The 2016 election has made soothsayers of any number of historians, academics and philosophers, but one of the few filmmakers who saw Donald Trump coming was the documentarian Adam Curtis. One might even argue that Trump’s victory was the closing argument of a thesis he has been refining and developing for the last 15 years.
Since his 2002 opus, The Century of Self, Curtis has traced the myriad ways in which the left has abandoned politics in favor of a radical individualism, online and off, that has allowed reactionary forces to metastasize across the West. As he ominously declares at the beginning of his latest film, Hypernormalisation (2016), these forces are now puncturing “the fragile surface of our carefully constructed fake world.”
Drawing from the BBC’s vast video archive, Curtis’ films are ambitious, addictive and haunting. In The Power of Nightmares (2004), he charts the eery parallels between the neoconservative and radical Islamist movements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and the ways in which our political leaders have preyed upon our fears to maintain their grip on power. The documentary also examines the ways in which we’re still living in the shadows of the Cold War, decades after perestroika. The Trap (2007) offers a searing look at how Britain’s and the United States’ attempts to free themselves from bureaucracy have given rise to a bloodless and oppressive managerialism, while their efforts to spread democracy abroad have yielded only violent mayhem. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, released in 2011, explores how our reliance on computers to forge a stable world has produced just the opposite.
Curtis spoke with AlterNet last week about a range of subjects, and then a strange thing happened, as he might pronounce in one of his documentaries. The Syrian government launched a chemical weapons assault killing scores of civilians, and the U.S. responded with a missile strike of its own. Or so the dominant political-media narrative would dictate. What follows is a composite of our conversation before and after, over the phone and via email—a fragmented Q&A for a complex and possibly unknowable moment in history.
Jacob Sugarman: So in less than a week since we first spoke, Donald Trump has done a complete about-face on Syria and Bashar al-Assad. Obviously we’re just hours removed from the airstrike, but what are your first impressions? Does this signal to you that the Pentagon is dictating his foreign policy? Is this bombing campaign an elaborate piece of political theater or is it more likely the opening gambit in a prolonged assault?
Adam Curtis: No one knows what the attack means, or how it will play out. It is far too early. My first reaction is that what may be happening is that President Trump is stepping for the first time into the real world. But he will discover that the consequences may be very different and far more complex than he imagines.
Firstly, the question that has not really been addressed is, why did the Syrians use chemical weapons? If, as we are constantly being told, the regime is winning the civil war, why did they do something like that? Some analysts and journalists are saying that possibly Assad is not winning; that the Syrian army is exhausted and starting to fall apart; and that the Russians are finding the conflict far more difficult to deal with than they imagined, especially with just dropping bombs. Most of the really hard fighting for Aleppo was not done by the Syrian army but by Hezbollah, which is becoming a really serious army. And behind them are the Revolutionary Guards of Iran.
Secondly, such an intervention leads to the question, who are the goodies and who are the baddies in this war? If President Trump has turned against Assad and will genuinely work for his removal, then who should replace him? This is the reality that President Obama faced and recoiled from because there is no simple answer. Just as the Americans discovered in Afghanistan, which had also been fighting a civil war since 1978, everyone is compromised in some way, because they have all been sucked into a grinding struggle for power. The truth is that no-one in America who is pushing for something to be done about Syria—the liberal humanitarians, the neoconservatives, the globalists in the military—has any real answer about who to support.
The other possibility is that it may be just another part of the pantomime, a missile hit designed to distract from scandals at home. But that takes you back to President Clinton’s missile attack against Osama bin Laden’s training camps in 1998—an attack that many believed was not only a retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania but an attempt at distracting attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And looking back that doesn’t seem to have been a very good idea. It had a very counter-productive effect on the Taliban. Up to that point they were really fed up with bin Laden and were looking for ways to be rid of him, even possibly giving him up to the Americans. After the attacks the Taliban stopped all that.
The truth is that we in the West have so simplified our vision of the world, into a battle between good and evil, that we now find it impossible to understand the reality. It was a process that started in the 1990s under Clinton and Blair, but both Trump and his enemies, the liberal interventionists, have inherited that one-dimensional view. It is dangerous because it ignores the realities of power in societies. And Trump may find he is opening the door to something very complicated, not just Syria but the forces that surround it—Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, all of whom are deeply involved in the conflict.
And it will also have a terrible effect for Trump domestically. All the hard-line isolationists who backed him will be furious. It’s just what Hillary Clinton would have done, they will cry. Trump has become a deep state puppet.
JS: We’re more than 70 days into Trump’s presidency, just a few weeks short of the juncture when historians and political analysts begin to assess an office in earnest. Do you see America sliding into authoritarianism or fascism, or are the evils of this administration more banal than that?
AC: America is not sliding into fascism. That’s just hysteria by the liberals who can’t face up to the fact that they lost the election, so they either have to blame the Russians or giant historical forces. Basically, a right-wing president has been elected, and he’s created a brilliant machine that captures liberals and keeps them completely preoccupied. What he does is he wakes up in the morning, tweets something that he knows isn’t true, they get very upset and spend the whole day writing in big capital letters on social media, “This is outrageous. This is bad. This is fascism.” What they’re not facing up to is the real question, which is why did Donald Trump win the election? What other forces in the country had they, the liberals, not seen?
They weren’t defeated by something as grand as fascism. They were defeated by a man who’s connected with a disaffected group in America, like the people who voted for Brexit in my country. I think there’s a great deal of narcissism which Mr. Trump has worked at how to play on beautifully.
JS: Your most recent documentary is called Hypernormalisation. Can you explain what a hypenormalised state is and how it creates an opening for somebody like Trump to exploit?
AC: The term was created by a guy called Alexei Yurchak, who wrote a book about the last days of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. What he described was a world where everyone knew that the system in place wasn’t working and that the politicians didn’t believe it any longer. Yet at the same time, because they didn’t have any alternative, everyone just accepted it as normal even though they knew it was abnormal. So he gave it this term hypernormalisation. I’m not trying to say that the West is in any way like the Soviet Union at all. It’s very different. What I was trying to argue, or imply in this film gently, was that we may be in a very similar situation where we know that the system has become somewhat corrupted. But more than that, we know that those in charge don’t really believe in the system any longer, have no vision of the future. And what’s more, they know that we know that.
What Trump is doing is playing with the fakery. It may be instinctive. He’s saying things that he knows that we know aren’t true, at which point everyone gets locked into a game of what’s true and what’s not true. This misses the real point of politics, which is to tell a powerful story that offers a vision of the future. I don’t think Trump has a vision of the future. I think he’s the last of the old politicians.
JS: It doesn’t seem like Trump has any kind of ideology beyond a base self-interest, but I don’t think the same is true of some of the people in his administration. What do you make of someone like Steve Bannon? Do you see him as a descendent of Leo Strauss, as you’ve argued the neoconservatives were, or am I giving him more gravitas than he deserves? [Editor’s note: This portion of the interview was conducted before Bannon was removed from the National Security Council.]
AC: I think you should pay more attention to the traditional, hard-right-wing people who have risen to power with Trump. Donald comes from the world of finance and he is doing what finance wants to do. I would argue that actually it shows that really nothing has changed, which is a very hypernormal situation. We know that many of the people who possibly should have been prosecuted after the financial crisis of 2008 were not. Now it’s carrying on while liberals boo and hiss at the man in charge. Behind the scenery, everyone is just carrying on managing the system in their own interests as they have before.
Steve Bannon? I don’t know. We have a phrase in Britain, which is “All mouth, no trousers.” He’s a degraded clash-of-civilizations man, and he’s a bit late to the table on that one because [Jean-Marie Le Pen] tried that in 2004. It didn’t work. I’m far more interested in what I would call real power, which is the power of finance. It’s really extraordinary that Trump has moved into a position of power. People from the political financial world would never in a million years let him borrow their money, which makes you wonder whether he is a part of the pantomime.
JS: One of the ideas you put forth on the eve of the election is that Trump is actually a product of 1970s counterculture. I’m not sure how many people would make that association.
AC: If you shut your eyes and listen to Donald Trump, or half of what Donald Trump says, he sounds like one of those paranoid hippies who kept talking about The Man, big T, big M. The Man is this sort of corrupt political insider who doesn’t care about anything except power and is pulling the wool over your eyes. At the end of the 1960s, the left turned against politics and said, Look, all politics is shit. Everyone is corrupt. Therefore what you have to do is detach yourself from politics and really turn to those who you trust. Out of that you got the politics of individualism, which then rose up and supported Reagan. What’s really fascinating, which I shared in a series called “The Century of the Self,” is how many people who’d come out of the counterculture ended up voting for Reagan in 1980 because he offered that sort of individualism. But if you listen to Trump, it’s the discourse of the counterculture, and he’s playing with that.
JS: So if Trump is the apotheosis of this radical individualism and all these cultural signs pointed to him, or someone like him becoming president, are there any markers for what might come next? What gives you hope for the future?
AC: The thing that makes me really sad, and to an extent, angry, is the complete failure of the liberals and the progressives to actually face up to what people like Trump really mean. What it means is that there are groups in this country, many of them poor, many of them part of the working class, who are feeling frightened, alone, and afraid of the future. They voted for Trump or for Brexit in my country as a way of expressing that, because the traditional politics would not let them do it. The liberals would not go and connect with those people. What they do is they spend their time saying they’re stupid, which is the most stupid thing you can possibly do.
What the left has got to do is go and find a common line for those people and genuinely offer them something. If they did that, they could make politics noble and important again. But instead they’re hunkering down, sneering, and trying to blame Vladimir Putin. I mean, I’m sure Russians did hack practically every server in America, but that’s not the real reason why Donald Trump won. Progressives have not faced up to this. In a sense, I’m hopeful because the failure of Trump to be able to deliver what he has promised gives great opportunities for the left to reinvent itself. The only person who interests me is Bernie Sanders. He’s going around having what he calls town hall meetings with those people, and I think that’s really good.
JS: Why do you think liberals are so frightened of these big animating ideas? I found it very telling how few Democrats were willing to come out in support of a single-payer health care system or even a public option after Trump’s latest bill went down in flames, Sanders being a notable exception.
AC: One of the great unanswered questions of my time is why the optimism and idealism of liberals, who used the power of state to change the world for the better, collapsed so quickly and turned to pessimism. If you talk to groups of liberals now, it’s like talking to people who think the plane’s going to crash all the time. They dream of apocalypse and read books by Cormac McCarthy and say that sugar’s going to kill them. Which it may well do, but it’s not the biggest thing to worry about. I think it’s terribly sad, but Trump has presented a great opportunity for them. As you say, he’s failing in all his policies, isn’t he? Of course, if they do miss that opportunity, then the real nasty nationalist right will start to make the running, and that’s a danger in the future.
JS: I can’t help but notice that the kind politics you’re advocating sound a lot like those Obama ran on in 2008. Do you think he failed to live up to the promises of that campaign? Is Donald Trump a part of his legacy now?
AC: I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I think Obama was a very decent guy. Since the early 1990s, real power has shifted away from politicians to all sorts of institutions that we almost don’t have the perception apparatus to see or understand. Frankly, a journalist doesn’t. I think Obama found himself facing a lot of that. But it’s us as well. At the same time that Obama came to power, we, the liberals, the Democrats, the progressives retreated to digital playgrounds owned by five or six very giant corporations. I think they left Obama quite isolated, actually. So far from snarling and spitting at him, which much of the left has done, they should actually turn around and look at themselves and wonder, possibly did we go down the wrong avenue believing all that internet utopianism? I just think that it’s time for a little humility among some of the progressives in their attitude to Obama.
As I point out in Hypernormalisation, the Occupy movement had a fantastic slogan and the goodwill of lots of people who would normally never support a rebellious movement like that. Yet when they actually got together, they found they had no ideas. I think it’s pretty rich that they then turned around and tried to blame Obama for not having a picture of the future when, quite frankly, they didn’t. If you want to change the world, A, you’ve got to work at it very hard, and B, you’ve got to challenge power, and that’s quite frightening and quite difficult, and you have to have a very strong idea of what you want.
JS: Let’s return to the subject of Putin, who makes an appearance in several of your films, Hypernormalisation included. In recent weeks, it seems like a lot of legitimate concerns about the Trump administration’s ties to the Kremlin have given way to rampant conspiracy theorizing. How do you explain it?
AC: Russia has been the Other ever since about 1951 for America, and then everyone tried to make it be Islamists. By about 2007 that wasn’t working, and everyone now seems to have switched back to Russia. When Barry Goldwater was running for president, the John Birch Society was saying that the president was probably controlled by the Soviet Union. If you listen to the liberals now, they sound remarkably similar.
I am sure that the Russians probably did hack into the Democrats’ computers. And I am sure that they may have leaked stuff to meddle with the election and to mess with confidence in the whole democratic process. I would also not be surprised if Donald Trump, and people around him, have had all kinds of dealings with dodgy people in Russia. Given the weird mixture of business and politics in that country, it might be quite likely.
But to an outsider, the way the Democrats and their supporters are obsessing with Russia looks very strange and hysterical. From a distance it seems as if they are desperately trying to avoid facing up to the very powerful reality that was revealed by the election. Instead they seem to be retreating into a kind of magical thinking. Looking for something, anything that will be like a magic wand and wave President Trump away. And then they can go back to normality. It can’t help crossing one’s mind that maybe the Democrats are looking for an excuse that will mean they don’t have to change, that they don’t have to give things up in today’s unequal, brutal and unfair society.
JS: What would you say to those who might feel helpless or even paralyzed by the horrific events that seem to be unfolding almost daily?
AC: Stop. Stop blaming. Stop sitting in the bubble and feeling sad. Stop sneering at the people who voted for Donald Trump and Brexit. Reconnect with them, and make politics noble again. Make it powerful. There are only two ways of changing the world. One is if you’ve got large amounts of money. The other is to use collective action, the collective power that politics allows you. Too many on the left have embraced a new kind of democracy online and gotten trapped in echo chambers. You can’t say “You can’t trust any politicians,” because actually that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. What I’m saying is get engaged.
During the civil rights movement in America in the late ’50s and early ’60s, young white activists went down to the South, united with young black activists and worked for years to confront vested interests, ruthless power. Some of them were killed, many were beaten up. Most of them were completely anonymous, but they changed the world. And there is a great hunger for that kind of change.
Jacob Sugarman is a managing editor at AlterNet.