Get the Think newsletter.
By Noah Berlatsky

"Now is not the time for division," intones an honorable Mike Pence analog at the end of Ike Barinholtz's dark comedy “The Oath.” In Barinholtz's film, excessive partisanship and a refusal to respect other opinions has almost torn America apart. To bring our country back together, the film suggests, we need greater tolerance and respect for one another. “The Oath” thinks our current political woes have been caused by failures on both the left and the right. We could get our country back if only people were less eager to take sides.

This is, unfortunately, a fantasy. But it's a fantasy that, inadvertently, shows why America has had so much trouble recognizing and responding to Trump and the rise of authoritarianism.

(Spoilers below.)

A brief synopsis of “The Oath” makes it sound like a dystopian warning about totalitarianism, like “1984” or “The Handmaid's Tale.” In a United States much like this one, a never-shown but erratic president has decided that everyone in the country should sign an oath swearing that they love America by the day after Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, a police-like government agency, obviously modeled on ICE, has been disappearing celebrities and opposition politicians who demonstrate against the oath, or speak out against it.

In a United States much like this one, a never-shown but erratic president has decided that everyone in the country should sign an oath swearing that they love America by the day after Thanksgiving.

Chris (played by Barinholtz) is a suburban dad who refuses to sign the oath. In most dystopias, this act of resistance might make him a hero, a la Winston Smith. But “The Oath” is ambivalent, even hostile, to Chris' principles. He is portrayed as an annoyingly left-wing, virtue-signaling scold, whose obsession with the news cycle poisons his relationship with his family. When he accuses his relatives of racism, his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish), who is black, rolls her eyes. She sides against him, too, when he tells his family that they are betraying American values by signing the oath. Barinholtz plays Chris as a whiny, hectoring bully, who talks big but lacks a real spine. Faced with physical conflict, he dissolves into neurotic indecision and panic.

The negative portrayal of Chris is odd because the movie shows clearly that he's right. His America is, unambiguously, descending into fascism. Members of the party opposing the president are arrested; demonstrators are shot by authorities. In a personal confirmation of everything he's been warning about, Chris himself is singled out. Agents come to his home to try to arrest him for speaking against the oath.

Chris is not hysterical or overreacting; the regime is literally threatening to imprison him for expressing dissent. His relatives, who want to spend an apolitical Thanksgiving, are the ones who are deluding themselves. You can try to ignore politics, but they will eventually break into your home and splatter blood all over your carpet.

But if Chris is correct that America is descending into fascism, why does the movie despise him for pointing it out?

It seems to despise him in part because it blames him for contributing to the authoritarian nightmare. The movie is organized as an escalating Thanksgiving disaster. Family arguments lead to family brawling lead to physical altercations with federal agents in the living room. It's even suggested that one of Chris' family members snitched to the feds to punish him for being such a jerk.

If fascism is the result of a family dispute, it makes sense that you can resolve it the way you're supposed to resolve family disputes — through kindness, apology and listening to the other side. The federal agents who invaded Chris' home, it turns out, aren't so bad, after all. "He's got anger issues," one agent says of the other apologetically. A member of a quasi-military government police force enters your house and threatens to shoot your father, but at the end of the day they’re just people, too. The bad president steps down of his own volition, everybody deescalates and everyone shares a chuckle.

There's obviously some comfort in concluding that our difficulties are caused by personal animus and misunderstanding, rather than by outright malice. If the problem with our country is that people on both sides are too angry, you can just encourage those people — whether Trump or those whose homes are invaded by ICE agents — to calm down. The government should stop allowing the sexual assault of children in ICE custody; opponents of the government should stop rudely interrupting the meals of powerful people. Everyone should just be calm and reasonable.

There's obviously some comfort in concluding that our difficulties are caused by personal animus and misunderstanding, rather than by outright malice.

Unfortunately, authoritarians rarely simply fade away in the face of repeated calls for reasonable politeness. If you want to oppose fascism, you need to do more than just promise not to bother anyone with politics. You have to actually condemn fascism. And condemning it will probably involve bothering people.

Individuals who take moral positions, and ask you to take moral positions, can be annoying. It's inconvenient and embarrassing to be told you need to stop supporting one of your favorite companies, or that you need to think harder before you speak, or that supporting the separation of children from their families may lead people to not want to associate with you. Standing for something is tiring; it's more comfortable to just sit down.

“The Oath” believes that the problem with a loyalty oath is that it forces you to pick sides. Everyone has to state what they believe. No one can just opt out and treat people with apolitical decency.

But the real problem with a loyalty oath is that it's an authoritarian tool designed to target regime opponents with state violence. Chris decided he would stand with those being persecuted; the rest of his family didn't. He may be a jerk, but he still tried to do an admirable thing. Attacking him for doing so — or attacking people for protesting against Ted Cruz — doesn't make you neutral. It makes you one of the folks trying to enforce the loyalty oaths. Choosing sides when fascism comes knocking isn't wrong, or dumb, or embarrassing, or immoral. Choosing the wrong side is.