From Rick Perlstein, The American Prospect <[email protected]>
Subject The Infernal Triangle: A Cultural Artifact That Meets the Moment
Date February 14, 2024 1:03 PM
  Links have been removed from this email. Learn more in the FAQ.
  Links have been removed from this email. Learn more in the FAQ.
Political journalism that meets the moment
 ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌

View this email in your browser


A Cultural Artifact That Meets the Moment

Stephen King's Under the Dome nails how Trumpism functions at the most
elemental of levels.

It has been a joy and a privilege to observe a rich and lively debate
take shape on the provocation I put on the table two weeks ago
: Why is
there so little great art on the forces that find the U.S. on the brink
of right-wing dictatorship? The opinions

helped refine my framing question.

Only one of the most frequently cited counterexamples-the most recent
season of the anthology series

**Fargo** -depicts
characters who recognizably live in America's current political world
Almost every other suggestion came at the problem

**sidewise**: from a
long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away). Set in Germany
or some future Ireland
As allegory ,
or "magical realist fable ."

And this is fine. After all, the models I cited for political art
included both Franz Kafka and Arthur Miller's deployment of
17th-century Massachusetts
to allegorize how McCarthyism works. Despite many people's
misimpression, a billion-footed beast
Wolfe's 1989 name for the kind of sprawling, hyperrealist, Balzac-ish
"social novel" he was frustrated American writers no longer wrote-is
not what I was stalking.


So much admirable fiction concerning

**other**aspects of our modern American polycrisis are

**explicit**about the precise problem that animates them, be it
pandemics ,
or opioids , or
It feels maddeningly inadequate to me that when it comes to American
right-wing authoritarianism, hardly anything out there actually

**names the thing**.

In an astute roundup

of the year in TV,

**New Republic**critic Phillip Maciak concluded that "endurance TV"
shows like

**The Bear**and

**I'm a Virgo** "dared you to keep watching through brutal, unblinking
set piece after brutal unblinking set piece." So it is that much of the
best culture in 2023 did a great job of reflecting what 2023

**felt like**. But why must culture flinch from addressing the

**politics**that made it feel that way?

Well, not

**all** culture. Ultimately, I found that Americans are smart, patient,
and curious enough to handle the truth. The best and most unflinching
American novel I've read on how something like Trumpism functions, at
the level of the human soul, happens to have sold something like a
million copies
Its plot is set in motion when mysterious space aliens somehow encircle
a small Maine town with an invisible, impenetrable, many-miles-high

Drumrooooooolllllllllllllllllll ...


****(2010) is about as profoundly political as one can imagine a product
moving those million units and getting made into a TV miniseries
possibly be. Most remarkably, it is

**unflinchingly**political, containing within its richness both a
sophisticated theoretical understanding of how democracies get murdered,
and a model for how to defend them from the thugs holding the knife to
her throat.

King began writing it, he explains in an author's note, in 2007, the
same year I began documenting in my own work

the way an "astonishingly sizable population in America ... doesn't
consider any Democratic president legitimate." It was published in
November 2009, just as it was becoming all too evident that this was the
operative theory in both the Republican Party's parliamentary

and emergent paramilitary

wings. King first conceived the idea in 1976, a similar such

political moment when, despite the election of a Democratic president,
America's political structure of feeling

was nonetheless drifting toward the political right.

It takes place, we learn from an offhand reference to a bumper sticker
on a Volvo-"faded but still readable: Obama '12! YES WE

**STILL**CAN"-some years after Barack Obama's re-election, but while
this "bastard" (as the villain of the piece puts it) and "pro-abortion
son-of-a-buck" who "knew nothing about faith" is still president.

The tyrant at its center owns the town's biggest used-car lot, a
shrewd political insight in itself: The local empire of auto dealerships
has long been an epitome of "family capitalism
," the
sturdiest institutional base for conservative politics in America. King,
born in 1947, might even have been

**just**politically precocious enough to have registered Adlai
Stevenson's joke, upon the inauguration of the first Republican
president in 20 years, that "the car dealers have taken over from the
New Dealers."

I'm not a fan of supernatural storytelling; I was very much enjoying
both King's

**The Stand**(1978) and the classic horror flick The Blair Witch Project


**until** the harrowing mysteries for which the protagonists reach for
supernatural explanations turned out to actually be ... supernatural.
But this supernatural story works. It asks what might happen when a
stereotypical American small town gets cut off from the rest of the
world. It is a social microcosm, much like Melville's whaling ship-a
brilliant, and somehow convincing, contrivance. The plot turns upon what
happens when our car-dealing Ahab does what strongmen always do when
crisis strikes: use it to become dictators.

Sorry, no spoiler alerts. In my opinion, a truly great story can't be
spoiled, because a truly great storyteller can deliver unto the reader
the delight of surprise even if they supposedly "know" what will happen
next. This is a great story, by a great storyteller. Is it "great
literature"? Well, maybe getting a million Americans to open their eyes
about how "conservatism" and "Christianity" can serve as an alibi for
cruelty and domination is a great artistic accomplishment in itself.

[link removed]

The small-town setting of Chester's Mill, Maine, is crucial. Edmund
Burke, pioneering philosopher of modern conservatism, called "little
platoons"-families, clans, churches, villages-the soundest
foundation of a moral society. Great social critics on the left
-and King is also one of
these-have always understood the problem more, well,


Late in 2003, driving through red counties in central Illinois
to report on
whether voters were still sticking with George W. Bush as Iraq turned
into a charnel house, I recognized this wisdom in, of all places, the
burg that advertises itself as Reagan's own "hometown" (he had no
hometown): Dixon, Illinois. Democratic civil servants wouldn't let me
use their names for fear of career retribution. The daughter of the town
bookie told me, "Hell, all the cops bet with him!" A Black childhood
friend of hers, graduated from Northwestern, returned to his hometown
sporting dreadlocks, with the aim of serving the community in some
philanthropic way-until police raided his home for (nonexistent)

King conveys this dialectic by having characters sing snatches of an
earworm called "Talkin' at the Texaco" by songwriter James McMurtry,
son of novelist Larry McMurtry, which came out in 1989, but which King
imagines into a rebirth as a cover song that was a hit the summer before
the action in the novel takes place. Some characters hum it to
themselves in appreciation, others with sardonic irony:

Who you lookin' for
What was his name
You can probably find him
At the football game
It's a small town
You know what I mean
It's a small town, son
And we all support the team

One of the book's themes is how difficult it can be, in places like
Chester's Mill, to arrive at independent moral judgments when such
tribal attachments interfere. One character doubts that the cops in town
would ever hurt anyone unprovoked: "That was for the big cities, where
folks didn't know how to get along."

Chester's Mill cops, of course, very much hurt people
unprovoked-that is, once the Ahab, whose name is "Big Jim" Rennie,
purges the force of anyone who treats their job professionally, and
finds enough local toughs to sign up for the work because of the
sanction it grants them to open up a can of state-sanctioned whup-ass
whenever someone crosses them. This gives Rennie his own personal

**squadristi**, thugging out against this

**Duce**'s enemies-the story's good guys-whom he successfully
frames as "terrorists."

That's part of the sophistication of

**Under the Dome**'s liberalism: a savvy grasp of how quickly
institutions can be degraded into extensions of the will of evil men. As
Lyndon Johnson's political mentor Sam Rayburn put it, "Any jackass can
knock down a barn."

New England towns have selectmen, not city councils or mayors.
Chester's Mill has three selectmen. Another example of King's sharp
political antenna is that he makes his villain the

**second**selectman. The first selectman King props up in business; the
third selectman he keeps strung out on oxy. Big Jim takes all the power
with none of the responsibility. For instance, during the final battle,
when the emergency lights go out in the dome because Big Jim had
greedily vetoed funds to keep it maintained, the dictator sniffs: "Al
Timmons should have done it on his own initiative ... For God's sake,
is a little initiative too much to ask?"

Big Jim is especially buffered from responsibility when it comes to (oh,
all right:

**spoiler alert!**) the massive meth lab he's built under the
50,000-watt Christian radio station he owns, funded via shell companies
around the globe. "For the good of the town," he always explains to
himself. Because, as King well understands, never has there been an evil
dictator who wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and

**sees** evil.

Did I mention our Ahab is also a devout "Christian"? Which means he
never swears ("Pete, get rid of this rhymes-with-witch."). And hasn't
the wit to grasp the irreplaceable cultural importance of the local
dance hall, because it is a "sinpit."

This may sound cartoonish. But it is another token of King's political
sophistication. As John Ganz told us
few columns ago, when it comes to fascism, "everything kind of looks
farcical until it doesn't." Think of Jerry Falwell Jr
mortgaging his "Christian" college's future, first to the political
fortunes of Donald Trump, then to his and his wife's throuple with a
pool boy.

This is Steven King, unflinchingly,

**naming the thing**: "Big Jim Rennie felt remarkably good for a man who
had committed murder the night before. This was partially because he did
not see it as murder, no more than he had seen the death of his late
wife as murder. It was cancer that had taken her. Inoperable. Yes, he
had probably given her too many of the pain pills over the last week,
and in the end he'd still had to help her with a pillow over her face
(but lightly, ever so lightly, slowing her breathing, easing her into
the arms of Jesus), but he had done it out of love and kindness. What
had happened to Reverend Coggins was a bit more
brutal-admittedly-but the man been so

**bullish**. So completely unable to put the town's welfare ahead of
his own."

Reverend Coggins had to go, you see, because he wanted to blow the
whistle on their shared drug empire.

Again, too cartoonish for some. Satire? A little bit. But still and all:
What other novelist has written about the moral evasions of Christian
conservatism-I'm seriously asking-as unflinchingly as


[link removed]


**Under the Dome**is that it was written and published while so many
Americans were

****declaring that, with the triumph of President Obama, the feral
divisions that have always driven American politics-usually just
beneath the surface, just like petty tyrannies in small towns-were,
quite literally, over
. King saw
through this. It's especially amazing the way he grasped the
fundamental moral evasion of the fantasy underlying such conclusions. He
seems to be suggesting that the authoritarianism already visible in the
early stages of Obama's rise could not


**transcended** by comity and olive branches and bipartisanship.

The 44th president makes a cameo, signing an order transferring command
of the town from Big Jim to a heroic Iraq War veteran-an order that

**cannot be enforced** precisely because the dome is impenetrable. Obama
signs it, Big Jim reflects with a smirk, "using all three of his names,
including the terrorist one in the middle." This is the apogee of his
dictatorship, right before a small army (emphasis on small) arises to
take on Big Jim's reign of terror. It's a ragtag mélange of
outcasts and liberals-the ones every small town has, whose depth King
artfully signals by the fact that they grasp the complex moral nuances
of the song they hum about "supporting the team."

They include: the widow of the decent and wise police chief Big Jim
cashiers as his opening chess move ("It never would have happened if
Duke was still alive..."). "Sloppy Sam" Verdreaux, town drunk, who
stockpiles the oxygen he needs to stay healthy by cheating a government
program, and ends up saving the day. The town "skank" (on page 606,
there's a lovely riff on a rare moment when someone of higher social
status treats her with respect). A female Congregationalist minister
who's lost her faith, to the enhancement of her pastoral gifts.

There's the local New Age loon, who also happens to be the town
librarian ("Who better to recruit than a librarian when you're dealing
with a fledgling dictatorship?"). A clutch of adolescent skate rats. A
dipshit college English professor with a Volvo, who seems at first to be
in the story only for comic relief, signaling virtue to everyone
who'll listen, making sure they know he guest-edited the latest issue

**Ploughshares**. Turns out he's an indefatigable combat medic and a
conscientious objector in Vietnam. His is a redemption arc: man's
rescue from the involuted narcissism of lefty academia. I loved that

Finally, there is the town drifter, a short-order cook on the run from
himself, having witnessed, done nothing about, and then participated in
the torture of an innocent Iraqi man while at war. His number two in
command is the editor of her family's ancient local newspaper, a
old-fashioned, civic-minded Republican who reflects, "If asked to write
about the emotional heart of the event, she would have been lost. How to
explain that people she'd known all her life-people she respected,
people she loved-had turned into a mob?"

How do they win? Read and see. I will, however-

**spoiler alert**-reveal their secret weapon, the only one powerful
enough to make the mysterious, mischievous space aliens who built the
dome get bored and go away: empathy. You gotta have heart.

The ending reads less cheesy than I'm making it sound, I swear. In my
humble opinion, it's deep and searing. It is why, in fact, this book
is exactly what I thought of when I read the letter from the woman from
rural Arkansas with which I opened Part I of this essay
, the one
who wanted to know what she could do now that the people she'd known
all her life, whom she loved and respected, attend church services
dedicated to the greater glory of Donald J. Trump.

Turning themselves, in other words, into a mob.



****It's good. But it contains within it a kernel of something that
could be greater. In the film's first reel, director Jen Senko
explains what happened when her beloved father, a liberal from whom
she'd only heard compassionate and kind things all her life, stopped
carpooling to work, began listening to Rush Limbaugh, graduated to Fox
News, and turned into an incessant spewer of bilious hate-someone his
family could no longer recognize. In 2013, an anguished Senko decided to
do a film to explore what had happened. She put up a Kickstarter page to
fund it. From the title, and her explanation of the premise, something
unexpected and extraordinary happened: "Before I knew it, people were
coming out of the woodwork, contacting me from all over the country
telling me similar stories."

This is how she tells the story on-screen:

A voiceover: "They just

**drummed**into her what they wanted her to hear"-and the speaker's
anguished face appears in the left third. "She's a completely
different person."

Another woman appears in the middle of the screen: "My brother became
very fact-resistant."

More faces pop up, over a panned map of the United States: voices from
coast to coast.

"My reaction was, 'Who are you and what did you do with my
stepfather?'... He was completely changed. He was bitter, and angry

As the snippets grow yet more alarming-"

**and he had a pistol ...**"-the frame pulls back, and people are
speaking stories like this from 15 boxes on the screen, like an
overcrowded Zoom call; then it pulls further back, and there are 50,
then further back, and further back- "...

**don't know this person anymore ... was loving and caring ...
fundamentally different person ...**"-until there are 150 boxes
speaking the same horror story.

The effect is like the last shot of

**Raiders of the Lost Ark**,

****where Harrison Ford knows he's in the same room with an object
concentrating all the evil in the world, except, as that frame pulls
out, he sees there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of identical such
objects. Senko told me that, all told, she collected over a thousand
such horrifying tales.

Again, this is before Donald Trump. There are many more such tales by
now, each just as horrifying. That this is

**not** a central

****component of our national self-understanding of what is happening to
us is a hole in the culture indeed. Artists should start filling that
hole up, until we can't look away.


Follow Rick Perlstein on Twitter ,
Facebook , or Instagram

Click to Share this Newsletter

[link removed]


[link removed]


[link removed]


[link removed]

The American Prospect, Inc., 1225 I Street NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC xxxxxx, United States
Copyright (c) 2024 The American Prospect. All rights reserved.

To opt out of American Prospect membership messaging, click here
To manage your newsletter preferences, click here
To unsubscribe from all American Prospect emails, including newsletters,
click here

Screenshot of the email generated on import

Message Analysis