Before 2021 sets in and gives us a presidential administration that believes in … well, science, it makes sense to look back at 2020 and, if you’re a masochist, all the Trump years. One bit of vocab that can help us reflect on the captivating urge to follow or support Trump is “toxic positivity,” which is well shown in one of 2020’s last big movies.
In “Wonder Woman 1984,” the main villain Maxwell Lord is sufficiently re-imagined as a Trump-y 1980s wannabe businessman who, in his pursuit of wealth and power, acquires the magical MacGuffin of the movie that allows him to grant the wishes of others while also providing him with the power to change reality and get whatever he wants. If you hate spoilers, please don’t read any further. Seriously, are you okay with spoilers? Yeah? OK, good.
At the end of the film, after Lord manipulated others to help him acquire massive wealth through his Ponzi scheme of an oil “cooperative” (i.e., an investment scheme) company, he makes one of his employees wish that he had an audience with the president of the United States. Through his powers, he essentially becomes the shadow president and gains access to an experimental mass communications system that lets him make an infomercial-style appearance on every television and radio in the world and beckon everyone to wish for their deepest desire. In turn, as people from every walk of life, in every corner of the world, make their serious or frivolous wish, they immediately get what they want — and World War III almost happens, and worse.
From their limited perspective, life is better. All who wish for something get it, regardless of the implications. From their limited perspective, their wishes come true. Yet their wish fulfillment gives Lord more and more power, as he takes whatever he wants in exchange. More importantly, in the background, while the villain amasses power and individual’s wishes are magically granted, the world is brought to the brink of collapse, and chaos and conflict erupt. For example, a xenophobic store clerk in England wishes that all the Irish “went back to where they came from,” and then dozens of police cars appear in London and police officers brutalize and detain anyone who’s Irish. Hmm … a person out of their own ignorance and xenophobia wishing for a group of people to be rounded up and removed because that person feels frustrated with something in their lives — sounds eerily familiar!
Where am I going with all this? Toxic positivity is the idea (and behavior) that only the positive things in life matter, and if we ignore anything in our lives that is seemingly “negative” and only focus on the positive, then everything will be okay. In September, it was revealed that soon-to-be-former-President Donald Trump knew how deadly COVID-19 would be in February but downplayed it. In his words, he wanted to “reduce panic” because “[the president is] a cheerleader for this country.… We want to show confidence. We want to show strength. We want to show strength as a nation. And that’s what I’ve done.” At the time of me writing this, shortly after the new year, over 330,000 Americans have died due to the coronavirus.
Trump’s toxic positivity, like Lord’s in “WW84,” killed and still is killing people as he seemingly focuses the last weeks of his presidency on overturning a democratic election versus governing during a national crisis. In Trump’s world, he himself does no wrong as an infomercial self-help guru that tells his base, “Your America is good, but it can be better [if you vote maga]”! For example, during the surge of the pandemic in the spring, he constantly pushed for states to re-open quickly and boasted about how well the country is recovering and would be completely reopened by Easter, despite millions being forced into unemployment and many falling into poverty and hospitals quickly approaching capacity.
Hell, even when he got COVID-19, he put out a video that resembled an infomercial declaring, “Don’t let it dominate you!” His supporters have heard his self-help, positivity shtick loud and clear: He is Making America Great Again with his step-by-step program, ignoring all the haters who demand that he actually … governs. The consequences of toxic positivity for individuals is not being able to deal with challenges in a healthy way. Public health agencies and hospitals around the country are at a breaking point due to “COVID-iocy,” Trump-supported resistance to any COVID-19 social distancing or willful ignorance of information pertaining to COVID-19. One major example was at the August 2020 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota where thousands of Trump-supporting bikers rallied in the small town, ignoring any social-distancing standards, encouraged by both Trump and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, an avid Trump supporter. It was a massive super-spreader event that resulted in over 250,000 new cases.
This isn’t simply a matter of differing views on policy and administration, mind you; toxic positivity is a tool for fraudsters and fundamentally dishonest. In “Wonder Woman,” Lord is first presented to us through similar 1980s infomercials flaunting his wealth, and later, it is exposed that his Black Gold Cooperative is a fraud and he himself is a front. We find out that underneath his very anglicized name and look, Maxwell Lord is Maxwell Lorenzano, a man of color who grew up with an abusive father in poverty and was bullied by white students constantly for his accent and appearance. This is a far cry from Donald Trump, who came from wealth acquired by his father and grandfather through real estate and being some of the most notorious slumlords in New York City. Trump’s fraudulent image that bolsters his cult of personality is based on him as a self-made man and any negativity associated with him is simply the result of good-for-nothings who want to tear down a self-made genius.
Trump’s magical thinking makes him simultaneously the victim and the greatest thing since sliced bread. Similarly, the magical thinking of Trump-supporters is threatening to undermine our democracy because, as they believe, despite all objective reality: They won the election, and any evidence that proves the contrary is just part of a bigger fraud. Just think positive and democratic norms be damned.
Perpetuating unsupported claims about the 2020 presidential election have led election-deniers to go from rhetoric to intimidating state and local election officials and emboldening white-supremacists. All of this so Trump can maintain his positive thinking and have his not-so-private temper tantrums while, you know … BEING THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!
Everything is not okay — far from it. Trump’s maga mantra is the ultimate expression of toxic positivity. Shortly after Christmas, millions of Americans faced an economic cliff, which Trump dangled them over for a day by dragging his feet on signing a second stimulus bill. This economic situation we find ourselves in isn’t solely due to the pandemic and our leaders in Washington, D.C. Here in Washington state, our corporate overlords have been complicit and complacent about our nation’s widening inequality for a long time. Trump’s grift has only made things worse. We have to call this hustle a hustle and, like in “Wonder Woman 1984,” renounce our wishes before it is too late to recover from COVID-19 and Trumpism. Acknowledging uncomfortable truths and working together will allow us to stay safe, healthy and move forward. Happy new year, and wear your damn masks, stay out of crowds and wash your hands! Good luck.
Read more in the Jan. 6-12, 2021 issue.