Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder, treason, and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.
These are the words that have accompanied hundreds of Guy Fawkes Day celebrations ever since that eponymous Catholic failed to blow up Parliament in 1605. But for many millions the world over, the poem is now synonymous with V for Vendetta, a shockingly subversive studio movie that was released in 2006. More than a decade later that film’s success at celebrating radical political ideas can still be felt by the fact that a movie which glorifies terrorist action (blowing up Parliament and Big Ben) is considered a classic in many circles, and is routinely viewed at the beginning of every November by movie fans the world over. It’s almost a fitting bit of irony that the film’s iconic visage of uncivil disobedience—the sleek and sexy reworking of a Guy Fawkes mask on Hugo Weaving’s face—has similarly become ubiquitous with anarchists, counterculture subversives, and online hackers, who all wear the trademarked Halloween item… that they helpfully purchase from the very capitalist friendly Warner Brothers’ merchandising arm on Amazon.
Nevertheless, the film is always worth remembering on Nov. 5 (or any other day), because director James McTeigue and the Wachowskis’ best screenplay to date succeeded at shrewdly adapting the V for Vendetta graphic novel to the big screen. Alan Moore purists might forever remain skeptical of such praise since by reimagining a seminal anti-Thatcher ‘80s hit piece, the Wachowskis essentially reworked the entire narrative as a brutally anti-Bush allegory (and reconfigured Weaving’s V and Natalie Portman’s Evey as a surprisingly convincing star-crossed pair of lovers from The Phantom of the Opera mold). In the process, Moore’s V went from being the poster child for anarchy to a defender of classical liberalism.
But on its own cinematic terms, V for Vendetta combines slick R-rated action movie set-pieces (that are appropriately theatrical for a comic book adaptation) alongside some pointed criticism of the U.S. government circa 2006, specifically in regard to the War on Terror and the persecution of minorities in right-wing media (remember folks: as recently as 2004, a president ran a successful national campaign by pledging to make a constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage). The film may have unintentionally also endorsed the use of torture for political radicalization, but that’s neither here nor there.
Just as sweeping as its brava rebranding of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” V for Vendetta remains a pop culture artifact about the anxieties felt on the left in the waning years of George W. Bush’s presidency. And with it being so specifically fitted to those critiques, it should in theory seem very dated in the third year of President Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House.
Yet, if one looks around, it becomes apparent that we are tiptoeing ever closer to the dystopian future that V for Vendetta warned so vehemently against…
A Government for the People That Watches the People
One of the most chilling (and familiar) beats of dystopian hell envisioned in V for Vendetta is the Orwellian presence of a Big Brother. The film’s cartoonish dictator, High Chancellor Adam Sutler, is clearly meant to resemble Adolf Hitler. However, the filmmakers also selected John Hurt for the role of the tyrant who stripped away his country’s civil liberties. This canny casting recalls George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four since Hurt starred in the actual 1984 adaptation of that book.
And like that story’s infamous Big Brother, Sutler’s Britain is under constant surveillance by roaming trucks that are eavesdropping on every dinner table, phone, or digital conversation amongst its citizens. This is an obvious allusion to the U.S. PATRIOT Act, which provided extraordinary freedom to government agencies to pursue suspected terrorists in October 2001 (less than two months removed from the shadow of 9/11). And its encroachment on civil liberties was as disquieting in 2006 as it is in 2019—after it was extended twice during the Obama administration.
As a U.S. senator in 2005, Barack Obama spoke precisely about reforming the law: “We don’t have to settle for a PATRIOT Act that sacrifices our liberties or our safety—we can have one that secures both.” Yet elements of the PATRIOT Act were only allowed to temporarily expire in its June 2015 extension due to the maneuvers of Senator Rand Paul. Meanwhile Obama, a president I greatly admire, continued to run afoul of civil liberties groups and privacy advocates.
In fact, it was during his administration that Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, unleashed a cascade of classified documents that showed the NSA was secretly utilizing a global system of surveillance that was gathering massive amounts of information about the private correspondence of both American and foreign citizens. Initially, the White House’s reaction was to brand Snowden as “not a patriot” (he currently lives outside the reach of extradition in Russia) and to suggest that the American people simply needed to become “comfortable” with the NSA’s mass bulk collection of millions’ phone records.
But eventually the Obama White House reversed course, first by appointing a panel to quell concerns of “distorted” information in the press about the “drip, drip” and “Big Brother” perception the U.S. government ascertained overnight. Subsequently, Obama pivoted closer to the side of civil liberties (especially after a U.S. federal judge ruled the bulk collection was probably unconstitutional). In June 2015, the NSA lost the carte blanche authority to collect millions of Americans’ phone records via the White House supported USA Freedom Act (the NSA now needs a targeted warrant from the FISA court).
So, all is well that ends well in this particular case, right? Maybe, except Snowden is still living in exile and considered a traitor by many government officials, the PATRIOT Act persists, the aforementioned parts that Paul was able to see expire were reinstated by the USA Freedom Act, telecommunications companies can still stockpile Americans’ bulk data, which the FISA Court allows access to with a secret warrant, and it is so easy to imagine a scenario where a president less constitutionally minded would not choose to introduce a bill after an intelligence agency was caught with its hand in the wiretapped cookie jar. Or one who would seek to expand its powers further when the PATRIOT Act comes up for renewal again.
In fact, given many of the strongest political winds at the moment, it seems that for every step forward, we’re about to take 50 goosesteps back.
The Spread of Misinformation
Another hallmark of any good dystopian yarn is a state-run media arm that inundates and brainwashes a public via the spread of propaganda. Hence one of the most exciting moments in V for Vendetta is when the titular anti-hero invades and commandeers what is clearly intended to be a stand-in for Fox News, using their ability to infest every home in England to now instead offer a rousing cry of “vive la révolution!”
Of course even in 2006, it was unfair to conflate Fox News with being a government-run puppet of the Republican National Party or the Bush administration. In many ways, the tail wags the dog with Fox News setting the Republican Party’s agenda, especially now that its standard-bearer prefers getting his news from Fox & Friends as opposed to his own intelligence agencies. By contrast, V for Vendetta simplified mass media misinformation for the sake of narrative brevity. Indeed, the point about the dangers of media misinformation are only more pronounced now than they were 10 years ago.
As broadcaster Edward R. Murrow once prophesized in 1958, “For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities, which must indeed be faced if we are to survive.” At the time, Murrow was musing about the decline of broadcast news during a period where there were only three channels on television. Today with the increasingly endless variety of media resources in a post-internet and post-social media world, the dissemination of lies and falsehoods is greater than even the Wachowskis’ paranoia could imagine during the pre-iPhone naiveté of 2006.
With more information than ever at folks’ fingertips, the desire to insulate one’s self in a media echo chamber has ironically become only more desirable for millions.
To use V’s veiled punching bag of Fox News as an example, a University of Maryland study in 2010 found that Fox News viewers were more misinformed about factual information than those who consumed their primary news stories from any other major resource. Also, misinformation is arguably more dangerous to public discourse than even uninformed voters, because the misinformed are often more confident in clinging to discredited information.
Nine years later, it’s now a lot easier to fall down the rabbit hole of innuendo and ideological fanaticism (i.e. lies) than it was in the age when cable news reigned supreme. The more people become insulated in partisan echo chambers, the easier it is to create the effect of a brainwashed society hinted at in V for Vendetta—government run or otherwise.
Consider that Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and once frequent Fox News commentator, showcased this bizarre resistance to reality among a group of Donald Trump supporters. Preferring a particular political candidate for president was their right, but when Luntz emphatically proved the future Republican nominee Trump lied about how many Syrian refugees President Obama attempted to bring into the U.S. in 2016—for the record it was 10,000 refugees while Trump falsely asserted it was 250,000—the reaction was apathy, including comments like “he’d let in as many as possible” and “what is in his heart?”
Luntz further found that only three of the 29 Trump supporters sampled believe that Obama is a Christian. One even insisted that he believed Obama was sworn into office in 2009 on a Quran. Also the general consensus was to prefer news from far right-wing leaning media like Breitbart (a site that willfully sided with the Trump campaign over its own reporters, even in an incident of alleged physical assault) and talk radio while anything considered “mainstream media” was to be viewed with hostile skepticism and outright denial. This was years before a fanatical Trump supporter, who watched the president call all non-right-wing media “the enemy of the people,” mailed several pipe bombs to CNN in addition to those of nearly a dozen of Trump’s political opponents and critics.
Additionally, Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News LLC, was hired by Donald Trump to be his campaign’s CEO, further muddying the waters of collusion between political leaders and the partisan, extremist media they court–although after Bannon fell out of favor with the mercurial president, Breitbart happily threw him to the wolves and fired the fallen Trump advisor from his returned chairman role, all to curry favor with the veritably lying and tweeting president.
In this current climate of media tribalization, it is far easier for a demagogue like Sutler to lie his way to power and to then retain it.
Persecution of Minorities
V for Vendetta begins with a blunt and on-the-nose depiction of the kind of politics that High Chancellor Adam Sutler and his Norsefire Party represent. Roger Allam’s Lewis Prothero is obviously meant to be a cross between Howard Beale and Joseph Goebbels when we hear his televised voice before even realizing we’re watching Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving’s robed introductions.
From the very first frame, Prothero, and by extension the political party he represents, hisses his disdain for those inherently responsible for all of the problems in the world: “Immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals, terrorists, diseased-ridden degenerates, they had to go! Strength through unity, unity through faith!”
Drawing a parallel between the nativist bigotry represented by V for Vendetta and the current disintegration of the Republican Party is like tracing with a ruler. While V for Vendetta’s fears about the persecution of the LGBT community turned out to be thankfully unfounded in the Obama Years with “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” repealed and gay marriage now the law of the land, everything else Prothero espoused hatred for is again in the national conversation… except with even less nuance. This includes how the Trump adiministration is targeting people who identify as transexual as Other, beginning with banning them from the military.
It would almost be redundant to bring up how Donald Trump—the preferred president of David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the KKK, and Neo Nazis everywhere—suggested in 2015 that we should ignore the Constitution and founding tenets of this country by creating a religious litmus test for entry while banning all Muslims (which he has now made a restricted version of the law of the land via executive order). So let’s just focus on what the man who once inferred he did not know what the KKK represented. While on CNN in 2016, the GOP candidate said, “I think Islam hates us.” For the record, this also insinuated merit to Anderson Cooper’s question about whether Trump believed Islam was “at war with the West?”
Let this sink in: The President of the United States insinuated that a religion of 1.6 billion people (that’s roughly 23 percent of the global population) is at war with the United States. It certainly gives his voters a boogeyman to fear in the shape of nearly three million fellow American neighbors. In the 2018 midterms, he shifted the focus back to his original boogeyman when he turned the media’s attention to an “invasion” of South American refugees from a crumbling caravan a thousand miles away walking through Mexico on foot.
V for Vendetta features flashbacks of Sutler rounding up British Muslims, and gay and lesbian citizens to be taken to camps. While Trump has not suggested anything quite that drastic for Muslims (yet), he campaigned pretty damn close to it in regards to undocumented immigrants. And then he acted on it as president, supporting and then attempting to defend a policy designed to ruin immigrant families by locking children in cages. This makes good on a campaign launched by the claim that a majority of undocumented migrants are “rapists,” which in turn led to millions of Trump supporters chanting “build a Wall.”
One imagines that if Prothero was a real person, he’d have been in the bleachers right next to them, talking about how he also agrees about shipping off minorities in a “humane” way to a place where they’d be “happy.”
“He’s Completely Single-Minded and Has No Regard for Political Process”
Ultimately, however, the easiest way to glimpse our ever growing flirtation with Sutler’s future is to see how parts of our culture already march to the sound of the fictional character’s bark. Midway through V for Vendetta, V surmises that Sutler’s career began with “a deeply religious man and a member of the conservative party. He’s completely single-minded and has no regard for political process. The more power he obtains, the more obvious his zealotry and the more aggressive his supporters become.”
Obviously, the Wachowski Siblings, as well as Alan Moore before them, were revisiting the rise of Adolf Hitler in a modern context. I would not suggest that it is a 1:1 comparison, but so much of how V describes Sutler could be used at this very moment to detail the popularity of Donald Trump.
In terms of political process, one only has to look at the Republican president’s woefully dishonest campaign promises and then often fractured policy, be it rounding up illegal immigrants or now claiming he has the power to revoke birthright citizenship without a Constutional amendment, despite it being enshrined in the 14th Amendment. In 2016, he ranted and raved about how he plans to immediately deport 12 million people living in America without due process, a claim he echoed in 2018 by playing ignorant to due process. Even Bill O’Reilly once called him out on that fact, pointing out in 2016 that under the Constitution, anyone detained on American soil (i.e. not just crossing the border) has the right to be processed in our judicial system—a harrowing (and impossible) feat if it is to be immediately implemented around 12 million times. Yet Trump just shrugged the facts off, repeating, “They’re here illegally,” as if repetition and magical thinking will make it constitutionally sound or at all humane.
Then again, Trump’s entire rhetorical approach has already been documented as operating on a fourth grade reading level, and it is as effective as the emphatic leader of V for Vendetta’s fictional conservative party. Increasingly, folks cheer when he suggests attacking cornerstones of American life like the freedom of the press. Much like how Sutler reacted to a political TV parody that made him look the fool, the Donald let his thin skin show when he suggested, with the utmost earnestness, that one of the things he wants most is to “open up libel laws.”
Even if the Supreme Court settled long ago in 1964 that you need to prove an organization reported inaccurate information it knew to be false with malicious intent, Trump would like to be able to sue “The New York Times [when they write] a hit-piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit-piece. We can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning, because they’re totally protected.”
His whining about the press suggests a chip on his shoulder worthy of when Sutler had a late night comedian disappeared into one of Creedy’s black bags.
Yet these are applause lines for supporters who are indeed embracing V’s visions of a dystopic 21st century where the more power Trump receives, the more aggressive they become. With almost every Trump rally during the heated primaries, there seemed to be another attack, another beating, and another protest devolving into chaos. In January 2016, Trump told an Iowa crowd, “There may be somebody with tomatoes in the audience. If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you?… I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”
Two months later in North Carolina, a black man was sucker punched by a Trump supporter as he was being escorted by police out of the facility, and it was captured on video. Despite visual confirmation of an unprompted burst of violence from a white supporter toward an African American protestor, Trump lied to his supporters when he said, “It was a guy who was swinging.” He then condoned the violence by saying, “I thought it was very, very appropriate… that’s what we need a little bit more of.” He then later would not refute the alleged attacker’s claims that the protestor was a member of ISIS.
After his ascendency to the White House, many emphatic supporters of Trump have become more violent instead of less so. When a visceral orgy of far-right politics converged on Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, Neo Nazis, Neo Confederates, and card carrying members of the KKK celebrated an event titled “Unite the Right,” including a number of supporters dressed in President Trump’s preferred golfing attire as they marched with torches and chanted “The Jews will not replace us,” word-for-word the same cries made by Nazis at 1930s rallies. The following day, one such far-right extremist drove his car into a crowd of counterprotestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. The following week, Trump gave rhetorical cover to racist supporters by saying “there were very fine people on both sides.” A year later, a Trump enthusiast sent bombs to Trump critics. A year after that, a far-right terrorist opened fire in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people and injuring another 24.
Eventually, this is going to devolve into something even more tragic and reminiscent of the 1930s.
How is this anger growing right now in a country that actually has seen a growth in job creation, GDP, and access to healthcare while a decrease in the deficit and unemployment over the last six years of Obama’s presidency and then increasingly so in the Trump years? There is an obvious racial and deplorable component for a number of voters in this country from the David Duke mold. Still, there are also reasons for justifiable anger with a cataclysmic income inequality gap and stagnant wages, the undeniable stench of money in politics, and the ever modern and unending anxiety of the new century: the threat of terrorism. But demagogues like Sutler and Trump are exploiting these fears and frustrations with such ridiculous ease, and building it on a foundation of hate, nationalism, and bigotry, that it seems almost fictional.
But if you think all of this is slanted, partisan hooey, watch V’s impassioned plea for the people of England to set aside their fear and face an ugly reality inside their culture. Then admit that it is not prescient for the direction our country is headed in.
So yes, Americans are closer than ever to achieving the dystopian future imagined for England in V for Vendetta. That’s something to remember, remember for the fifth of November.
A version of this article first ran on March 17, 2016.