Breaking Bad, Boyhood, and the Culture underneath Trumpism

Art’s incredible capacity to tap into public fear

The vaunted American dream appears more and more fractious with each of Donald Trump’s tweets, but the gradual permeation of skepticism surrounding American quality of life has been manifesting itself in cultural production for years.

What I find interesting are two hits released under the Obama presidency, the series Breaking Bad, which lasted more than  half the duration of the entire Obama administration, and Boyhood, finalized after 12 years of filming.

The hideous emergence of Donald Trump struck many globally as a bizarre and anomalous exposure of the United States’ underbelly. That proves to have been exceptionally shortsighted, as Mr. Trump’s appearance is not merely an aesthetic blemish but is in fact symptomatic of something for which there doesn’t exist a simplistic cure.

The legitimacy of the United States is built upon the state’s capacity to offer its citizens unparalleled quality of life and freedoms. Political consent in the USA is not built on trust in institutions as much as it is built on trust in the safety of living out your three score and ten within its borders.

Americans inherently distrust their governments, and rising American skepticism on the efficiency and integrity of its institutions does not convey any terminal illness. The danger presents itself in the widespread American fear that those borders no longer offer the security and stability they once did.

The availability of the American dream has sufficed to satiate the American population since the end of the Second World War, but in alienating vast swaths of the non-white and non-educated public, the legitimacy of the American dream is collapsing as even the normally safe demographic realizes its quality of life is no longer secure.

Breaking Bad initially presents a main character whose life is emblematic of the success of the American dream. However, his life is shaped grotesquely by many of the political undercurrents that reared their heads in the 2016 presidential election. The absence of affordable healthcare and a strong social security net lets this educated, straight white man become perverted by a frightening underworld, driven by Mexican gangs, violence, and corruption. Drug dealers are shown to be streaming in from Mexico, taking advantage of impoverished American drug culture.

Boyhood fantastically charts the upbringing of a child in middle America, whose life does not come close to resembling the promise of the American dream. He is the son of a single mother, who struggles to pay bills and struggles to find stability. The family is constantly moving from one place to another, rarely able to find solace for the two children. The kids’ father, loving but rather distant, is far from representative of the father figure in the traditional American nuclear family.

Both this TV show and this movie obviously resonated with people because they are high quality pieces, both are entertaining and excellent works of art. However, they are demonstrative of profound political undercurrents that were central to Donald Trump’s campaign. The expression of narratives central to Trump’s campaign via acclaimed pop culture productions demonstrates the power of art to tap into the domain of public fear.

Mark Townsend