My Turn: The John Wayne complex and the confounding questions of my time

For the Monitor
Published: 2/22/2022 7:00:36 AM
Modified: 2/22/2022 7:00:12 AM

As I write this, amid new revelations regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection, new allegations of attempts to overturn the 2020 election by then-President Trump and his followers we are still, it has become clear, living in the ominous shadow of the Trump presidency and the appeal of this man to many continues to puzzle us.

I am a retired person and perhaps because the arc of my life bends toward its horizon, I find myself occupying my time by reading widely hoping to understand such confounding questions of my time.

Clues appear in unexpected places. Author Joan Didion’s own arc dipped beneath its horizon not long ago and I have found myself re-reading her collection of essays titled “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.”

Didion explored the tendency in American life of people to emulate films in the conduct of their lives, illustrating perhaps a fundamental shallowness, arguably a characteristic of the culture. Contemplating the Trump dilemma, I was particularly struck by Didion’s essay “John Wayne, a Love Song.”

In Joan Didion’s words, “… in a world we understood early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he (John Wayne) suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed but in any case existed no more: a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it; a world in which, if a man did what he had to do, he could one day…” (find the good life).

This idea, of a sort of mythical lost Eden and the ethic it embodies, persists, in the imagination. A remnant perhaps of lost frontier, or perhaps the romanticized illusion of it created by the pulp fiction genre, embellished, amplified and extended by the 20th-century film industry, its apparent absence in the facts (but not, I would argue, the ideals) of contemporary American life, has people often wondering “where we lost the trail?” as Didion puts it.

The ideal John Wayne movie sort of existence probably has never, could not exist, as portrayed. It perhaps should never be attempted, the reality of it, the violence and anarchy of such an existence would likely not turn out to be the happy place the mind longs for. The ideal persists, nonetheless, in the imagination.

The view of the mythical Eden of American westerns being essentially backward-looking, it is perhaps not surprising that the idea should find a home in conservative thinking, that social and political movement that seeks to retain the present at a minimum and possibly regain the imagined past.

“Make(ing) America Great Again” appeals to this kind of thing. Possibly the only people in our society who ever seem to find the mythical Eden are the super-rich and hence we venerate them and seek to protect the things that made their success possible (see Republican politics).

No one else in our society appears to possess the kind of freedom and autonomy John Wayne portrayed. It shouldn’t be surprising then that Donald Trump, the accomplished con man who portrays himself as being super-rich, should acquire the admiration of so many.

A man who has largely existed outside of and seemingly beyond the law lives his life by what appear to be his own rules and appears to embody the sense of individual freedom and autonomy of the ethos. The cheating on his three wives, the extramarital affairs with the porn star, the Playboy model, his questionable business dealings, the failure to pay his subcontractors, the laughable failed business ventures (Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks etc.), the multiple bankruptcies, defrauding old ladies of their life savings (Trump University), “grab ‘em by the pussy,” all appear to evidence the sort of independent, free and willful character John Wayne portrayed appealingly in his many movies.

Hey, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” (John Wayne)! How else to find Trump to be an attractive character and not the thoroughly despicable person the facts describe? We can begin to understand the fascination with the imagined hero for those people willing to do his bidding.

In this light, the events of Jan. 6, 2021, begin to assume greater clarity. The crowd attacking the Capitol at the urging of the lame duck president, on the basis of a transparently false assertion (the “Big Lie”) did not come for a mere political demonstration.

Their attire, the paramilitary costuming, the props they carried, the many American flags, the Trump regalia, the weapons, the gallows, suggest they came prepped for a performance, one for which they had doubtless been prepared by movies, movies in the western genre (John Wayne’s bar brawls) the war genre (you know, a “good old fashioned dust-up”).

“Like the Revolution” as some of Trump’s supporters characterized it. A group of hapless individuals living the John Wayne complex, entranced by a delusion, led by their hero. The ugliness of the actual violence, the reality of a surly mob seeking to murder the vice president and congressmen and congresswomen, and the fact that they were seeking the overthrow of the people’s government, which had been established and protected by the sacrifices of so many patriots, surely belies the mythology.

This has nothing in common with the movies’ good-natured and noble good fight. John Wayne’s characters would have been appalled and almost certainly on the side of justice, not such errant lawlessness.

The irony of it is that these were not people making their own code, not individuals living freely as the myth portrays but instead a mob of followers slavishly obeying their master, self-imagined, would-be patriots engaged in that most unpatriotic act: endeavoring to overthrow the nation they claim to cherish.

(Bruce Callahan lives in Thornton.)

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