In his 1976 film Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese explores the character of Travis Bickle, a lonely depressed cab driver in New York City, likely suffering from PTSD, whose alienation from society leads him to acts of unthinkable violence. Bickle, played by Robert DeNiro, is an observer. He sees a broken society, with broken corrupt people, and foretells that, “someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”
But more than a passive misanthrope, Bickle is a man of action. He attempts to make connections with other people, but fails. Their world, is not his world. Gradually, he decides that more drastic action is needed, and that he is the man to do it. “Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads,” he says, just before shaving his head and accumulating the necessary weaponry to act on his anger. “Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”
He attempts to assassinate a politician, but when his plan is foiled, he unleashes his anger in a brothel, killing pimps and johns with merciless anger, in a delusional attempt to rescue a child prostitute.
The film offers as much to dissect in its exploration of human psychology, as it does in its filmmaking technique. We can look at a man like Bickle and attempt to “explain him.” His violence may be explained by his Vietnam War experiences, for example. His social awkwardness distanced him from society and, in turn, he blamed society for his own personal problems in life. We don’t watch a film like Taxi Driver without thinking about what it is telling us. Few people would dismiss Travis Bickle as just a lunatic, or racist (which he is), or pathetic fool. To a film critic, or anyone interested in psychology, those answers seem too simplistic.
In 2016 the United States elected Travis Bickle as President. (“Here is a man who would not take it anymore. Here is a man who stood up.”) When Travis Bickle says a “real rain” will come and wipe the scum off the streets, this is eerily similar to the “drain the swamp” view of Washington, DC. Many have compared Donald Trump to Charles Foster Kane (and there are strange similarities), but I think he’s more like Travis Bickle. Robert DeNiro even made a passing comparison of Trump to Bickle in a recent interview. The same psychological analysis that one could apply to Travis Bickle, can also account for how Donald Trump was elected.
To say that Trump was elected because Americans are more misogynistic, or racist, or bigoted than we had imagined, is to limit the answer to some simple explanation that brings comfort to progressive, but naive, people. (“They voted for Trump because they’re evil or stupid. I’m not evil or stupid, so I didn’t vote for Trump.”) Yet, how does this account for the fact that 42% of women voted for Trump, or that he received a higher percentage of votes from Hispanic and African-American voters than Mitt Romney did? Instead of offering any real explanation, these type of answers simply function to console the non-Trump voter, enacting what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “distinction.” More than a real analysis of why people like Trump, these answers simply say, “I am better than a Trump voter.” It’s narcississm, not analysis. Dismissing Trump voters as bigoted ignores the bigotry within each of us, and within our society in general. It may feel good to label our opponents as fools, but it misses the point completely. If, in the aftermath of this election, what we tell ourselves is that “they” are foolish bigots, we really haven’t learned anything of value at all.
Even supposed constructive solutions sometimes miss the point. Consider a comment (now a meme) by writer Andy Borowitz. “Stopping Trump is a short-term solution. The long-term solution – and it will be more difficult – is fixing the educational system that has created so many people ignorant enough to vote for Trump.” On the surface, this seems to offer a solution to the problem – education. In reality, though, it’s just a cheap insult. “They are stupid. That’s why they voted for Trump. Therefore, I must be smart because I didn’t.” It’s a way of reassuring liberals that they are smarter and morally superior to Trump voters. I can’t think of anything more ignorant than combating ignorance by making vast generalizations about the intelligence level of millions of people. Not to mention the fact that comments like this only confirm the idea that the Democratic Party is out-of-touch and elitist.
We need a much more nuanced approach. Progressives have no problem seeking complex explanations for, say, the root cause of terrorism. Why are we not looking at the root cause of Donald Trump’s success? When we seek to uncover why a terrorist is a terrorist, we are not defending their actions. In the same way, I think we can offer a better analysis of why people voted for a man like Trump, without excusing it (or completely dismissing the bigotry that does, indeed, exist among some of his supporters).
A terrorist is more than just an angry violent person. There are reasons why that individual was attracted to violence. There are reasons why Travis Bickle was attracted to violence. There are also reasons why people were attracted to the message of Donald Trump.
The terrorist, the Trump-voter, and the Travis Bickles of this world, all have something in common. They are angry, they feel alienated, and they want to overthrow the system. In Donald Trump, they saw their chance.
Michael Moore, who publically endorsed Hillary Clinton, was one of the few people who predicted a Trump victory. He described the Trump vote in these words: “They’ve lost their jobs, the banks foreclosed, next came the divorce and now the wife and kids are gone, the car’s been repoed. They haven’t had a vacation in years, they’re stuck with the shitty bronze plan where you can’t even get a fucking Percocet. They’ve essentially lost everything they have except one thing […]: the right to vote. They might be penniless, they might be homeless, they might be fucked over and fucked up – it doesn’t matter because it’s equalised on that day. On November 8, the dispossessed will walk into the voting booth…and put a big fucking X in the box next to the name of the man who has threatened to upend and overturn the very system that ruined their lives. Donald J. Trump.”
He’s describing Travis Bickle.
Hillary Clinton lost because the Democratic Party failed to realize just how many Travis Bickles there were out there, and failed to recognize this feeling of alienation as legitimate. While courting Wall Street, the Democrats did little to court “the dispossessed.” Moore aptly predicted that the Rust Belt would go Republican. He warned of this, but Clinton’s campaign continued to take this area for granted. Perhaps many Trump voters are as ignorant as Borowitz says, but the key problem is that they felt alienated. You cannot educate alienation out of people. Nor does the ignorance of the average Trump voter in any way distinguish them from the majority of Democratic voters, and certainly not the DNC. How ignorant was the Democratic establishment that they could not see this coming?
Trump’s election was, as Robert Scheer puts it “the revenge of the deplorables.”
“(Trump’s election) is a repudiation of the arrogant elitism of the Democratic Party machine as represented by the Clintons, whose radical deregulation of Wall Street created this mess,” Scheer says. “And instead of recognizing the error of their ways and standing up to the banks, Clinton’s campaign cozied up to them, and that did not give people who are hurting confidence that she would respond to their needs or that she gave a damn about their suffering. She’s terminally tone-deaf.”
No one should want Travis Bickle as President, but nor should anyone be surprised. And if the Democratic Party is angry with anyone, it should not be Donald Trump, or the “misogynistic, bigoted fools” who voted for him. They should be upset with themselves. Instead of reaching out to the deplorables, they alienated them further, by crapping all over Bernie Sanders, by cozying up to Wall Street, by ignoring Standing Rock, by taking suffering people in the Rust Belt for granted, and by doing virtually nothing to curb the excesses of neoliberalism that created these problems for working class people in the first place. (When did Obama regulate the banks, for example?) All of this made Trump’s message of blowing up the system all the more attractive.
In the climax of the film, Travis Bickle unleashes his violence on New York City, just as Donald Trump plans to do in America. We can criticize the violence, but if we do nothing to understand it, we are as ignorant as people who believe that we need to keep America safe by building walls and banning Muslims. In other words, if we make no effort to understand Donald Trump, we become him.