'The Walking Dead' and the Rise of Donald Trump

by Dawn Keetley

17 March 2016

The Walking Dead offers an excellent frame with which to view Trump’s candidacy and shifts in American society.
Photo (modified) by
a katz / Shutterstock.com 

Zombies have long been considered political. Numerous critics have argued, for instance, that the zombies of George A. Romero’s ground-breaking The Night of the Living Dead (1968) represented Richard Nixon’s “silent majority”, the vast group of (mostly older, white) Americans who were neither protesting the Vietnam War nor involved in the counterculture. Almost 50 years later, a zombie narrative, the enormously successful AMC series The Walking Dead, is again bound up with a “silent majority”—the (actually not so) silent supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. (For Trump’s comments about his supporters as the “silent majority”, see “Battleship Donald Trump” on breitbart.com). 

Writing about the violence presaged in Trump’s campaign, Peter Beinart of The Atlantic says the US has seen nothing like it since the year Night of the Living Dead was released:

The United States is headed toward a confrontation, the likes of which it has not seen since 1968, between leftist activists, who believe in physical disruption as a means of drawing attention to injustice, and a candidate eager to forcibly put down that disruption in order to make himself look tough. (Beinart, 3 March 2016)

The early months of 2016 have seen round-the-clock news of such political confrontations interwoven with episodes of season six of The Walking Dead. We’re grimly, enthusiastically, anxiously watching both. During one week in late February, for instance, The Walking Dead and the Republican debate drew more viewers in the 18-49 age range than anything else on cable. Indeed, just the other day, someone on Twitter remarked that everything in his Twitter feed was either politics or The Walking Dead.

I’m convinced, then, that in the years to come, cultural critics will have plenty to say about the confluence of The Walking Dead‘s huge success and current presidential politics.

My claim here about The Walking Dead‘s connection to Trump’s rise is speculative: none of us yet has the distance that those who write about it years from now will have. I do believe, though, that while there are many reasons for Trump’s emergence as Republican frontrunner, the huge commercial success of The Walking Dead is in part causally connected to what might well be Trump’s successful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Why? Because The Walking Dead has represented, reinforced, and even in part created certain “structures of feeling” (Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, 1977:132) to use Williams’s famous term, which are also behind Trump’s “movement”.

The term “structures of feeling” is useful because, as Williams defines it, it’s not just about intellectually held ideological principles. It’s about “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt” (132), which helps us see why a long-running series of comic books and a TV show that have such devoted fans could be instrumental in shaping such “structures of feeling”. Many people live The Walking Dead: the series is part of fans’ lives in a visceral and emotional way, helping to shape ways of thinking (and feeling) about the world that surpass mere “ideology”.

So, without more ado, here are the ways in which The Walking Dead has, I think, participated in creating certain “structures of feeling” that are also part of Trump’s movement:

1. Strong leaders rule the day. From the early struggle between Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane (Jon Bernthal)—and Shane’s accusations that Rick wasn’t strong enough—The Walking Dead has repeatedly demonstrated that the survival of the community depends on the strength of its leader. Of course strength always ends up equal to violence; violence without limits, it seems. In the season six episode, “Not Tomorrow Yet”, Rick leads his group in a preemptive strike against Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) Saviors; we watch our favorite characters kill men in cold blood, including stabbing them through the head while they’re sleeping, just as if they were walkers. Rick no longer wonders, it seems, whether he’s doing the right thing. He knows. Such brutal, preemptive killing, he declares, is “how we keep this place”, how they all stay safe.

2. You need guns. Say no more. The Walking Dead’s a living, breathing argument for the Second Amendment. You don’t kill, you die. (Even Father Gabriel [Seth Gilliam] and Eugene [Josh McDermitt] are getting on board with this.)

3. You need walls—the stronger and taller the better. After Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) dangerously idealistic and unfenced farm was overrun by walkers, the survivors have gone from one walled sanctuary to another. Indeed, one could argue that the tension of the series centrally revolves around walls and their breaching, from the prison to Woodbury to Terminus to Alexandria to Hilltop. What’s more, the physical wall’s only part of the story. The wall represents, as it does in Trump’s own calls for a wall, a sharp division between “us” and a threatening “them”. The Atlantic recently made the case that one of four characteristics of Trump’s supporters is that they “want to wage an interior war against outsiders”, something visually rendered, of course, in a wall (Thompson, 1 March 2016). The Walking Dead‘s walls aren’t gratuitous, moreover; they’re profoundly necessary for protection.

4. Government is useless. Turns out, when push comes to shove, people get along just fine without politicians. The world of The Walking Dead is the epitome of local rule: ordinary people creating the rules by and for themselves. The only politician we’ve seen so far, Deanna Monroe (Tovah Feldshuh), was utterly ineffectual at protecting her people when they were invaded, until she acquiesced to Rick’s brand of violent, strong-man leadership—and she finally died heroically, signally not debating the fine points of some proposal but unleashing a hail of bullets on the dead.

5. Ordinary people—indeed, all kinds of people who aren’t represented by and in the current political elite (of both parties)—have an equal say in things. I think the most important characters in terms of Trump’s rise are probably Merle (Michael Rooker) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) Dixon, both much beloved by almost all fans of the show. (RIP Merle!) Merle and Daryl embody the southern “redneck” (of which there are plenty throughout the rest of America as well, it should be noted), but they both transform what’s often seen as a derogatory figure into something heroic.

Merle in particular, who started out virulently racist and generally obnoxious, ended up sacrificing himself for his brother, the larger group, and the greater good. He recognized, moreover, that he was doing the dirty work so people like Rick could keep their hands clean. He—and Daryl, too—are powerful redemptive figures of white, working-class, rural, “poorly educated” southern men—exactly one of Trump’s biggest constituencies. The Atlantic reports that Trump’s primary supporters are those without college degrees and who feel disenfranchised and voiceless. Merle and Daryl have given a powerful voice to these voiceless individuals..

6. You look after your own. Although Rick and his group go back and forth (and disagree) over how inclusive their group should be (when and if they let in other members), the bottom line is that they’re a group—a tribe, if you will—and they look after their own. Outsiders are always greeted with suspicion. Even if they’re eventually admitted into the tribe, it’s only after an extensive vetting process: obviously evocative of Trump’s insistence that refugees, Muslims, and all non-Americans be scrutinized before being let into the country.

It’s pretty easy, in the end, to read the zombie hordes as illegal aliens, migrant workers, radical Islamists, and Syrian refugees, especially in season six, the first half of which focused relentlessly on thousands of walkers lurching en masse toward the walls of Alexandria. In The Walking Dead, moreover, these masses are a real threat to the tribe, which sounds like something you could glibly write off as zenophobic, except the “tribe” inside the walls is a diverse one in all kinds of ways, not least in terms of gender, race, and sexuality.

7. You’ve got to make good deals. As the TV series finally gets to Hilltop and Negan, it’s becoming clear that deal-making is a crucial part of surviving in the post-apocalyptic world. Negan’s approach to the deal, in the comics, is summed up in his declaration to Rick: “Give me your shit or I will kill you”. Negan could be seen as many things: the government, corporate America, China, Donald Trump himself? But whatever he is, he represents the violently exploitative exchange—and the necessity of standing up to it.  In his recent incarnation as strong-man leader, Rick is standing up to it, even at the cost of killing the potentially innocent. As he says in his “rally” in the church in the season six episode, “Not Tomorrow Yet”: “We don’t shy away from it, we live. We kill them all.”

I have to add that I’ve written this as a devoted fan of The Walking Dead, and as someone who’s intensely interested in the ways in which cultural products (like TV) have power and force in our real lives. I’m not writing as a political partisan. In fact, one of the (many) things I love about The Walking Dead—a thing I’m convinced is crucial to its success—is that it accommodates all kinds of politics. There are arguments out there that The Walking Dead’s world is liberal and that it’s conservative. The great part is, they’re both right. However you feel about Trump’s rise to power, though—and people either love it or hate it—The Walking Dead does indeed, I think, have something to do with that rise.

Dawn Keetley teaches gothic and horror fiction, film, and TV at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. She has published articles on The Walking Dead in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and the Journal of Popular Television, and she’s the editor of “We’re All Infected”: AMC’s The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human (McFarland, 2014). She writes regularly on all things horror for a blog she co-runs, www.horrorhomeroom.com.

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