The American film director, Frank Capra, made a number of movies during the Great Depression that captured perfectly the populist anger of America's small town common folk at fat cats, city slickers, and big time politicians. Among the best were Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the 1936 classic, Mr Deeds Goes to Town. Sentimental old lefties like me love those films, because they capture a rebellious, progressive spirit that, for an historical moment, seemed to have a chance of transforming America from a rapacious capitalist state into something very like a seedbed for socialism.
This morning, as I was making the bed, I turned on the television set and switched to TCM -- Turner Classic Movies -- just in time to catch the last few minutes of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The plot line is not important to this comment -- you can Google it easily enough, if you have never seen it. The boffo ending is a scene in which Deeds, who is accused of mental incompetence because he wants to give an unexpected twenty million dollar inheritance to thousands of poor families so that they can have their own family farms, is vindicated in front of a courtroom of his boisterous working class supporters, to the dismay and discomfiture of a group of city slickers in suits and ties.
My first reaction, as I watched the scene, was a tingle of that old time socialist feeling, a nostalgia for my early years when popular culture was sympathetic to the progressive ideals of my grandfather. But then, a troubling thought cropped up in my mind and would not go away. If you abstract from the specific content of the film, and just feel the emotion being expressed in that scene, you could be watching a rightwing Tea Party demonstration from this past summer. Both the movie sequence and the demonstrations breathe with the same resentment of the high and mighty, the same anger at the smug condescension of the haves and their contempt for ordinary people, the same belief that there are simple solutions for complex problems, and the same frisson of not yet quite open violence hovering on the edges of the scene. It was that anger [mobilized by what was once called a "traitor to his class"] that helped to elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I do not for a moment mean to suggest that there is the slightest substantive connection between the progressive thrust of the Capra movies and the reactionary politics of the Tea Baggers. But the feeling tone, the emotion, is virtually identical. And that fact scares me, because in Nazi Germany and elsewhere we saw what those feelings could produce.
The complex logic of American electoral politics being what it is, the populist movement on the right that has been spawned by Obama's election may actually result in Republican losses, rather than gains, in the next two election cycles. I will blog about that at a later time. But it would not surprise me at all if this movement turns violent.
I mean, let's face it. When you watch Mr Deeds, which characters in the movie do you and I actually look and sound more like, Deeds' supporters, or the fat cat bad guys?