“I like to watch.” In uttering that line in the 1979 movie Being There, Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Sellers) was confessing his addiction to television. Now we have Donald Trump, who also likes to watch, except he watches Fox News and believes it; that gets him into trouble — witness the Comey hearings. Of course, Chauncey could neither read nor write, but his ignorance brought him great wealth and power. Sound familiar?
I invoke Chauncey mainly because the line between showbiz and reality has become a blur — witness Sean Spicer’s press briefings or the new Showtime political series Circus: Inside The Greatest Political Show On Earth. The incursions of Trumpism are so widespread that public figures in entertainment and the arts, having long avoided taking sides, are becoming activists joining the ranks of Meryl Streep and Robert Redford (Redford observed yesterday that Trump was “taking the wrong approach at entirely the wrong time.”)
What’s confusing the “new activists,” however, is that the political and culture wars are being fought on so many fronts that it’s challenging to find a focus. Talent agents notoriously avoid taking positions, for example, but when UTA canceled its annual Oscar party to stage a protest against Trump’s travel ban, it expanded into a free speech rally and fundraiser. “Nero’s fiddling and we’re all eating grapes,” observed UTA chief Jeremy Zimmer. Further, while the culture wars will be fought on different levels, the noisiest one may be between Trump and the nation-state of California – itself the world’s sixth-biggest economy, whose progressive policies are the mirror opposite of Washington’s. The disruptions from that conflict will be formidable.
Trump’s initiatives strike dramatically at the arts and entertainment communities. The travel ban would make it more difficult for studios and theater companies to bring in artists from abroad. The assaults on public television and public radio will eliminate service to as many as 350 member stations. Cuts in NEA grants will strike at institutions as diverse as the Long Beach Opera, the Cornerstone Theater or the Autry Museum, which houses Native American arts.
In addition, the Trump budget would eviscerate causes dear to the heart of the pop culture establishment — environmental spending, for example. Anything tied to climate change is toxic to the Trump regime – NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory got chopped.
The culture wars are being transmogrified into economic wars in California. As many as 5 million people could lose their insurance as a result of Trump initiatives. Police forces will be reduced and the courts will be choked by fights over immigration, as self-declared sanctuary cities battle to retain their hegemony (Malibu is the latest). California’s signature progressive initiatives will be threatened, such as the CalFresh food stamp program serving hundreds of thousands of needy residents. The battles over immigration will also be fought on several fronts; local law enforcement officials are facing off against ICE agents hanging outside (and inside) courtrooms, deterring those who are in the U.S. illegally from testifying.
That’s why I have nostalgic thoughts about Chauncey Gardiner. While Trump’s every tweet fires up his opposition, Chauncey Gardiner rose to power in Being There through his benign comments about his garden. When he predicted “spring will bring new growth,” his comment was interpreted as a comforting metaphor for economic expansion. When he noted, “I don’t read newspapers, I watch TV,” supporters applauded his shrewd critique of newspaper journalism. When Chauncey exchanged friendly comments with the Russian ambassador at a state banquet, the meeting triggered infighting between the CIA and FBI because neither could figure out Chauncey’s background or motivation. None of his supporters seemed to understand that Chauncey was really just a gardener — “one who had rice pudding between his ears,” in the words of the kindly housekeeper who brought him up.
When Being There, based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, was produced in 1979, there was considerable debate about the film’s ending (the picture was funded by Lorimar Pictures, of which I was president). Hal Ashby, the gifted director, felt that his movie was a commentary on the state of American politics and hence argued that it would send the wrong message if Chauncey met a dire fate. Chaunceyism will live on, he believed (and I agreed). Hence the unforgettable ending: The last time we see Chauncey he is, to his surprise, walking on water.
That pleased Chauncey, as it would Donald Trump.