Trump, Fox News and the conservative paranoia that got Universal's thriller 'The Hunt' canceled

Trump's misreading of the film no doubt reflects his own persecution complex and television watching habits.
A scene from Universal's "The Hunt."
A scene from Universal's "The Hunt."Universal Pictures
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By Noah Berlatsky

Last week, President Donald Trump appeared to have forced the cancellation (at least for the moment) of the Blumhouse Pictures film “The Hunt,” which was originally set to be released on Sept. 27. Trump tweeted that the movie showed that "Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate!" He added that Hollywood liberals "create their own violence, and then try to blame others." This unwanted attention from the president, coupled with the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, prompted the studio to pull the “satirical social thriller.” (NBC News is owned by Universal.)

The irony here is that, as Kyle Smith at the conservative outlet National Review has noted, the information about the movie that we have suggests it is sympathetic to Trump voters and conservatives.

Trump's misreading of the film no doubt reflects his own persecution complex and television watching habits; he seems to have decided to denounce the film because Fox has been condemning it. Right-wing populist narratives depend on switching oppressed and oppressor: They deliberately lie about who has power and who does not. If Trump was confused by “The Hunt,” it's in part because his own rhetoric, which the film seems to echo, is deliberately meant to confuse.

Since “The Hunt” hasn't been released, we don't know details of its plot for certain. However, based on the trailer, the film is a riff on Richard Connell's famous 1924 short story "The Most Dangerous Game." In that story, a bored, wealthy sportsman hunts another big game hunter for sport. "The Hunt" updates the concept by having a group of wealthy elites periodically round up "normal" folks from Orlando, Mississippi, and other heartland communities in order to stalk and shoot them.

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According to “The Hollywood Reporter,” the original title of the movie was “Red State vs. Blue State,” and in a line of dialogue one of the liberal elites declares, "Nothing better than going out to the Manor and slaughtering a dozen deplorables." That's presumably a reference to Hillary Clinton's comment in 2016 that half of Trump's voters belong in a "basket of deplorables." The Reporter also writes that victims of the hunt were chosen "because they expressed anti-choice positions or used the N-word on Twitter."

It should be clear from this description, and it's certainly clear from the trailer, that the good guys in this scenario are not the elites. They're the hunted deplorables, led by tough-talking, gun-toting, Southern-accent wielding Crystal (Betty Gilpin). Trump and Fox took the movie as a liberal call to action against good heartland red state folks. But in fact, it's a persecution fantasy in which the wealthy liberal Clinton voters are shown to be as nefarious and blood-thirsty as Fox always suspected.

The right in this case was so paranoid that it didn't even recognize its own paranoid fantasies. Fox convinced itself it was being persecuted by its own persecution complex.

In fact, it's a persecution fantasy in which the wealthy liberal Clinton voters are shown to be as nefarious and blood-thirsty as Fox always suspected.

It's amusing to see the right-wing hate machine eat itself. But it's not exactly surprising. Historically, switching the role of the oppressed and oppressor has been a common trope in right-wing and fascist fantasies. For example, during the early 1900s, white people in the South systematically stripped black people of voting rights and power. D. W. Griffith's “The Birth of a Nation”, however, presents black people as oppressive politicians and officials trying to strip white people of their rights — a topsy-turvy vision of the truth which justifies the Klan insurgency as a noble rebellion against tyranny. Similarly, Hitler embraced "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a forgery that claimed that Jewish people were conspiring to take over the world. The truth, of course, was that it was Hitler who had plans for global conquest.

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Trump has repeatedly used a similar strategy when appealing to his base, for example by claiming that Hispanic immigrants are part of an "invasion" of the United States. He has even made up his own exploitation narratives, claiming, with no evidence, that immigrant gangs “take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15 and others and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die.”

These stories, in which immigrants are tormenting and oppressing Trump voters are, again, the reverse of a reality in which Trump is the most powerful person on earth and has used that power specifically to oppress and torment immigrant communities.

Stories about power reversals aren't just popular with fascists. They're popular with pulp writers, too. "The Most Dangerous Game," for example, is exciting and fun in part because it makes the hunter the hunted. The fact that Universal’s statement referred to the film as satire suggests they, too, saw the fun, pulpy potential.

It was so much fun, in fact, that Fox and Trump couldn't resist taking part. In a final ridiculous reversal, Blumhouse's film villainizing elites was framed as part of the oppressive propaganda of the liberal elite.

Government censorship is wrong and dangerous. But fascist propaganda can result in much worse than the cancellation of a low-budget thriller. If the powerful are convinced that they are oppressed and under threat, they often react with violence. Trump says that his enemies "create their own violence and then try to blame others," because that is what he himself is doing. Reversing the truth can be fun and exciting in pulp narratives. But it can also be a dangerous game.