Stranger Things and the Upside Down Dawn of Donald Trump

by Heath Pearson


[image: still from Stranger Things, Netflix]

In its first minute, Stranger Things had me. From the gasps of a scientist running for his life to the quiet manicured lawns of early-80s suburbia, I felt the vibe of Stranger Things on my skin and in my bones. Like its protagonists, I grew up in a tiny early-80s Indiana town, riding my bike to expansive patches of woods with friends and pretending to spy on the suspicious goings-on of adult people in big, protected buildings. But Stranger Things is not a masterful television show because it depicts the beauty and the bounty of a now-forgotten small-town America. No. What makes Stranger Things a modern classic is its relentless insistence that the terrors happening right now are being entirely missed, and mindlessly supported, by a sleeping, White, public – a strange parallel in the dawning days of Trump.

Strange things are a-brewing in Hawkins, Indiana, as children and teenagers start disappearing, and white vans full of government bureaucrats descend upon a once peaceful community. We learn over the course of eight episodes that it is not alien others from another universe making contact, like the paranoid world of an X-Files reboot. Instead, it is a monster from the Upside Down breaking into daily life in Hawkins. And the Upside Down is not an alternative fantasy world, it is the foundation of the Hawkins that we see. Government bureaucrats in secret buildings have been working long and hard to control and manage a monster from the Upside Down, but now it runs wild, breaking into the daily life of Hawkins and snatching unsuspecting youth at will.

The key, and what felt most strangely familiar, is the total obliviousness of Hawkins’s residents to the terrors of the monster attacks. But not only the monster attacks. Residents are also oblivious to the quiet invasion of space, the widespread suppression of knowledge, and the management of a monster that is allegedly controlled by government bureaucrats who ask locals to do one thing: Trust us.

On Tuesday, November 8th, the Electoral College did what many people living on one of the two coasts thought impossible: elect Trump. In my current home of Princeton, New Jersey, the weeping and mourning was widespread, the despair was thick as molasses, and every space seemed filled with disillusionment and confusion. “How could this happen?” was sprinkled throughout every conversation, and the all-day November drizzle seemed to suggest the earth too was afraid.

For the first time since Occupy Wall Street, young White people seemed woke; or, perhaps, a little less asleep. Texts and emails poured in to my phone – people desperate and afraid, people apologizing for being angered by my political commitments throughout the election, and people pleading to mobilize now. And in less than 48 hours, we learned that President Obama had an “excellent” meeting with Trump and then, with Obama coolness, without a hint of sarcasm, he told the US American people: “Come together, to now work together, to deal with the many challenges we face.” In other words: Trust us.

Together they sat, cameras rolling, identical flag pins on their suit lapels, assuring us all that we could come together to make America great. Never mind the eight years of birtherism conspiracy theories, the consistently hateful and racist rhetoric, the re-Tweeting of famous white supremacists, the multi-decade tax evasion, or even the illegal dealings of a shell charity. Now, suddenly, after one “excellent” meeting, Trump is the person to lead the country and to unite the people. Trust us, they say. If you see the bi-partisan handshake as a mere political formality, you are still sleeping.

For more than fifty years, following the Black Power and Civil Rights movements and legislation of the 50s/60s, politicians have been speaking to a White public in racially coded language. Politicians promised to restore “law and order,” so Whites fled to the suburbs and built safe White havens with all-White neighborhoods, schools and churches, and then after law and order had been restored, their kids flocked back into the cities to re-segregate. Each election cycle, US voters were told prosperity is just around the corner: Trust us.

For most, prosperity is still nothing more than a promise. The wealth gap has dramatically increased, racial and class disparities joined a widening geographic segregation, healthcare costs expanded, and now eat up 20% of the GDP, public schools have been gutted, teachers are despised, and the very idea of environmentally sustainable public transportation is laughable. Black and Brown men and women are being arrested and incarcerated at historical rates, so quickly that now more Black men are in prison than were enslaved prior to the Civil War. And U.S. Police departments are expanding and exercising military tactics and force, with military weaponry, killing more than three US citizens a day.

Walmarts sprout up in small towns and medium towns and small cities like daisies in a depleted field with a shared logic: “Cheaper prices are better for the community…trust us.” But Walmart was not satisfied with its local market share. Soon Walmart also became the grocery store, the electronics retailer, the sandwich shop, and the optometrists’ office. One-stop shopping made us so giddy. It was like the future (I still remember when my parents took me to see the early expansion of the Super Walmart in my hometown). Little did we know, we were right. Walmart was our future. (And just try and find a happy employee at Walmart, I dare you. Those yellow smiling orbs bouncing around and lowering prices are not faces; they are masks.)

The image of our society—golden arches on every corner, a luxury sedan and a luxury SUV in every driveway, a vacation home in addition to a main home, and the greatest sports facilities in the world—became something Whites believed to be real. It is progress and prosperity that created so many boarded up homes and empty factories across the rust belt: Trust us.

If you asked White people, the monster of white supremacy was no longer an issue. Of course, if you asked those same White people to name a single non-White friend, neighbor or church member, they stared at you in stupefaction. As a teenager, I was confused why I had so many friends who were people of color from public school while our enormous church congregation, which was located in the same area as the high school, was entirely white. “It’s not racist,” I remember my father telling me, “They just prefer to worship differently than us.” But I knew different. My friends taught me this was untrue. Sandra Cisneros and Biggie and Outkast taught me this was untrue. And then one night, a school night, in the late 90s, my friend Wallace was driving me home and we got pulled over.

I wasn’t nervous. The week before, I was riding with my father and his best friend, and I watched, 15-years-old at the time, as the Police Officer made multiple jokes and then sent us on our way with a warning and wave. This night was different. Wallace was Steve-Urkel-meets-Hannibal-Buress Black, and Wallace was nervous. The cop seemed nervous and aggressive, his holster was already unsnapped when he got to the driver’s side door, and after a few tension-filled exchanges, I reached down to scratch my ankle. I was so naïve. The cop stepped back, shined his flashlight at my feet and drew his gun, while he started screaming for me to keep my hands where he could see them. I recoiled in fear, threw my hands straight up, and screamed over and over: “I don’t have a gun! I don’t have a gun!” Though my own White skin may have saved me that night, I couldn’t forget the encounter. Not ever. While I was still a teenager, that Officer ripped open the entire image for me. I’ve spent the past 15 years peering into that opening and trying to tear it bigger so I could see more, and so more could see more.

And this is what Stranger Things does best: it rips open the false image by taking a magical ride into the mechanics of our society. As the local, pre-militarized Police Officer (distinct from the government bureaucrats) bumbles his way through missing children reports and murdered residents, he happens into the Upside Down realm, which is managed, monster and all, by a shadowy US government agency. We learn that a little blood conjures the monster. We learn that some people have sixth sense type capacities. And we learn the government agency has been deploying solitary confinement, child abuse and drug testing in order to (allegedly) manage the monster and isolate it in the Upside Down. But no one dares to question the agency, to ask why locals were not educated and trained to fight the monster, why the government has been unsuccessful in eliminating it, or why such extreme secrecy was necessary in the first place. Everyone is too shocked and afraid. But, as far as we can tell, the monster has been lurking for a long, long time. It simply needed the right moment and the right people to conjure it.

And I think this helps us to understand the rise of Trump. I was not surprised by Trump’s Electoral College win. I was scared, but I was not surprised. And that is because I saw the management of the monster of White Supremacy a long time ago, and I experienced the willful ignorance of a sleeping White America that refuses to see it. Whites can see a Black president, can dance in the club or the car while listening to Black music, can get riotous cheering for Black athletes, and can laugh with Black comedians. Whites know a lot of new legislation was passed in the 60s that made it “better” for Black people. So, it must be better, right?

Mostly, Whites are too stressed and too debt-ridden to put much effort into their racism, eradicating it or practicing it, and so it just sticks around like leftovers in the back of a messy fridge. And thankfully, the government is there to manage it, however incompetent their management has proven to be. But after so many decades, the monster of overt racism has been conjured out from the Upside Down, from the corners of our own fridges, and has surprised a sleeping White public.

It appears as people wearing Curious George t-shirts to the voting booths during President Obama’s first bid. It appears as a sideways glance or a shifted body away from a Black person in a store, during a meeting, or on a sidewalk. It appears in sentences that start with “I’m not racist but…” and in eye rolls from White people who say things like “the race card.” It appears in the suburbs of uniform Whiteness, in the evangelical churches that follow, and in the all-White guest lists and smartphone contact lists. It appears in Dylann Roof’s guns and in a Prosecutor’s refusal to pursue charges against cops (or neighborhood watchmen) that shoot and kill unarmed Black citizens. It appears in the question of a Black President’s citizenship, then transcripts, then religion, then patriotic loyalties. It appears in Clinton phrases like “everyone should respect the law” and those children are “super-predators.”

Until one day, a magical man with orange flesh appears, not only savvy enough to know what’s happening, and to exploit it, but practiced enough to conjure the monster. A birther conspiracy theory here, a white supremacists re-Tweet there, a denigrating speech over there – at first it seems only to repel. He is rejected by evangelical Christians, by conservative politicians, and by most of the voting public. But he stays true, he keeps conjuring the monster, and before too long, White people remember how delicious hearing a racial slur can be. Ooh, I’ll listen to him say it again. No, no, it’s not about racism, I’m not racist, it’s about tough talk and honest talk. It’s about not being corrupt. But the unfortunate “secret” is that it is not only Trump supporters gobbling up his racist transgressions, it is everyone. Most of White America, yes, even “educated” White America, is captivated by the power they feel, the joy they find, in imbibing stories and videos and Tweets that relay Trump’s explicit racism. If you don’t think this is true, reflect on your own click-history over the last eighteen months.

And so, is this the time when White people are willing to disbelieve the image?

It is not time to unify behind Trump, or to stand behind his storm troopers of White Supremacy. As Malcolm X might say: the chickens have come home to roost. It is no longer appropriate for White people to sleep. It is time to slay the monster of White supremacy once and for all. People of color, Muslims and undocumented men and women, people who have been fighting White supremacy since the beginning, are already experiencing public outbursts of racist language and physical abuse. For all of us, the monster of White supremacy that has been conjured should be terrifying. But the monster that’s conjured is also the monster that’s exposed. And the monster that’s exposed is the monster that’s vulnerable. And the monster that’s vulnerable is the monster that can be killed.

Will it be easy? No. Will it be quick? No. Will it be dangerous? Absolutely. But the monster has been unleashed. What will we do, White America? Will we go back to sleep in our beds, believing and dreaming that all will be fine? Or will we, for once, do what our parents were too cowardly and too selfish to do, and slay the monster of White supremacy?

It is out there, lurking in our midst—while President Obama and the media beg us to either forget it or to join it—in the frameworks of law and order, in the structures of corporate business, and in the geography of our cities, schools and churches. But it is also in the backs of our very own refrigerators, seeping into our food, our children’s food, occupying more space than we care to admit. It is painful and stinky to stick our heads back there for a second, to pick it up, to try to dispose of it, and then to stick our heads back there again tomorrow and try to dispose of more leftovers, leftovers we never knew we had. I promise you, though, it’s there.

But don’t trust me, look into yourself and around your community. Find the monster lurking within. Get out there and work with others to slay the monster that has been unleashed. Not simply because the monster is targeting and attacking Black and Brown and LGBTQ and Muslim and undocumented people. As Fred Moten warns, coalition is not about White people “helping” people of color. It is about White people realizing the monster of White Supremacy is killing us too. The allegorical take away from Stranger Things is not primarily the nastiness or longevity of the monster that has been conjured. It is that. But it is also the power to defeat the monster when the children come together and storm the gates.


About the author: Heath Pearson is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology and African American Studies at Princeton University.