How Trump reflects America’s obsession with ‘winners’ and ‘losers’

October 8, 2015
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to remarks at a campaign event in Waterloo

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa, October 7, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

One surprising film that captured the national zeitgeist recently was a sly thriller called The Gift. It burrows into the national psyche to address America’s current obsession with “winners” and “losers” and the unfairness in how power is distributed. Everywhere you look — from political campaigns, both Democratic and Republican, that are focused on the haves and have-nots, to much of the Internet — people are upset. They are angry that they are being bullied by folks who have more power — and sometimes lots more money — than they have.

You feel a tension in America now between “us” and “them.” This is not about the usual suspects of polarization — conservatives and liberals. It is “us” and those myriad groups that the public feels have disempowered them. Because bullying isn’t just an issue for children any more. It is an issue — perhaps the issue — for everyone.

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(L-R) Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall in a scene from “The Gift.” STX Entertainment

As for The Gift, on first blush, it doesn’t seem much like a cultural parable. It stars Jason Bateman as Simon Callum, a successful young executive in a security firm, and Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed the film, as Gordon Mosley, a high school classmate of Simon’s whose life has gone in the opposite direction.

Simon and his wife, Robyn (played by Rebecca Hall) — appear to have a perfect life: He has landed a big, new job, bought a fabulous new house and resettled in Los Angeles, the city where he grew up. Then a threat slowly emerges. The threat is Gordon, whom the couple meets by chance. He begins by leaving gifts at their door, then starts showing up at odd hours. Simon finally decides to put a stop to it because, as he says, Gordo is a “weirdo.”

But it could be that what really rattles Simon is, as he tells Robyn, that Gordo is a loser. In a world that Simon clearly divides into those who win and those who don’t, Gordo is on the other side of success. Simon doesn’t deal with those sorts of folks.

Denigrating Gordo, Simon may sound a bit like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who also divides the world into winners and losers. But Trump is a  beneficiary of something much larger in America that the film is onto: The United States is a winner and loser society.

That is how most Americans think of it. We have long been told that anyone in this country who wants to succeed, can. Casting aside the increasing impediments to social mobility, such as high college tuition costs and the loss of high-paid, blue-collar jobs, the onus is entirely on the individual. Surveys show that Americans strongly believe it. In fact, among industrialized nations, Americans are the only people who believe that they have the power to determine their own destiny.

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Credit: MATT MAHURIN

Yet, however much Americans espouse it, that belief is shakier than we let on. Many Americans increasingly feel, deep down, that the game is rigged. That the people who run this country — the economic, political and intellectual elites — get all the advantages. Average Joe can’t win.

We know people feel this way because they say so. It is what unites Tea Party activists and Senator Bernie Sanders’ supporters, reactionaries and radicals. Both sides rail at the abuse of power and the power of abuse.  They may not agree on much, but they see themselves as victims of the same force: bullies.

In The Gift, Gordon, at first, seems to be trying to ingratiate himself with Simon, a condescending winner. He even tries to appease him. Hence the gifts. Most Americans are more likely to grouse. Most seem to believe that you don’t appease bullies.. At best, you get a bully of your own to fight them. Hence Trump.

But, as The Gift suggests, it is a tough fight. Not only because the bullies wield the power, but also because their success seems to wash away all their sins. In America, success justifies itself.

If it is a difficult fight, it is also a confusing one. And that’s another thing the film gets right. One of The Gift’s achievements is how it gradually shifts our sympathies. Viewers start by identifying with Simon, viewing Gordo as a virtual stalker.

But as the film proceeds, something happens. And here I have to signal a SPOILER ALERT. It turns out that Simon, who claims to barely remember Gordo, actually told an ugly lie about him in high school that ultimately ruined Gordo’s life. In fact, Simon turns out to be precisely one of those conscienceless bullies, a kid who ran for high- school class president on the slogan “Simon Sez.” Which meant if he said it, it happened. The world was his.

Since he had deemed Gordo as a born loser, Simon felt entitled to do anything he wanted to him. That makes Gordo not a creep but a victim of the powerful — just as most Americans feel they are.

So The Gift is a parable both of the unfairness of the distribution of power and of the fissure between what we want to believe about American success and what we know about the betrayal of that belief – about the game and those who rig it. In the end, Simon has bullied and lied his way to success — a perversion of the American success story. Gordo, after even more bullying from Simon, does deliver a comeuppance to his tormentor. But he must corrupt himself to do it.

That’s the way it is when you live in a bullying world. Americans are angry at their seeming impotence. They blame the rich, the poor, the bluebloods, the immigrants, the government, both political parties — anyone who they think has more power than they do. But, like Gordo, there is not all that much they can do to change it without risking their own moral authority, which may be the film’s most telling point.

The Gift, then, doesn’t deliver catharsis, as most movies of its ilk do. There can be no justice — only revenge or continued impotence.

10 comments

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I think your analysis is flawed. For one I don’t see Trump as a winner. I see him as the ultimate example of the failure of American ideals. That fact that he has to rely on racist rhetoric appealing to the base sentiments of some American’s is further proof of his failure. He fails to address what has impoverished an entire generation of Americans because he represents the very class of people who are responsible for that tragedy. Instead he chooses a scape goat (Mexican immigrants) to direct the rage of disenfranchised whites who have seen their standard of living steadily eroded since the time Ronald Reagan was first elected. It is much easier to blame poor illegal immigrants because they look different, they don’t speak the language, and have no rights or advocates. Trump’s fortune is not an indication of his success. He has declared personal bankruptcy many times to avoid repaying his debts and has failed in several of his business ventures. About the only thing he is good at is prostituting his name and his brand. Some Americans may idolize this man but that is because they are misguided bigots with a messed up set of values. Being wealthy does not necessarily equate to being an ahole. Take Warren Buffet as an example. I cannot think of a more successful business person in America that Mr. Buffet. Fundamentally the Trump phenomena says more about the erosion of civilized discourse in America and the pollution of our set of values by the forces of greed and avarice.

Posted by caserojj | Report as abusive

Republican party is in chaos. They are letting a right wing looney fringe call the shots, and now can’t even decide on a speaker or a presidential candidate. Donald friggin’ trump? Are you kidding? The guy who came in 8th last time? Has a chance this time? Wake up or keep losing.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

wow … comment not “approved” … i guess if you aren’t slamming trump and the successful tier of america you aren’t fit for Reuters comment section.

Posted by machiavellianz | Report as abusive

Despite all the press and the media try to tell you, and despite all the propaganda from brain-dead soccer moms, there is ONLY one way to stop a bully. Beat the tar out of them. Anything else just aggravates and encourages them. The American people will only take so much bullying before our current plutocratic masters get a well deserved punch in the mouth.

Posted by ReverendJim | Report as abusive

Trump is supported by a minority of a minority. Neither the GOP or the DFL have members that account for 50% of the population. They equally split at about 30-35%. Trump is supported by 30% of republicans, or about 9% of the population. I suspect some of these only say they support him because they are tired of the do-nothings. So, he has very little real support. To try and say that his current level of support represents anything but some dissatisfaction in a small segment of the population is very dubious.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Trump inherited his wealth from his real estate tycoon father Fred Trump. In 1974 Donald inherited between $40-$200 million. The only winner here is the winner of the lucky sperm club.

Posted by scaber | Report as abusive

There was a time when American citizens COULD definitely improve their social and economic standing through hard work; the system allowed for this. Things have changed, for many reasons. Perhaps most importantly, our justice system has been corrupted. Once the rule of law goes, all bets are off. The executive branch just rides roughshod over the Constitution, creating laws and new taxes without using the legislative process, and our representatives in Congress just act like they are in shell shock, unable to move. The uber rich in this society have more wealth than they know what to do with, while the majority of Americans are struggling. They spend their money on frivolous things – spending multimillions of dollars on car collections, for only one example! We are moving towards the typical socialist model – the majority of the population struggling while there is a wealthy class that just continues to accumulate surplus wealth to levels the majority of us cannot even conceive. Our education system is turning out students who don’t have basic knowledge and skills, and there is a terrible moral and spiritual crisis that has enveloped our land. Personally, I see Donald Trump as a champion of the underclass, as someone who truly wants to improve the lot of the average American and to restore our country to its original destiny – to help us regain our footing both nationally and internationally. He will bring a renewed respect to our country and put Americans back to work. We are neither respected nor trusted by other nations – heck, OUR OWN PEOPLE NO LONGER TRUST THEIR OWN GOVERNMENT – and with good reason!!! The corruption is just “in your face” and the Press remains silent or complicit. This has to change. Donald Trump is fighting back against the injustice and corruption that has gotten us to where we are today. I hope he wins. Otherwise, we are going to find ourselves at war. I’m just waiting for some nation to demand that we as a nation pay reparations for the mess we created in the Middle East by helping terrorists overthrow sitting heads of state. We created the chaos that reigns there now. Take Libya, for example. Why the hell was our Ambassador in Benghazi, one of the most dangerous places in the Middle East, without any security, meeting with the Turks (who conveniently disappeared from the scene right after the meeting) only a few hours before he was attacked and assassinated? What exactly was he working on with the Turks? Gun running to the Syrian rebels? If the State Department WAS running guns and weapons to Syria, they broke the law.

Posted by BeauxBeaux | Report as abusive

In other words you wrote this to shill for a Hollywood flick.

Posted by kuronekowa | Report as abusive

The writer makes a serious mistake. There has always been the rich and the poor, in every nation and era. Most of the poor are not greedy, they are content if they can do their jobs, take care of their families, and provide for their children. We all know politicians are crooked, but until recently they’ve had enough sense to keep their greed in check so as to keep feeding the goose that lays the golden eggs (i.e., the working class).
Now politicians no longer care about the goose, only greed. Trump does not appear to have the lean and hungry look we see in other politicians, who seem only care about themselves and their cronies. Maybe he’s no different. One thing’s for sure:
Like Obama 7 years ago, the public is ready to try anything, because we can hardly do worse.

Posted by daawgmatix | Report as abusive

It’s because we’ve spent the last 8 years in a society full of liberal losers who complain and get offended by everything. duh

Posted by deeznutz | Report as abusive