Watching Lost Highway (1996) at the Soho Curzon, my friends and I began to connect the dots between David Lynch’s films and the rise of populist demagogues (we’ll get to this later). In more ways than one Soho was the perfect place to watch Lost Highway, those famous twin poles of Freudian thinking – sex and death – are a vital part of the Lynchian universe. It just so happened that this Lynch film was being screened alongside Kenneth Anger’s short film Rabbit’s Moon.
Absorbed by its darkness, the audience was gripped by the strange neo-noir plot, the ghostly Mystery Man and the encounters with Mr. Eddy. The soundtrack runs the gamut between David Bowie and Rammstein, Angelo Badalamenti and Marilyn Manson. It was not easy viewing. It left the viewer perplexed. No single interpretation seems to do the film justice. The excess of Lost Highway is what makes it so difficult to decipher and assimilate.
There are common tropes running through Lynch’s work. The Lynchian universe is the idyllic American neighbourhood, complete with white picket fences, lawncare and barbecues. Beyond this, we find diners, coffee and apple pie, and behind this lurks the realm of fantasy, the lowest forms of desire and violence. All of it has an otherworldly feel to it. This is how Lynch carries out an avant-garde invasion of mainstream Hollywood film.
In this world, we meet a terrifying figure called Mr. Eddy, played by Robert Loggia. Spewing bile and obscenities at every moment, Mr. Eddy threatens those around him and subdues them when he feels necessary. In one clear demonstration of this, Mr. Eddy rams a driver off the road, drags him from the car, brandishing a weighty silver handgun, before battering the man on the roadside. There Mr. Eddy demands that he purchase a driving manual and “study the motherfucker”.
Meanwhile the protagonist, and by extension the audience, looks on in horror. It’s not the first time such a figure has cast a long shadow in Lynch’s work. The other example would be Frank Booth as portrayed by Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet (1986). In this film, Lynch digs beneath the idyllic surface of suburban life, the white picket fences and barbecues so synonymous with post-war America. As part of the undergrowth, the protagonist watches as Booth plays out a sadomasochistic scenario with Dorothy Vallens.
The Politics of Mr. Eddy
Mr. Eddy and Frank Booth are not alone in the world of cinema. In Full Metal Jacket (1987), master-class auteur Stanley Kubrick gives us Sgt Hartman, the notorious drill instructor who enforces the military code of conduct, crushing the young men in his midst through hectoring and bullying. Failing to break Private Leonard Lawrence, Hartman turns the rest of the would-be-marines against him. Eventually Lawrence snaps and shoots Hartman before killing himself with the same rifle he called Charlene.
Sgt Hartman is an abusive, hectoring instructor, who remarks the young men drafted to be a part of his “beloved core”. Hartman aims to transform these boys into killing machines. Hartman embodies a kind of super-egoic, obscene father figure. He is the disciplinary force laying down the foundation of army life, but he is also the source of perverse demands and chanting: “I don’t know what I’ve been told, but Eskimo pussy is mighty cold!”
These young men go out to Vietnam, where they encounter prostitution and atrocities in equal measure. It’s easy to see how Hartman prepared them for this. He sensitised them to violence and sexual abuse. This is signified by the constant stream of dirty jokes and songs. You can imagine Hartman’s glee at every moment of this. Yet the beautiful irony of the story is that the troops are gunned down by a teenage girl.
The dynamic is slightly different in Lost Highway, where Mr. Eddy plays the role of a living obstacle to the protagonist. This is Zizek’s reading of the film. He is the externalisation of the main character’s feelings of sexual inadequacy with his wife (and the inevitable jealousy of other men). The second half of the film is a fantasy in which the protagonist seeks to resolve this tension by offing Mr. Eddy, but the obstacle is overcome to no end. The real conflict was always internal to the relationship between Fred and Rene.
It’s worth noting that David Lynch was thinking of the OJ Simpson case while making Lost Highway. Lynch was perplexed by how Simpson could just go golfing after allegedly killing two people in cold blood. He concluded that Simpson must have entered a fantasy space, wherein his apparent innocence is reinforced. Perhaps it was the only way to overcome the weight of his guilt. This is the essence of the film. Mr. Eddy was a projection of Fred’s own guilt, his feelings of inadequacy, his rage etc.
If we look beyond the film, we find the obscene figure of Mr. Eddy is not just present throughout pop culture – he can be found on the world stage. In Russia, we can see him in Vladimir Putin and his threats to circumcise journalists. In Italy, it was Silvio Berlusconi and his love of “bunga, bunga” parties. Another case would be Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. He openly elicits a murderous campaign against drug dealers, just as he tells jokes about Viagra and gang-rape, before catcalling women at his press conferences.
If you think about it, Donald Trump fits the bill. It is no coincidence that Trump surrounds himself with beautiful women, and he was immune to a long list of sexual assault allegations. Whether it is his wives, the girls at beauty competitions, Russian hookers, or even his daughter Ivanka. He jokes about dating his daughter, she jokingly implies her father is a sexual predator. An element of fantasy is present in all of this – the accumulation of sexual capital, not just abstract forms of power and wealth.
Each of these leaders stands as a reminder to the threat of authoritarian rule. Each plays up to the fantasy of power, but sexual power in particular. The idea of a endlessly virile, tough patriarch. This may be why Trump was left unscathed by the sexual assault allegations levelled against him. These charges would destroy any other politician, but not ‘The Donald’. It’s almost as if the old rules of conduct have been suspended.
In this way, Trump has broken free of the confines of Republicanism. No one could more implausibly stand up for the family values of the Christian Right. In Trump’s rise, the absurdity and decay of American politics is unveiled in public. It’s not just that ‘The Donald’ speaks for the anxiety of White America, it is that he seems to show up the system for what it is. This is where anti-politics converges with the extreme right.
Lady Killers and Cucks
If Mr. Eddy is the externalisation of Fred’s sexual failure, the rise of Trump might be seen in another light. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the alt-right, who have so delighted in Trump’s victory, are obsessed with what they call ‘cucks’ – or cuckolds, if you want to be precise – the term they hurl at their liberal detractors and conservative opponents. These trolls lifted the term from the porn industry, as if it’s meant to conjure up the idea of a black man having sex with your partner.
What this is supposed to say about liberals is clear, but it could do with being spelt out. “For months now strange men had been pestering you online whenever you offered up one of your sensible and well thought-out takes on the day’s news, and all of them had been calling you a cuck,” the journalist Sam Kriss writes. “Your wife, they’d been telling you, is fucking another man. And they weren’t wrong.”
You might be wondering what it is to not be cheated on in this view of the world. It might be revealed by the deep-seated need for a master figure, a paternal authority found in the alt-right. Suggestively, Milo Yiannopoulos reserves the word ‘Daddy’ for President Trump. The dark id is strong with the alt-right and its insatiable need for offence and provocation, almost as insatiable as its need for a super-egoic leader – the yearning for an authoritarian patriarch, who knows how to stomp out the left, crush feminism and take on the foreigners.
It may be that the rise of nationalist populism has a psycho-sexual appeal. It speaks to a toxic masculinity and its pathologies. The sexual politics of fascism demanded a leader with infinitely virile capacities at the centre of a vast dreamscape. Sexual aggression is political here, perhaps comparable to the conquest of territory – even the establishment of lebensraum. Certainly, Mussolini thought warfare comparable to reproduction: “War is to man what maternity is to woman.”
Indeed, Mussolini often acted out the sexual politics of fascism. This was long before Il Cavaliere arrived on the scene, Il Duce was screwing women in his office. The Italian leader was more than happy to let the rumours circulate, and the stories continue to sell newspapers to this day. By contrast the Fuhrer was far more puritanical when it came to sex, yet the regalia of Nazi Germany undeniably has sadomasochistic dimensions.
It may be absurd to compare Trump to the classical fascist leaders. Not only is Trump not fit to be a fascist, ‘The Donald’ speaks the language of proto-fascist nativism which runs deep in US history. ‘America First’ is not just a slogan, it is an erotic call to arms. It is a call for the US to assert its power and dominance (as if it hasn’t been for decades). This is what the hardcore Trump supporters and the alt-right want to hear.
Photograph courtesy of zoomar. Published under a Creative Commons license.