So, it’s over. Trump has won. In times of escalating WTFness, as people, we turn to books, documentaries and online articles in a desperate bid to understand what the Hell is going on. When faced with a president who has proudly and brazenly positioned himself as post-truth, education becomes a much needed island of refuge amidst an ocean of misinformation and outright lies.
British documentary maker Adam Curtis tells stories about this erosion of truth and how no-one (not even the political elites) now knows what the Hell is going on. He charts the death of idealism in politics, telling the story of how neoconservatives and neoliberals gave up on trying to direct society via Big Ideas and handed over the reins to market forces. He explains how a demagogue like Trump could rise out of this.
Even if you don’t agree with Curtis, his use of bizarre archival clips dredged out from the BBC’s archives and his intoxicatingly hypnotic editing patterns will have you transfixed. And if you get lost amongst the deluge you can always watch in one browser window while scouring Wikipedia in another.
Adam Curtis is the best conspiracy theorist with a stereotypically English accent currently making documentaries and here are 5 of his best:
1. The Century of the Self (2002)
What’s it about?
This is the earliest Curtis documentary on the list and is one of his most cohesive and convincing. This is due to its relatively narrow focus. This short 4-episode series examines how advertisers learned to use the ideas of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud to manufacture desire for their products amongst the public. (Think of cars being marketed as big, thrumming penis-extenders for men who are anxious about the size of what’s down their pants).
Politicians then used the techniques that the advertisers had learned in order to manufacture consent within the voting public: Telling people what they want to vote for and then making them think that these desires come from deep within them, rather than having been put into their heads by the politicians.
How it will help you understand Trump’s presidency
The Century of the Self shows why Trump’s use of simple brand-like slogans was effective enough for him to win the election. Like the most shameless of advertisers, he tapped into deep reservoirs of feeling within the American populace and then gave a name to these feelings as though his simple, hateful solutions had always already been on the tip-of-the-tongue of his supporters.
A white man in a declining Rust Belt community is unhappy because he has lost his job. He feels alienated from his neighbors because some of them don’t speak English as their first language and he’s never been given the resources to learn Spanish, not least because of his undiagnosed dyslexia that his underfunded school would never have detected because his teachers assumed he was just poor white trash and thus stupid.
Tell that man that not only are his feelings legitimate, but also draw unsubstantiated connections between them. No wonder the coal mine where he worked closed down now that the neighbourhood isn’t as white as it used to be! The government isn’t to blame for the community falling into economic deprivation, it’s the immigrants’ fault! It doesn’t matter if the argument doesn’t make any logical sense, just as long as it makes emotional sense.
It is through using the sub-conscious exploiting techniques of advertising spiel that a white farmer from Arkansas can be tricked into thinking that a bloviating orange-faced billionaire is speaking his language.