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How the Trump filter changes the way we talk about pop culture

The Trumps of Saturday Night Live NBC
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Star Wars is political now.

Or rather, it’s just as political as it’s always been. But the question of whether you should go see the latest entry in the franchise, Rogue One, is newly politically charged. The white supremacists of the so-called alt-right, outraged by Rogue One’s diverse, woman-led cast and anti-white-supremacy message, have dubbed the movie “racist propaganda against Whites” and are tweeting “#DumpStarWars” to promote a Star Wars boycott.

Star Wars isn’t the only piece of pop culture that feels especially politically charged as 2016 comes to a close. The reason is simple: Since Donald Trump won the presidency in November, the “Trump filter” has become the dominant lens through which we see pop culture.

You see it in book reviews, in poetry columns, in Oscar prognostications, as political parallels drawn by critics abound. The forthcoming Handmaid’s Tale TV series is all-too relevant. Westworld teaches us how to fight broken systems. A Bronx Tale indicts American politics. Horror shows us that we’re afraid of being invaded. The word of the year is either “post-truth” or “surreal,” depending on your dictionary of choice.

Any piece of pop culture we experience now, regardless of its intention, feels like an explanation of why Trump won the election, or a warning of the kind of future he’s about to bring, or a bittersweet reminder that there is hope outside of the darkness of politics. But always, everything is mediated through the knowledge that Donald Trump, the man who bragged about sexual assault and was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, is President-elect of the United States of America.

That’s not because pop culture has changed significantly. It’s because the way we see ourselves has changed. We use pop culture as a way of thinking about the world around us, and in 2016, America proved that it has changed significantly. The way we think about popular culture is changing with it.

The politics of Star Wars haven’t changed, but the way we talk about them has

The contrarian “actually, the evil Empire is good” Star Wars take has been a favorite of conservative commenters for years now, but it has acquired particular urgency in 2016. In the past, it took the form of a mildly trolling thinkpiece here and a needling Twitter thread there; in the lead up to the 2015 release of The Force Awakens, it developed into talking about a boycott. This year, it’s spawned a popular Twitter hashtag and an active boycott on the right, and it’s become the object of shocked, performative outrage on the left. The question of whether or not someone approves of Rogue One has become meaningful, legible shorthand for exactly where that person falls in the culture wars.

The political discussion surrounding Rogue One and the Star Wars franchise as a whole — and the way it has evolved over time — is a prime example of how our relationship with pop culture will always be affected by the politics of the day. It’s not Star Wars itself that has changed, but the way we look at culture, and the way we look at ourselves.

For decades, America has thought itself as a country that opposes Nazis and fascists. We’re the ones who saved the world from Hitler, we’re the ones who beat the bad guys, and the ultimate bad guys are Nazis. So any mediocre action movie that wanted to clarify its moral stakes could just say something like, “Our bad guys are a metaphor for fascism!” and we would all sit back, united in the understanding that the villains were fascists and the heroes believed in democracy.

That’s what Star Wars has been doing since A New Hope came out in 1977, and it’s what the franchise is continuing to do in 2016. The evil Empire is a fascist dictatorship. The Empire’s Stormtroopers are the same as the Nazis’ Stormtroopers. Fascism is evil, and mankind’s noblest work is to destroy fascism. It’s not a subtle metaphor and it never has been.

But for decades, America has so universally accepted the idea that Nazis and fascism are bad that the politics inherent to that idea were rendered invisible. Now, in the wake of the 2016 election, those politics have become abruptly, shockingly apparent. The alt-right explicitly identifies with the Empire, and they don’t see why they should be made to feel that they’re evil because of it. “Fascism is bad” is suddenly a much more politically potent and controversial statement.

This is the Trump filter in action. When we talk about pop culture in 2016, it is almost impossible to avoid talking about what it means for the culture wars, and how it applies to the age of Trump.

The Trump filter can sometimes feel trivializing or mean-spirited. It is also necessary.

There are pitfalls involved about talking about art through the Trump filter. It can feel trivializing: How dare we compare the real-life issues facing real, live people to works of fiction? It can feel mean-spirited: We so often use fiction as a means of escape from the real world, and how dare we take that escape away from people who need it by politicizing it?

But to actively try to fight against the Trump filter when talking about art feels awful, too: How dare we think about anything besides the political nightmare our country is facing, no matter what subject we’re discussing, any time, ever? And anyway, isn’t all art political, regardless of whether or not it wears its politics on its sleeve?

We have to continue to analyze our culture. We have to look at the arts critically and analytically, because popular culture is the air we breathe and the water we swim in. It’s what shapes the way we see the world and how the world sees us.

When we told the world that America is the country that believes Nazis are the ultimate bad guys and made a million mediocre action movies saying as much, that said something about us — both good (we’re committed to anti-fascism!) and bad (also we believe ourselves to be beyond moral reproach!). And when we tell the world that we think maybe those Nazis could really be on to something, that says something, too.

Popular culture is always a mirror that reflects our deepest cultural concerns, and for that reason it is always worth analyzing. Right now, many people’s biggest cultural concern is Trump: the fact of him and his shocking electoral success, and that he is now in a position to guide and shape our nation’s culture. The Trump filter exists because Trump will be everywhere in America’s structures and processes for years to come. Pop culture will be one of our most important means of confronting that fact, processing it, and, where necessary, protesting it.