Presidential Executive Order on a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety
Guy with a Gun
Greg Cwik on Death Wish
In October 1973, Donald J. Trump, the lanky, waxen-faced, 27-year-old scion of a millionaire Brooklyn landlord, made his New York Times debut with this front-page headline: “Major Landlord Accused of Antiblack Bias in City.” Trump’s first quote in the Times was a rebut to the charges (“They are absolutely ridiculous”), spoken with that now familiar blunt and petulant delivery that recalls a child caught stealing his classmate’s toy.
Accusations of racism and illegal business practices notwithstanding, Trump persevered. He inherited his daddy’s $40 million empire and, the next July, he initiated his $10 million option for the West Side rail yards, later renamed Riverside South, an eventual $3 billion project that the Village Voice called “New York’s single largest development issue of [that] decade.” It turned into a legal imbroglio that spilled into the ’80s, though yet again, Trump came out victorious, despite vehement opposition. Trump’s Daddy was, after all, buddies with Mayor Abe Beame, whose best friend, Bunny Lindenbaum, was also Fred Trump’s Lawyer. Beame had helped Donald land the $100 million Commodore Hotel, which engendered his real estate mogul ascendancy even though he couldn’t afford the $250,000 he needed to seal the deal. He simply lied to the press and claimed that he had obtained the requisite signatures so that no other developers would make offers. (Trump also negotiated a $4-million-a-year tax abatement for an unprecedented 40 years.) Beame’s squalid, crime-inundated city, festering with poverty and percolating with racial tension, allowed Trump to use sketchy business practices to prosper at the expense of the poor and marginalized. As Beame said, “Whatever my friends Fred and Donald want in this town, they get.”
By 1976, the paper of record had warmed to Trump’s persona. In a piece titled “Meet Donald Trump,” the Times likened “DJT” to Robert Redford for his flaxen locks, pristine teeth, and proclivity for luxurious women, whom he flaunted, publicly and proudly, as if showing off one of his many shiny new Cadillacs. Trump was quite deft at courting reporters, returning their calls promptly and supplying them with a steady stream of ready-made quotes. With a self-estimated worth of over $200 million, he relished seeing his face festooning the front pages of the newspaper he’d later decry as “Fake News.”
Beame’s New York, ripe with decay and corruption, needed a young white hero to hold up as evidence that New York wasn’t falling apart. In Trump, New York found its icon. Here, Trump built his gold-bedazzled hotels; here, he turned his family name into an imperial brand. That this same city is also the setting for the lugubrious vigilante revenge film Death Wish, the first entry in a series known for its fascist ideologies and Brobdingnagian body counts, makes sense. Death Wish hit theaters in July 1974, the same month Trump began the West Side rail yards project, and has come to unnervingly reflect an aspect of Trump’s political identity. Despite being an artistically vacuous endeavor, directed with palpable indifference by the craft-slumming Michael Winner, the film encapsulates the pervasive idea of New York as a literally and morally bankrupt purgatory—the kind of place where a Donald J. Trump could make his millions. Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson, emoting as little as possible) is a mild-mannered, milquetoast architect whose wife and daughter are raped by a gaggle of hoodlums, officially credited as “Freaks” at the end. (One of the Freaks is famously portrayed by a young Jeff Goldblum, sporting a Jughead hat. He barks at the wife, “Goddamn rich cunt! I kill rich cunts!” New York’s vile poor are bestial here, and the defenseless rich are their prey.)
The film begins happily, on a strip of purloined paradise, in a manner that apes a trick by Fritz Lang. In his American films, the Austrian-German expat Lang, who fled the Nazis in 1934, would sometimes shoot a quotidian scene to feel hyperbolically jovial, almost fantastical, aesthetically riffing on Golden Age Hollywood melodrama. Think of Glenn Ford and Jocelyn Brando in The Big Heat talking in sing-song duets with wistful music swelling and eyes glistening in joyous close-up. Lang leads us to believe, to feel, that happiness is inevitable for these two, that good things happen to good people. But it’s not, they don’t. The pair put to bed their daughter, the scene resplendent and everyone smiling, when Lang throws the pendulum so harshly in the other direction as to create emotional whiplash: as Ford is telling the child a bedtime story, an explosion rattles the frame, a car bomb killing Brando, intended for Ford. This is cynical yet lyrical filmmaking, reversing expectations and Hollywood conventions. Winner, less a cynic than a leech, attempts something similar in Death Wish, but he lacks the conviction and gravitas to pull it off. Herbie Hancock’s shimmering keys accompany Paul and his soon-to-be-dead wife on those comely and curvaceous Hawaiian beaches in the film’s opening moments, as Paul snaps pictures of his wife posing in her red one-piece. In its dying breath, the sun bleeds across the horizon in what is the film’s lone moment of beauty before Paul and his wife return to the cluttered concrete shambles of Manhattan, where they’re greeted by Hancock’s jarring electronic noise and, in the next scene, by murderous thugs.
Paul’s wife and daughter are little more than sacrificial lambs, devoid of personalities; the sole purpose of their savage killing is to turn Paul, a liberal whose heart, it is said, “bleeds a little for the underprivileged, ”into a modern-day cowboy. Once a conscientious objector, the now gun-toting Paul takes to the streets and starts shooting bad people. Initially, Paul only shoots thugs who attack him or other innocent denizens of the suffering city, a sort of proto “stand your ground” defense. After a scene or two he gets restless and begins to seek out people to kill. Thankfully, there is an abundance of black and brown people in New York. His killing spree receives acclaim on late-night talk shows and in ostensibly serious publications such as New York Magazine. One wonders what John Simon would have made of Paul’s performance. When he’s run out of New York by the kindly police at the end of the film (if he’d been wearing a hoodie, they’d have certainly gunned him down), Paul heads to Chicago, where he continues his five-film odyssey of increasingly absurd mayhem. By the time the series ended, in 1994, when Paul had run out of family members to avenge, Bronson was in his seventies and looked like he needed a nap.
Unsurprisingly, Trump has a fondness for Death Wish. During a 2015 rally in Tennessee, in the wake of the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon, Trump referenced the film, telling the writhing masses in red hats, “I have a license to carry in New York, can you believe that?” This Presidential candidate insinuated that he would go Chuck Bronson on New Yorkers. (At a rally the next year, he quipped, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”) Perpetuating the untrue axiom that guns prevent violence, and the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, he went on, “Somebody attacks me, they’re gonna be shocked.” He finally cajoled his acolytes into cheering, “Death Wish! Death Wish!” A political rally rife with irate white men brandishing guns, chanting the name of a vigilante film about a wealthy white man who guns down poor minorities, and who goes unpunished by the police: it would feel too obvious, too on-the-nose, if it were a scene in a film, and yet it somehow makes sense in a world that elected Donald Trump as President.
In February 2017, Trump signed three executive orders to “reduce crime and restore safety,” the first calling for the assembling of a task force to develop “strategies to reduce crime, including, in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking and violent crime.” The orders depict law enforcement—“our great, truly great law enforcement officers”—as the victims, and make the country sound like a crime-infested free-for-all. Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union and director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality, had this to say about the orders:
President Trump intends to build task forces to investigate and stop national trends that don’t exist. We have seen historic lows in the country’s crime rate and a downward trend in killings against police officers since the 1980s. The president not only doesn’t acknowledge these facts about our nation’s safety, he persists in ignoring the all-too-real deaths of black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement.
There are some cities that have had recent rises in violent crime, and they deserve help. And every locality in America wants to further reduce crime and violence. But task forces premised on misinformation, and looking in the wrong places for the wrong problems, are not the answer.
That these orders do not address any of the underlying issues or afflictions that actually cause crime, and instead propose making police more powerful and the underprivileged more oppressed, shouldn’t surprise anyone. Trump said “it’s a shame” that police are not treated well or respected in America; he pointed out that 135 police officers were killed in 2016, while failing to mention 968 people were killed by police officers that same year. When Trump Tweeted about Chicago’s “horrible carnage” and threatened to send in “the feds” if they didn’t miraculously eradicate all crime overnight, discerning movie lovers might have felt a twinge of familiarity, reminded of Paul Kersey in the Chicago Union Station, at the end of Death Wish, a depraved grin spread across his face as he contorts his fingers into the shape of a gun and “shoots” the camera.
While discussing Samuel Fuller’s elegantly brutal style, the French film critic and filmmaker Luc Moullet said, “On fascism, only the point of view of someone who has been tempted is of any interest.” I kept thinking about this quote, returning to it as if returning to a root chord, while watching the Death Wish films, and ascertained that, while true in the cases of Fuller and Lang and Peckinpah, it is decidedly untrue of Michael Winner. Winner, like Trump, does not seem to truly believe in, or perhaps understand, his fascistic bullshit; he’s a charlatan taking advantage of an odious trend. There's no philosophical edge, no vivisection of cultural malaise or any insinuation of what causes crime or why people of color are disproportionately affected by poverty. A true fascist would try to excavate some kind of cause for societal problems, and posit a solution. Winner simply shows young urban dwellers doing nefarious deeds, their motivation nonexistent, and Bronson saunters in toting a hand cannon to wipe crime off the blighted streets. As Dennis Lim wrote in the LA Times in 2009, “Vigilante vengeance was the cinematic theme of the decade, flourishing in the more respectable precincts of the new American cinema (Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) even as it fueled numerous exploitation flicks.” Travis Bickle is tormented by the Sodom and Gomorrah Hell of a post-Vietnam New York; we aren't asked to root for him, but to understand him and his fever dream fantasies about a great rain coming to wash away the scum. When Bickle is heralded as a hero in the papers during the film’s hallucinatory final moments, we know that the press fails (or refuses) to grasp the entirety of the situation, that the taxi-driving avenger was, just several scenes earlier, on the verge of being a deranged assassin. Paul Kersey is portrayed as an unimpeachable hero, his victims deserving of their fate, because that's what New Yorkers wanted to see.
Now that we have a President who exhibits fascist tendencies, who sold himself as the “law and order candidate,” despite his own unpunished legal transgressions, it’s important to note two things: 1) Trump is an idiot; 2) Trump exhibits several signs of fascism that often go unmentioned, or misunderstood. Columbia University Fascism scholar Robert O. Paxton says that, while it’s frustratingly difficult to define fascism, which is less an ideology than a mass movement of jingoistic individuals coalescing into a single-minded system, one certain thing is that “fascists’ contempt for the soft, complacent compromising center was absolute.” He points out that the hypocrisy of a fascist condemning modernity and luxury while invariably, unequivocally living a decadent and luxurious lifestyle is also a defining characteristic. In modern parlance, you might say a fascist promises to drain the swamp, but instead populates it with more alligators, and hangs golden drapery in the Oval Office.
Paxton goes on to say that “the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success,” is an integral aspect of a fascist society, and here is where films such as Death Wish become more than mere escapism. One guy with a gun is a killer, but one guy with a gun who inspires a movement becomes a political symbol. In the 1970s, many American movies not directed by Woody Allen depicted New York as a chthonic death maze, a mess of metal and concrete, of piss-colored taxis spilling along avenues lined with prostitutes and drug dealers. (In 1975, a group called the Council for Public Safety, comprising mostly police and firefighters, created pamphlets that read “Welcome to Fear City.” Emblazoned with a skull, it advised tourists to avoid New York at all costs. A write-up in the Times stoked the ire of many, who prevented the pamphlet from reaching the public.) Moviegoers were open to the idea that a white man with a gun could expunge the city of crime, since the police and politicians seemed unable, or unwilling, to do anything about it. Death Wish rode in on the wake of thesuccesses of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, two American films often credited with engendering the violent vigilante craze of the 1970s. Brian Garfield, who wrote the source novel, so despised Winner’s film that he consequently wrote a second novel to clarify his anti-fascist ideals. The original depicts Paul as a victim who slowly transmogrifies into a villain. It’s nihilistic, maybe, but never condones Paul succumbing to murder, and never suggests that he’s right. He doesn’t kill anyone for most of the novel, and by the time he does, it’s because his mental and moral degradation has left him a hollowed-out husk of a man. There’s empathy, not apology. Winner’s film posits that unfettered fascist violence is the only thing that will Make America Great Again.
Late in the film, Paul is accosted by a pair of would-be muggers on a subway oddly bereft of graffiti. After he pulls out his gun and plugs both men, and he stands over their static, lifeless bodies and shoots each a second time, you can’t help but think of Bernhard Goetz, who, in 1984, used a Smith & Wesson (Dirty Harry’s gun of choice, of course) to shoot four black men on a downtown 2 train because they asked him for $5. Bumper stickers proclaiming support of Goetz, who had a history of racist agitation, proliferated. Goetz is still heralded as a hero by some: the HuffPo ran a grammatically incoherent op-ed in 2014 defending him, and berating liberals for denying his heroism. He remains beloved by the NRA and anyone who quivers at the sight of a black face at night. Five years later, when a white jogger was raped in Central Park, Trump took out a full-page ad in the New York Daily News, declaring, “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” Muggers, our future President said, “should be forced to suffer.” (One of Paul’s coworkers puts it similarly: “The underprivileged are beating our goddamned brains out. You know what I say? Stick them in concentration camps, that's what I say.”) Even during his Presidential campaign, Trump doubled down on his conviction about the alleged Central Park Five, despite DNA evidence exonerating the purported attackers. Trump may speak in garbled contradictions, falsehoods, and logical fallacies, but he speaks for a great many people who genuinely and blindly agree with him. (And for some of them, Death Wish remains a hero’s tale: Breitbart editor and ersatz film critic John Nolte has praised Death Wish II, calling “the mighty” Charles Bronson an icon of masculinity. It’s worth noting that Death Wish II is, scene for scene, shot for shot, atrocious.)
After Paul’s slayings become a media sensation, he overhears some wealthy people at a party discussing his exploits. It’s an undulating sea of white faces sticking out of baggy suits and dresses, sipping champagne and smoking cigarettes. The most striking thing about the absolute absence of partygoers of any ethnicity other than white is how natural the scene looks, almost meditative without the disruption of color. When one person points out, “The guy is a racist, he kills more blacks than whites,” a woman responds, “More blacks are muggers than whites. What do you want us to do, increase the proportion of white muggers so we’ll have racial equality among muggers?” She spits this out quickly, without natural rhythm or cadence, as the camera passes over her to find Paul traversing the party. She has to deliver this logical fallacy quickly so moviegoers won’t have time to think about it too deeply.