It’s time, in this summer of Trump and Suicide Squad, to think more closely about the uses of shock. Do outrageous provocations merely galvanize an otherwise inert body politic, as a brain-dead frog is made to twitch in the lab? Or can the tactical deployment of grotesquerie and offense fulfill a higher purpose, blowing the dust of habit off our eyes? Some aestheticians have argued that by making the ordinary seem strange, shock effects can renew the mind, refresh the will, and awaken the spirit to delight.
In which case, is the Trump campaign a work of art?
To the degree that ambiguity of purpose and unpredictability of effect are decisive in art, at least in the modern era, then yes, we have now become a captive audience to one of the weirdest road shows ever produced. I watch the performances and wonder: Where the hell is this going, and what does the man really want? Trump is nakedly avid beyond the political norm in his pursuit of material gain, whether from tax cuts, payouts to friends and family, or the sale of bottled water; but more tellingly, he exceeds other candidates in his urge for self-expression, a force so powerful in him that he’d rather sacrifice votes than abandon a one-liner. Not a principle, mind you—what few tenets he mouths go no deeper than the tan and the hair, and mean less to him than either. But by fending off the advisers who keep begging him to behave properly, Trump has proved to be paradoxically authentic in his need to unburden himself and unload on others. He’s as emotively bold as van Gogh, with the difference that the severed ears he waves around belonged to other people.
Going beyond traditional ballyhoo to avant-garde outlandishness, Trump’s campaign has turned American politics into a spectacle of the odd, the brutal, the uncanny, and the improbable. And it’s not just politics-as-usual that his campaign has made to seem strange. Trump has slapped a surrealizing exclamation point on the full range of his own clichéd tastes and attitudes, as well as those of his supporters. Acres of gold and marble! Bosomy blondes! Red meat and red blood! White supremacy! Everyone has long recognized that such banalities are widely shared in America—but no one is used to seeing them paraded about in this way, except in the works of R. Crumb and Philip Guston.
Those are clearly the wrong points of reference, though, for the Trump Gesamtkunstwerk. If you want to know whether Trump, considered as an artist, will produce the promised spiritual benefits of his shock effects, you might do better to look elsewhere: at the wildly lucrative blockbuster Suicide Squad.
The closest analogue to the Trump campaign currently in theaters, Suicide Squad is linked directly to the candidate through one of its executive producers, Steven Mnuchin, who has gone on to head Trump’s fund-raising efforts. But the money trail is the least of the reasons why this movie seems to emanate straight from Trump World. More to the point, Suicide Squad embodies, to the nth degree, our current standards of mainstream movie entertainment, which it then exposes as utterly bizarre.