Walter Huston and Karen Morley in Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

The Voice of the Demagogue and American So-Called Democracy

Gabriel Over the White House seriously asks a question that should only be asked as satire or farce: what if the best solution for the US is to have a fascist dictator in charge?

The United States bills itself as a representative democracy. This means of course that it is not a direct democracy. Citizens do not have the right to vote for each political action, our voices are not heard on each matter. Rather, we are asked to vote for representatives whom we are supposed to trust to take our voices into account and indeed to speak with the authority of “our” voice in their dealings with other politicians, both within the state and outside of it.

Since our only access to democracy is through representation, we find ourselves desiring someone who is representative of what we are.

A direct democracy, where every eligible citizen votes on all major matters of state, has long been thought unwieldy and impracticable for a country the size and density (with respect to population, if not intelligence) of the United States. But there’s more to it than that. The Electoral College, if nothing else, demonstrates that even the efficacy of the vote (the thing we are all supposed to be “rocking” on 8 November in order to guarantee our voice is heard) is questionable, at best.

There are several measures taken by the United States to control and mitigate the supposed power of the vote. Strictly speaking, as we all know, we do not vote for a president. We vote for electors who “promise” but are not obligated to vote for the candidate of our choice. All of the states, except Maine and Nebraska, operate on a “winner-take-all” basis. So a vote doesn’t “really count” unless it’s part of the majority vote of that state. If our voices are heard at all, they are filtered, muffled, and utterly diluted. None of this, by the way, has anything to do with rigged elections or voter fraud — although accusations of fraud and the measures taken to prevent it are another effective means of controlling the vote and wresting the one real decision vouchsafed to the average citizen out of her hands (that is, the voter identification laws, supposedly designed to prevent fraud, really serve to limit suffrage by raising impediments against the poor, the black and latino, and other “undesirables”). This is just the way it works.

The notion that our voices are both being heard and spoken for us is an intriguing and troubling one. It also explains the strange appeal of a specter that haunts any representative democracy and threatens to either dismantle it (if you are an optimist about the nature of representative democracy) or to set aside the pretense toward a government “of the people” that only serves to mask the fact that we already live in something approximating an oligarchy (if you are a cynic). That specter is the demagogue.

In the week surrounding Election Day (4-10 November), the Film Forum in New York City will be hosting a film festival entitled “Demagogues”, curated with a cleverly light touch of cynicism by Bruce Goldstein. The festival features some true masterworks of film, including Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, Frank Capra’s dark yet wonderfully idealistic Meet John Doe, the uproarious Duck Soup featuring the Marx Brothers, Elia Kazan’s haunting A Face in the Crowd (which in my opinion should have launched a serious dramatic career for star Andy Griffith), and the impressive All the King’s Men.

It also includes one film that I consider to be absolutely lousy, simply abominable in every conceivable way. This is a film that stars a superb actor (Walter Huston) and yet every performance in it, including his, is ham-fisted hackwork that makes the thespian endeavors of an Ed Wood film look like Shakespeare. It boasts a screenplay by Carey Wilson, the man responsible for Mutiny on the Bounty, and yet the script is rife with hogwash patriotic sentimentalism, a bizarre affection for fascism, and heavy-handed scenes that resemble that moment when your local improv theater group takes requests. It was directed by Gregory La Cava, best known for Stage Door and My Man Godfrey (both solid, if not outstanding, films) and yet the mise-en-scène is artless, the editing sloppy, and the overall impact of the film is akin to that neighbor you once had that hectors you into listening to his opinion by being louder than everyone else, babbles utter nonsense laced with offensive points of view, and then, when he sees no one cares, tries to appeal to your sympathy because he is so misunderstood.

The film is Gabriel Over the White House and it is, to borrow a phrase I have always admired by Ralph Peer, “pluperfect awful”. Yet, if you are anywhere near the Film Forum, and you have time to see only one of the films on the list, I recommend that this film be the one you see. If you are not nearby, try to find it through other means. It’s not a good film but it’s a telling film — and one that pertains to our time to a disturbing degree.

James Fenimore Cooper (yeah, that guy) defined a “demagogue” as someone who fits four criteria: 1. he presents himself as a man of the people; 2. he inspires a reaction founded on emotion rather than reason; 3. he mines that reaction for his own political gain and; 4. he shows no qualms in abrogating the established laws and procedures of governance. The demagogue eats away at the very core of a representative democracy by exploiting the fundamental contradiction that lies in its relation to the “voice of the public”. Since we are asked to focus our suffrage on relatively rare moments, since we are forced to form a coalition of the essentially disenfranchised, we often find ourselves in a position of seeking out someone “just like us”, whatever that may be taken to mean.

In other words, since our only access to democracy is through representation, we find ourselves desiring someone who is representative of what we are. This can, of course, be taken in multiple ways. We might mean that the elected official promises to enact legislation that reflects our views of a better society, a better world. But often — far too often — what we really mean is that we want someone who is like us.

This is the gap between reasonable self-interest and narcissism that the demagogue exploits. The demagogue claims to speak for you because he is one of you. He speaks with your voice. He knows that he acts in your best interest, even if it’s against your will, because he recognizes himself as you, only a better and more focused version of you. In Freudian terms, he is the outsized Ego that placates the Id by promising it fulfillment in due time while burning the Superego (the repository of social law) to the ground.

Gabriel Over the White House seriously asks a question that should only be asked as satire or farce: what if the best solution for the United States is to have a fascist dictator in charge? Only this is a dictator of the people (all dictators claim to be)! This is a dictator with the best interests of the people at heart and he is simply cutting through the egregious red tape of government by dismantling all of the checks and balances, all of the safeguards set in place (again, a claim made by all dictators).

Worst of all, in my opinion, it’s not so subtly suggested that this despot, this usurper of anything resembling reasonable government, is possessed by the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. That’s right: the great emancipator becomes the great dictator. This pernicious bit of revisionism asks us to believe that the president who sought to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” was not only disingenuous but a tyrant. Indeed all truly great leaders, by the logic of this film, are necessarily tyrants.

The president of Gabriel Over the White House recklessly fires Cabinet members for disagreeing with him, adjourns Congress and imposes martial law during a time of peace, creates tribunals that “court martial” citizens and execute them, bullies foreign leaders through threat of force, and bypasses the rule of law — all in the name of the greater good. The film would have us believe that the greater good is indeed realized through such measures.

This is the ultimate question or lesson of the film — a lesson I would hope we could engage despite the lamentable ideology that imbues Gabriel Over the White House: is the point of government to reach an end without regard to the means by which that end is attained, or do the means matter, perhaps matter more than the ends? Is social betterment achieved through outrageous and irresponsible means really betterment in any reasonable sense of the term? Are politics about a set of specific goals or ought they be more concerned with the process in which we involve ourselves as we negotiate the differences among us in search for a better way of living? Is a Carthaginian peace worth having?

So, as we wend our way toward a contentious and frightful election, take a look at cinematic representations of the demagogue. Watch Citizen Kane and A Face in the Crowd. These are fantastic films. Indeed, that’s perhaps what makes them more difficult in relation to social ideals. These films are seductive and so are the characters that inhabit them. Our real social concerns are smoothed over by the aesthetic balm they present.

The advantage, therefore, of Gabriel Over the White House is that it’s an abhorrent and bad film. It thereby permits a more perspicacious view of the demagogue qua seducer. The aesthetic failings of the film reveal the terrifying element of ideology that is never far from the political stage. The traitor (the Benedict Arnold, the Judas) is always one “like us”. Gabriel Over the White House is not a good film, but it is one we all should watch very carefully.