I didn’t review Kingsman: The Secret Service back in 2015, even though it was a surprise hit at the movie box office and I moonlight as a weekly film critic. I didn’t because, truth to tell, I didn’t want to be a scold. The movie is a spy spoof, and therefore one shouldn’t take it seriously, but I really disapproved of Kingsman and my review would have featured intense finger-wagging of a sort that annoys me when I read another critic indulging in it.
Two scenes in particular really put me off. In the first, a heroic British agent played by Colin Firth is suddenly mind-controlled into slaughtering dozens of people in a Kentucky church. The scene is designed to elicit shocked laughter, not only because the violence is so extreme and so lubriciously depicted, but because the church is full of hateful racists who kind of deserve it. Then, near the movie’s climax, it shows another mind-controlled assassin assassinating Barack Obama.
There was a time when I might have found such boundary-breaking comic nihilism amusing, but either I’ve lost my sense of humor or (more to the point) having children has made me discomfited by portrayals of wanton injury and murder. Whatever is the case, I hated Kingsman and decided to leave it at that. Little did I know that, four years later, its jokey violence would become a plot point in the 2020 presidential race.
At a Trump-friendly conference staged at a Trump-owned resort, a room was set up to show Trump-favorable Internet memes. One bit featured the church scene from Kingsman in which the president’s face was superimposed on Colin Firth’s. It showed him mowing down people whose faces had been replaced by the logos of PBS, Politico, NBC, and the Washington Post—before he shoots Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Maxine Waters, and sets Bernie Sanders’s head on fire.
No one affiliated with Trump made the video. Trump’s press secretary says he “strongly condemns” it based on what he’s heard. The organizer of the conference said no one from his organization had approved its display in the meme room. Speakers at the conference professed total ignorance of it. Nonetheless, Trump was almost instantly blamed for its existence as the story shifted almost immediately from the clip itself to how necessary it was that it be denounced.
Media and others are calling the clip incendiary because it celebrates fantasy violence against journalists and others Trump considers his enemies. I am disgusted by it as well, but not for that reason. The clip is another example of the unappetizing infiltration of the worst excesses of our popular culture into our politics. Converting the president of the United States into a stone-cold assassin out of a bad and tasteless movie is part of the increasingly toxic weaponization of celebrity.
It’s one thing for Trump to take up the cudgels of the culture war against liberals, who conduct it shamelessly and without apology themselves against conservatives but express horror when comparable tactics are used to combat them. Now, I wish the president understood his job differently and held his office more sacred than to fight it like an enraged adolescent, but that ship sailed long ago—he does it and this is where we are.
And we shouldn’t forget that his occupancy of the Oval Office was made possible in part by a predecessor who cast himself as the Celebrity President and sought to reach out to young people by being interviewed by a YouTube personality who once took a bath in cereal milk.
But the point here is not who the enemies are, no matter what the media say. The point is that Trump’s fans—his fans!—are choosing to pay tribute to him by portraying him as a psychopath. They don’t know the difference between a hero and a villain, because (as the Rorschach test that the new Joker movie has also revealed) our culture doesn’t know it either.