I recently rewatched Back to the Future. It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen the film that I didn’t remember much of the plot beyond the broad strokes and was surprised by how much the story resonated in today’s mad world. It’s about a present that’s gone horribly, violently wrong and an ill-considered escape to the past — to the 1950s, to be precise. That describes the United States, doesn’t it? And it has for some time.
Back to the Future mostly holds up. It’s known for being such a quintessentially 80s film that I didn’t expect that. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few “yikes…” moments. An eccentric, elderly man summoning a teenage boy to meet him secretly in the wee hours of the morning hits differently now than it did then. The threat that sends the hero, Marty McFly, hurtling into the past for safe refuge is a gang of heavily armed Libyan nationalists, who are enraged that Doc Brown conned them out of plutonium and wouldn’t make a bomb for them. Violent Arabs are the danger, not the hubristic white man pilfering weapons-grade nuclear material to tamper with the space-time continuum. All the shooting and exploding and fast car driving happening in the parking lot of a mall with a massive JCPenney looming in the background was funny in 1985, when the film was released, because malls were safe gathering places then. Malls have receded in importance in American society, and if heavily-armed men were shooting up the place today, they would likely be young, white men looking to mow down as many shoppers as possible in broad daylight. The film also normalizes peeping tom behavior and the use of unwanted sexual advances (feigned on the boy’s part but expected to be real for the girl) as a strategy to create a rescue scenario. An actual violent assault takes place instead. The PG rating may be what saved the film from veering off into really ugly territory. These and other tropes still persist, though, and I don’t think Back to the Future would have been seen as too far out of step with much of the viewing public if it had been released much more recently.
Time is at the heart of Back to the Future. So is a stopped clock.
Lightning struck the clock in Hill Valley’s town square on November 12, 1955, and it was never repaired. Harnessing the power of that moment in time is how Marty returns to an improved future 30 years later, where his father is no longer a cowering weakling, and his mother isn’t a dissatisfied alcoholic. That time, the mid 1950s, has gained almost mythical stature in white American culture. The Eisenhower era. Post-World War II. The United States had emerged as a superpower politically. Socially, the G.I. Bill and other government programs created a large, thriving white middle class in sprawling suburbs. Lyon Estates, the suburban subdivision where Mary and his family live in 1985, is run down and worse for the wear. When Marty lands in 1955, it’s still pasture land that’s in the beginning stages of development. It’s a concept with a grandiose name and vision. There is hope in those empty fields and the billboard advertising the development. The Lyon Estates of 1985 is a monument to having settled — a field of thwarted dreams. The commercialism that drives the American Dream sets the bar Marty and his family aren’t meeting. The freedom granted by the automobile becoming widely available is an important theme in the film. Marty opening the garage to find the truck of his dreams when he returns from the past is part of the happy ending. So is his now besuited brother no longer having a fast food job, and his parents being successful jetsetters. The payoff of Marty’s journey is the McFlys no longer being in a lower social class.
Back to the Future captures and espouses Reagan-era conservative philosophy, in part, because it thoroughly supports the notion that success is individual. Any systemic reasons for the crumbling condition of Lyon Estates aren’t even hinted at. The problems in the McFlys lives aren’t connected to living in a community that’s succumbing to blight, which means Marty’s father, George McFly, desperately needs that soul-crushing job, where he’s still being tormented by his high school bully, Biff Tannen. The story frames his failures purely as a defect in character. He can’t be a patriarch, because he’s not “strong” enough to be patriarchal. That problem becomes existential when Marty’s interference in the past prevents Marty’s mother, Lorraine, from falling in love with George, and Marty’s siblings then Marty himself begin to be erased from existence. George standing up to Biff to demonstrate strength to Lorraine becomes the literal be all and end all for Marty.
The high school bully. It’s a universal trope, because it’s a universal experience. Every school has at least one. Part of making it through to the other side is negotiating your way around them. The teachers and administrators always know enough of what’s happening to take some of the blame for the torment bullies mete out. Most of the other students make the calculation to save themselves and not get involved, or they identify with and covet the power and join in. The bullied are nearly always on their own. The bully has the imprimatur of the wider group. Everyone pretending the situation is mostly one-on-one is part of the abuse.
Using a villain to personify the obstacles a hero must surmount is an old storytelling technique that persists in film. Biff is George’s insecurities externalized. Biff is also the scapegoat of the story, though. He’s most of what’s wrong with idyllic 1950s Hill Valley. This construction of the narrative provides thrust and focus, but it lets a lot of people off the hook. Biff and his gang of goons are mutant aberrations among salt-of-the-earth, decent people, and Biff is rightly and justly vanquished by someone worthy when George saves Lorraine and punches Biff out cold. According to the film’s screenwriter, Bob Gale, Biff’s character was based on Donald Trump.
Trump as a high school bully isn’t a difficult leap to make. In a way, that’s what the world is suffering through: having the most hateful, obtuse, cruel ignoramus at your high school become president of the United States. The revelation that Biff is Trump connects Back to the Future to the Trump era as well as the America of the Reagan and Eisenhower presidencies. The Eisenhower years are the anchor, though.
The Eisenhower era created a calming, non-threatening post-war iconography that was rooted in imagery presented on the new technology of the television. These forces created an agreement about what it meant to be American in the 20th century, and the setting was mostly all-white suburbs like that of the fictional town of Hill Valley. Back to the Future is built on nostalgia for that time and recreates these pictures lovingly. Like the originals, the images mask a great deal about America, particularly the racism that made the upward social mobility embodied by those suburbs unavailable to Black Americans. The often brutal violence that accompanied that discrimination is covered up by the benevolent racisms of paternalism and tokenism. Television of the 50s also disseminated an admiring kind of misogyny embodied by suburban housewives vacuuming in high heels with crinoline under their skirts. Women’s place was in the home, and they excelled there, while looking beautiful. These images, reinforced through advertisements, were such powerful propaganda that they remain a defining portrait of “The Real America” a lifetime later.
Make America Great Again. They’re talking about the 1950s, when the Blacks and the broads knew their place. They’re talking about a world where the white man was king, and there was no question about it. They’re talking about a time when massive government entitlements like the G.I. Bill created the middle class, but when the government had the decency not to remind the white recipients of it and allowed them to attribute their success to elbow grease and their force of will. A great myth was made that further entrenched the myths of the nation’s founding. American Exceptionalism came of age in the 1950s. That exceptionalism came with the promise of the American Dream: a house with a white picket fence and a car in the garage. That’s what it meant to be American: you’d get to live some version of the lives you saw on TV. It’s unbelievable how much we still underestimate the power of that box.
When Marty travels to 1955, he has a video camera with him. When Doc learns that Ronald Reagan is president, he scoffs, then muses that it’s no wonder there are portable television studios in the future, because the nation’s leader is an actor. If Back to the Future were released during the Trump era, Marty proffering some explanation to Doc of what reality TV and Twitter are would be in order. This scene in the film gets at something important: modes of communication and entertainment that have the American public’s attention have to be exploited by anyone who wants influence or power, including and perhaps especially anyone who wants to be a memorable president. Roosevelt was good on the radio. JFK was incredibly telegenic. Reagan was a film actor, who could deliver a line. Clinton played well. Obama could do it all. Trump was made in a lab for the era of narcissistic reality stars and social media shitposters.
Trump is president in the era of the high school bully. He dynamited the veneer of gentility that covers the power-mad machinations of politics, and embraced the volatility of social media to create chaos that covers his inadequacy. That’s what’s in every bully’s heart: lack. The most important thing they lack is any real belief in themselves or their worthiness. It’s why Biff bullies George into doing his homework: he has no confidence in his ability to complete the assignments. The phony power move of intimidating someone else into doing the work is meant to mask the fear of being seen as wanting. The work itself is dismissed as unimportant, because it can’t be of any value if the narcissistic bully can’t master it easily. The callousness of bullies’ determined incompetence is rooted in never trying so they won’t fail. The cruelty they inflict feels like purpose. The bluster and upheaval and abuse are masks to hide the emptiness we all see anyway. The world is at the mercy of this warped mindset. During a global pandemic, no less.
If Bob Gale had written the details of Trump’s presidency into a script, it would have been tossed in the trash for being too outlandish to be believable. (At this point, time travellers, who keep returning to try to avert disaster while spinning out unforeseen consequences may be a plausible explanation for the chaos of 2020.) In the midst of the trash fire of Trump’s presidency, there is one point of clarity, though, that’s enough to provide some semblance of an organizing principle for his administration and his followers. He understands that a large portion of America wishes lightning had struck and time had stopped in 1955. They deeply resented the Civil Rights Movement and reserve the same vitriol for the Black Lives Matter movement. The future they want is in a past that never existed. They think if they can just go back, they might return to better lives and that truck in the garage like Marty did. More importantly, the cost of this cognitive dissonance and resentment is an incoherent anger that somehow makes being told to wear a mask during a pandemic the foulest tyranny in their eyes.
This is Trump’s America, but he didn’t build it. He’s accelerating towards the cliff and careening into every important institution along the way, but the stage was set long before he put his name on the ballot. Like Biff, all the sins of his community are being piled on to him in service to a narrative that needs a scapegoat: that there’s an odious individual in leadership, not a rotten system. Both things can be and are true at the same time.
America is coming apart at the seams. Not all of its peer nations handled the COVID-19 outbreaks in their borders well, but all of them have gotten a handle on it. So has most of the exploited and impoverished Global South. The United States is an outlier in just how spectacularly abysmal the response to the pandemic has been. You can’t bully a virus. You can’t intimidate it. You can’t gaslight it. There are no shortcuts, no flim flam routine that will turn the tide. The virus demands the truth be told about it. That Trump, his party, and their followers won’t is the logical consequence of allowing a self-aggrandizing lie fertilized by resentment and magical thinking to metastasize and mutate over decades. America won’t be spared just because it is America. Neither will Americans who believe they are chosen.
American Exceptionalism is an international doctrine. Television shows, movies and other entertainment spread its gospel. The nation’s armed forces have spent the decades since World War II bombing and strafing almost continuously. Propaganda and devastating force, shouting at the top of its lungs and thumping everyone with a big stick is how the United States has maintained its pole position on the world stage. Trump’s presidency has been so destructive, so volatile, so stupid that the world was slowly backing away from America’s control and influence. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the stakes. A world that has no choice but to move on as America plunges further into the abyss is emerging. There’s no DeLorean fired by a flux capacitor for anyone to hop into and escape to the past to try to fix things. Lightning struck, but it didn’t stop the clock.
Originally published on my Patreon.