‘London Has Fallen’ Is Trump’s Fascist Fantasy
By Noah Berlatsky
It’s been a mixed week for the Secret Service. On Monday, officers on Trump’s detail removed silent black students standing at the back of bleachers from a Georgia rally at Valdosta State University. Today, Gerard Butler (playing studly super Secret Service agent Mike Banning) performs awesome acts of derring-do in London Has Fallen. The mixed messages — and subsequent confusion — is palpable. Are Secret Service officers the willing catspaws of white supremacist fascism? Or are they superheroes saving America from the barbarians?
Or are they . . . happily, both?
London Has Fallen, with its can-do attitude, believes you don’t have to choose between patriotism and thuggery. Offering a heady mix of paranoid xenophobia and brutish macho posturing, the film serendipitously embodies our Trump moment of testosterone, insult comedy, and racism. Its 2013 predecessor, Olympus Has Fallen, forswore the obvious Muslim terrorist antagonists in favor of demonizing the North Koreans, but the sequel reverts to the zeitgeist.
The enemy here is Pakistani arms dealer Aamir Barkawi (Alon Moni Aboutboul), who, with some inside help, manages to get roughly a bazillion terrorists into London, complete with an arsenal — or twelve! — of weaponry. When the British Prime Minister unexpectedly dies, world leaders converge for the funeral, and Barkawi butchers his way through civilians, London landmarks, and all those international muckamucks on his way to exacting revenge on the American President — the manly and brave Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart).
Barkawi wants revenge because a U.S. drone strike — intended for him — accidentally killed his daughter. With such a motive, you’d think the film might show him some sympathy, and in fact, there are a few gestures towards critiquing American imperialism. Barkawi bitterly tells the Vice President (Morgan Freeman) that America can no longer fight its wars in “dusty remote locations.” Instead, he declares, “we’re bringing the war to you.” The collective American nightmare springs to life — the people we’ve murdered over there will do to us what we’ve done to them, complete with superior firepower and collateral damage.
The fact that Barkawi has a reason to hate, though, doesn’t make anyone question America’s actions. Instead, it legitimizes paranoia and every excess of violence. Banning doesn’t just kill terrorists; he revels in slaughtering them. In one scene, he brutally guts a man while the victim’s brother listens on the phone. When the President asks Banning if such cruelty was necessary, Banning cheerfully responds, “no.” Torture is its own macho reward.
Enter Trump. Trump loves targeting family members as much as Banning does; he’s on record as saying that the U.S. should murder the families of terrorists in order to intimidate them. You can also hear Trump echo in Banning’s ludicrously boastful braggadocio. When informed that he’s facing a fortified base with 100 soldiers, he bloviates chestily, “They should have brought more men!” It’s the equivalent of Trump’s repeated assertion that he’s going to force Mexico to build a wall on the border. The logistical impossibility only makes the swagger more entertaining and righteous. You girly men say it can’t be done — but that’s just because you’re all empty suits, while Trump is a Hollywood tough guy.
Banning however, does really kill those hundred guys, whereas Trump won’t build a wall. Though, of course, Banning’s in a movie; he’s not “really” killing anyone. You could just dismiss London Has Fallen’s Muslim-torturing fantasies on those grounds; after all, it’s just a movie. But then, Trump’s wall is “just” an exercise in make-believe too. The reality TV star-cum-presidential candidate spins jingoistic reveries, and the next thing you know the federal power acts on those fantasies about black people and belonging, and segregates a rally on the storyteller’s behalf.
Philosopher and political theorist, Walter Benjamin, argued that one of the key elements of fascism was the “aestheticization of political life.” In fascism, politics becomes an orchestrated art form and art becomes propaganda. Thus, London Has Fallen, a Hollywood film, ends with a speech by a fake American President uttering sentiments often heard in the speeches of real American presidents. The world is a dangerous place. We have to drop bombs on people (and, whoops, children sometimes too) over there in order to make a better future for our children over here. We should never reconsider our imperial foreign policy no matter the scale of the resulting disasters, up to and including (apparently) the utter destruction of major Western capitals.
London Has Fallen is a Hollywood film which openly propagandizes for American imperialism. Trump, for his part, treats his propaganda as a familiar Hollywood narrative, complete with tough guy bravado and evil hordes at the border. (“The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”) Do people vote for Trump because he’s entertaining or because he’s a fascist? Are you supposed to like London Has Fallen because it’s exciting or because (despite the black vice president off to the side) it’s a two-hour celebration of a white guy brutally murdering his way through non-white foreigners in the name of God and country?
Fascism, like Hollywood, wants to entertain you. And the way it entertains you (like Hollywood) is through empowerment fantasies. Donald Trump and London Has Fallen both promise the vicarious thrill of being mean, strong bastards, reveling in the humiliation of one’s enemies. Banning gleefully murders a man in a wheelchair; Trump sneers at John McCain for having been captured in Vietnam. The weak are to be despised; the strong stick it to those sneaky marginalized people who dare to threaten us, or just dare to continue to exist after we’ve tried to kill them. Fascist spectacle is fun, on screen or in real life, not least because fascism means not having to tell the difference.