‘Tis the season to be jolly, unless you’re a loser. That’s right, the end of 2016 is upon us, and aside from remorselessly swiping David Bowie, Prince, and Natalie Cole from the world of the living, 2016 also installed a boorish orange Philistine into the highest office in the land. There have been numerous watershed elections in U.S. history, but the race that hacked the astringent Trump loogie out of the dankest corner of America’s collective nasal passage and spat him into the Oval Office will surely rank as one of the rankest examples of American democratic excess.
Donald J. Trump — he of the speed-bumped squirrel bouffant and Tang-tinged rice-paper skin — rode a tidal wave of white resentment that allowed him to give high-school swirlys to the aloof establishment nabobs in both political parties. But anyone who cared to pay attention to the festering cloud of amorphous fear mixed with shoulder-chipped resentment that has floated across the Heartland for decades should have noticed that Trump wasn’t some new development in American politics; rather, he’s the culmination of a long-building new American identity: that of the hopelessly besieged.
One seemingly silly movie from the 1980s perfectly envisioned the idea of a besieged America that would push voters into Trump’s charlatan claws some three decades later. I’m talking about the 1984 Steven Spielberg-produced, Joe Dante-directed holiday horror/comedy Gremlins.
I was four-years old back when Gremlins hit the American pop-culture landscape, and ever since I first saw it on glorious VHS, it’s become an annual holiday viewing staple. Released by Warner Bros. in the summer of 1984, the film nonetheless takes place at Christmas in Kingston Falls, a fictional Rockwellian town in upstate New York. The residents of Kingston Falls live with the nagging feeling that their best days are behind them even as they’re unable to predict what lies ahead.
The plot is fairly straightforward. Rand Peltzer (folk singer and actor, Hoyt Axton), is a lower middle-class inventor who visits New York City’s Chinatown in search of a unique Christmas gift for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan). In keeping with the American film tradition that sees The Orient as the wellspring of unfathomable exotics, Rand’s quest leads him to the spooky basement shop of Mr. Wing (Keye Luke), where he purchases an adorably hirsute little critter called a mogwai. But there are three rules when it comes to keeping a mogwai: 1.) never get them wet 2.) keep them away from bright light, and 3.) never feed them after midnight.
Rand takes the mogwai back home to Kingston Falls and gives it to Billy. Of course, the Peltzers then proceed to break the rules pertaining to the mogwai, whom they name Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel. Yes, you heard me). When they get water on Gizmo, he multiplies by shooting more mogwai out of his back. Billy then unwittingly feeds the new mogwai (who display psychotic tendencies) after midnight, causing them to pupate and morph into little reptilian demons knowns as gremlins, who multiply further and unleash a Christmas Eve orgy of nihilistic destruction and murder. The remainder of the film follows Billy and his companion Kate (1980s icon Phoebe Cates) as they try to stop the rampaging little bastards from spreading beyond Kingston Falls.
Gremlins is marinated in the juices of impending decline at the hands of external forces that are pulling at the tightly wound seams of suburban America. Steven Spielberg produced the film, and it shares a theme that runs through many of the movies he directed or produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s: the idea of extraordinary and supernatural things invading the mundane reality of the suburbs.
In Jaws (1975), an extraordinarily yoooge great white shark turns a small New England town into its own personal smorgasbord. In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1980), a benign space alien’s arrival brings shadowy government forces into a quiet suburban neighborhood. That same year, Spielberg went even darker with Poltergeist, in which a supernatural force unleashes hell in a suburban California home. Even Spielberg’s lighter fare from the mid-80s featured outside threats disrupting suburban bliss. The Goonies (1985) saw ravenous developers ready to tear down the suburban homes of cute Oregon kids, while Back to the Future (also 1985), turned the extraordinary science of time travel into a threat to a California teenager’s literal existence. As James Kendrick notes, darkness hangs over the suburban America of Spielberg’s films of the 70s and 80s. These movies are “deeply conflicted, their surface pleasures often cracking open to reveal fissures of darkness, despair, loneliness, and regret that their conclusions, no matter how upbeat on the surface, couldn’t fully resolve.”*
Joe Dante, the director of Gremlins, frequently collaborated with Spielberg in the 1980s, and his own underrated filmography displays a similar interest in the world of the bizarre and sinister invading America’s suburbs, albeit with even more biting satire. In films like Explorers (1985) and The Burbs (1989), Dante brought suburban white kids to outer space and skull-collecting weirdos to a quiet cul-de-sac, respectively. In Dante’s films, the normal becomes abnormal — usually because the former lurks just under the surface of the latter. Gremlins is easily the best example of Dante’s weirdly satirical vision, and its theme of an urban-spawned, amoral horde descending upon white America’s white-picket-fence refuge draws a direct line from Ronald Reagan’s America to our current Trumpian nightmare.
The fear that unwelcome outsiders would invade the lily-white suburbs has long been a theme in American politics. The notion of “White Flight” — quivering caucasians vacating the cities to escape the black and brown hordes therein — dates back to the 1950s, if not earlier, but the trend accelerated in the 1960s alongside the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the Counterculture. For “normal” white Americans, the chance to relocate to the suburbs meant escaping criminally inclined negroes and radical leftist hippies in dens of depravity like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.
As urban riots engulfed the Age of Aquarius, Richard Millhouse Nixon harnessed the resentment of the white “Silent Majority” to score a landslide victory in the 1968 presidential election. When combined with the beginning of a now decades-long decline in American manufacturing and real wage growth, White Flight transformed Nixon’s “Silent Majority” into a lynchpin of the Republican Party’s coalition. “Once settled in suburbia,” writes historian Kevin Kruse, “these whites did not abandon the mindset of white flight but instead carried it to its logical conclusion, what might be termed ‘the politics of suburban secession.'” America’s new suburbanites “severed all local ties with the city and…made their presence felt on the national stage to ensure that the isolation they now enjoyed in the suburbs would never be disturbed.”*
By the 1980s, with the triumph of Ronald Reagan and the attendant rise of the New Right, the suburbs had largely made their full transition into escapist white enclaves where, as Spielberg once described, “you go to sleep and you dream about making enough money to support weekend America.”* While the populations of black and Latino suburban residents did increase by the 80s, these populations tended to be concentrated in poorer suburbs that were conspicuously absent of white people. The white suburbs of Reagan’s America served as a last retreat from the myriad external threats that seemed determined to disturb the tidy isolation to which whites had retreated. What Charles Haar calls “a fortress mentality for the excluders” served to keep out not just blacks, but also liberals, communists, feminists, criminals of all kinds, creditors, banks, and suspicious foreigners.* Anyone could be a threat, because fear underlay the suburbs’ idyllic façade.
Such was the case with the suburban setting of Gremlins. While it looks like an idyllic small town, Kingston Falls’ charming exterior hides a roiling torrent of human anxiety where everyone’s afraid that something or someone will take away what’s theirs.
Billy Peltzer fears that Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), the town’s wealthy, Scrooge-like crone, will murder his dog, while a working mother (Belinda Balaski) shudders at the glee with which Mrs. Deagle plans to evict her. Billy’s acquaintance, Gerald (Judge Reinhold) is a status-obsessed yuppie chasing the managerial dream as a means to escape a future in hick-town purgatory. Billy’s father, Rand, is a struggling inventor who fears his tinkering will reward him not with entrepreneurial glory, but with humiliating failure. Kate fears that Christmas will bring back memories of her father’s chimney-related holiday demise. Billy’s middle-aged neighbor, Murray Futterman (character actor and Joe Dante film staple Dick Miller) is a struggling blue-collar schlub who’s obsessed with the threat that foreign competition poses to American manufacturing (“Goddamn foreign cars. You gotta watch out for them foreigners cuz they plant gremlins in their machinery!”). Mr. Futterman’s worries prove well-founded after the real gremlins demolish his house with a snow plow.
The individual fears of Kingston Falls’ residents pale in comparison, however, to the collective fear of being besieged by an external force. When the gremlins begin their rampage through the town, they demonstrate a comical disregard for the basic rules of civilization. Their Christmas Eve is the mad banquet of the Libertines: an amoral, murderous, depraved display of self-indulgence mixed with homicidal glee and a wanton disregard for conservative shibboleths about law and order. Spielberg and Dante found fertile ground for this type of pop-culture mayhem in a Reaganite America obsessed with keeping “urban” residents out of the suburbs. The world of Gremlins ultimately provided a fear-based cultural template that Donald Trump exploited brilliantly.
In perhaps the movie’s most infamous scene, the gremlins take over the town tavern for a night of debauched drinking, smoking, gambling and general partying that would make Caligula blush. Folklorist Patricia Turner notes that the little beasties (who ultimately originate from the city) act like stereotypically callous black youths. The gremlins are depicted “devouring fried chicken with their hands,” as well as breakdancing to black music and sporting sunglasses and newsboy caps, a popular style among black youths in the 1980s, particularly in New York City. Moreover, blogger Johnny Pozzini points out the not-too-veiled racial threat that the gremlins pose to the white residents of Kingston Falls. The gremlins “make their way into the suburbs” to “enter a neighborhood not made for them” where they embody white fears of a revolting underclass. Given that much of the conservative identity of Reagan’s America revolved around notions of white suburban purity and black urban chaos, the idea of a rampaging urban population overrunning the land of White Flight proved perfect fodder for a seemingly silly horror-comedy.
In the decades after Reagan, the notion that white suburban America was under siege from nefarious external forces only became more fixated within conservative cultural identity, which brings us full circle back to Donald Trump.
The Orange One launched his successful presidential campaign with a warning that “others” were besieging white America, starting with illegal Mexican immigrants. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” The Donald warned, “they’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Then Trump proposed a ban on Muslim travel to the U.S. “Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad.” Then there was the continuing problem of the “inner cities,” the verbal equivalent of catnip to conservative white suburbanites. “The conditions in our inner cities today are unacceptable,” Trump said in Charlotte, “Democratic [urban] policies have…given rise to crippling crime and violence,” he continued, and proposed “a new deal for Black America.” But Trump wasn’t speaking to Black America with these remarks, he was speaking to white suburban and small-town Americans who have long been terrified by the spectre of crime-ridden “inner cities” crawling with black people.
Trump’s America is a besieged America. It’s an America where the white majority’s cultural power could bleed out at any moment under the strain of a million cuts from the razors of “political correctness.” No wonder his lunk-headed pitch to “Make America Great Again” proved so appealing: people only really appreciate greatness when it’s mortally threatened. Just like Murray Futterman attributed any mechanical troubles to the meddling of foreign gremlins, so too did the actual gremlins in the classic 1984 film epitomize the persistent threat by the relentlessly amoral and destructive Other. The fear of this (usually urban) Other forged the Silent Majority that gave America President Richard Nixon, and it directly shaped the dominating suburban politics of the Reagan Revolution that ultimately paved the way for Trump.
Gremlins is undoubtedly a product of its mid-1980s time period, but it’s also a timeless satire of a long-running paranoia that bubbles just beneath the surface of America’s white-picket fences and carefully manicured front lawns. Gremlins stand in for every threat posed to Trump’s very delicate America. It would be hard for him to Make America Great Again without them.
* See James Kendrick, Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), x, 31.
* See Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 234.
* See Charles M. Haar, Suburbs Under Siege: Race, Space, and Audacious Judges (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 8.
* See Patricia A. Turner, Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002).