastrophe. Three of the main characters, the American president, a British air force officer and Strangelove himself, a demented ex-Nazi nuclear strategist, are played by Peter Sellers," wrote Irving. "Rather than suggest a wider conspiracy, Kubrick and the two writers, Terry Southern and Peter George, set out to show how easily the sum of all our fears could unfold through the actions of one all-too-plausible maniac. In a way, that makes it much more scary."
But the most prescient movie of them all, he argued, is Being There.
"In this hilarious but also very dark comedy an idiot savant gardener named Chance glides, bemused, through a wave of accidental encounters until he ends up giving economic advice to a president. Confusion over his name and vocation produces his new identity, Chauncey Gardner, a man totally unequipped to be a potted plant, let alone a president and yet who, when the president dies, becomes a candidate to replace him," wrote Irving. "This destiny emerges only in the movie’s final scenes, where a casket containing a deceased president is carried to a mausoleum. In audible whispers the pallbearers, all members of the president’s inner circle, decide that Chauncey, despite being a simpleton, should be installed in office because his TV ratings went through the roof."
"It has to be admitted that the villains produced by our paranoia in the ’60s and ’70s seem comparatively simple now in their characterizations," wrote Irving. "They don’t anticipate the sheer crazy velocity of a Twitter-driven news cycle commanded by a president. Nor did those movies prepare us for the way this travesty of governance would be accepted so easily: Through the complicity of the Republican Party and through a wider collective apathy in the face of legislated bigotry and racism that echoes that of Germany in 1933."
"In our brain we know he’s insane — but who is ready to deal with that, and how?" concluded Irving.