What Tommy Boy can teach us about the Trump fever dream.
A bumbling, blond, buffalo son of an industrialist is on a picaresque quest to resurrect the small American city he grew up in by bringing back the brake pad factory his dad built. He has to go across the country with his snide little friend to convince people, through honest, blunt, sometimes unintelligent aphorisms that he is a businessman. The forces arrayed against him are the forces of the big national chain of auto-parts stores who, detestably, pretends to care about “the American Working Man” but really wants to fleece the same for being fools enough to buy his bunko.
Back home in Sandusky his dad’s new blonde, slim wife is a conniving bitch, using her slinky sexual wiles to try and halt the progress of the prodigal son’s quest. Worst of all, she wants to sell off the factory, and so the town, and so, by the same token, the country.But have no fear, our bumbling hero finds his true salesman, businessman, and leader’s heart and manages to pull off the impossible! He shows all the mean educated types what being a real “American Working Man” is about and all without even a whiff of untoward sexuality on his part. And then the factory hums again with all the lovely ugly poor people inside happily toiling under their benevolent industrialist master who will give those pensions they toil for. Even the few token black workers are thankful, indeed. It’s an American Fairytale.
“Trump?” The excited red hat besides me asks. “No,” I say, unexpectedly having to include him in this conversation, “Tommy Boy.”
But in that tiny little exchange I saw across the canyon that divides Trump supporters from Clinton supporters. I should have recognized it sooner: I grew up in a tiny little town with a run-down town square and the once beautiful stone bank crumbling. The most thriving businesses there now are a Latino grocery store and a Chinese Restaurant. What Trump voters want is the return of Tommy Boy’s America, where factories are brought back and it is all done with a quaint sense of not American exceptionalism, but American patriotism taken back from those who would tarnish it.
Every scene in Tommy Boy engages in a flagrant nostalgia for a simple, oil-smelling America. It infuses itself into the comedy. Think of the famous “Shit in a box and mark it guaranteed” scene. The sequence opens with Tommy and Richard (David Spade) pulling into a low white building set against a wispy white sky in their powder blue vintage Cadillac. And as they angle into the bland, black top lot, harmonica and twangy blues plays on the soundtrack. Everything in that tiny shot screams of a desire for something past, that that image, the vintage car and the low white building, that is America. Once the car is in the lot we smash cut to a jumbled row of exhaust pipes leaning against orange racks like kinky steel flowers in a florist, or like trees in a junkyard, and then we see Tommy and Richard talking to a lanky man through these fine steel stalks.
The lanky man is already sold, it seems, on the Callahan brake pad, but he wants a guarantee on the box. The unnamed manager’s main concern is not with the quality of these American-made products as such, but with the skin they come in. What matters most is whether he can feel good while buying it, not if it works. “And there,” I imagine the random Trump-eter saying, “is what went wrong with American business. Everyone stopped caring about the real thing, about quality, and all that mattered was consumer protection and money. We make the best brake pads/gizmos/cars/refrigerators/auxiliary steam vents, so why should a guarantee matter.” Ultimately this is what Tommy tells the sallow manager, that people put guarantees on pieces of shit because it is cheaper to replace the piece of shit than make a good product, except Tommy also includes a non-sequitur line about a strange fairy coming into the manager’s house and knocking up his daughter, a not unfamiliar threat in today’s world.
This sequence marks the turning point for Tommy and his movie, and from this fundamental pitch, “our stuff is good, stop being silly and namby-pamby,” comes Tommy’s ultimate saving of his dad’s factory.
And look at that factory. It is dirty, yes, it is old, sure, but they are putting in a new division (one that is more automated and will probably end up laying off more workers anyway…but we don’t talk about that), and see how much everyone loves their job. There is such care in the shots where we walk through the factory, like it was a little Charlie Chaplin bit. In the old part of the factory we look across several workers grinding…something (brake pads?) on big sanders, and one, talking to Tommy, sends what he’s grinding flying by holding it too loose on the wheel, and the brake pad goes pinging around like a wild bullet, in clear violation of OSHA ordinances. Yet instead of this being a work-stoppage, it is laughed at and everyone just goes back to business, which is, I hear the movie say, the way it’s supposed to be. Nobody got hurt, so why stop. We just keep on making and making.
Finally, the scene where Tommy plays with the new factory machinery. The soundtrack as he sidles up to the big button gives the game away. The high flute that playfully hops and slides tells us that this is a whimsical, even magical moment. Big Tom (Brian Dennehy, doing a solid paycheck job) tries to wheel and deal the stuffy bankers (look at them in jackets of complex fabrics and ties of complicated patterns) to get these machines going while Tommy, ridiculously but lovably, shows us how magic American machinery is.
I would love to do a shot by shot critique, from the happy acceptance of junk food to the bad race situation of the one black guy in the movie at the factory (except, of course, for the black band at the wedding), the gaudy-ness of the wedding itself, but all of it returns to the same saccharin, blind nostalgia for an “American” way of life. And that, above all, is what the Trump voters want. The white supremacists and the blatant misogynists were always going to vote Republican because, well, the Party that elected a black man and put up a woman was never going to get their votes, the same with the evangelical voting bloc, though for different reasons. The people who gave the electoral votes of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to Trump, and thus his win in the Electoral College, were the people who believe something has been lost, that Tommy Boy and the world of made things and haggled prices and hard, loud machines has been lost. That that world is, in and of itself, oppressive, petty, and racist, never broke through to them.
But this nostalgia is ultimately tragic and poisonous. Tommy Boy came out in 1995, one year after NAFTA. Tommy Boy was already living in the past; it was living in the same nostalgic past that Reagan imagined into existence, if it existed at all. Manufacturing jobs were the largest ever in the year 1979, and they kept dropping from there, ticking up here and there, but who thinks of 1979 as the best year in American productivity? What is so striking is that the kinds of jobs that Tommy Boy so loves with such destructive innocence, died out hard and fast right after the year 2001. There is no economic possibility of it returning. Even if manufacturing came back, it would be a high-skill job, not one you can drop out of high school for.
This fetish for American production is a consuming nostalgia that has a distinct relationship to a Hollywood comedy: it isn’t true; you turn to it to feel better; and, if you live your life based on it, you will have a hollow life. I feel terribly for the people of color and queer folks and Muslim Americans who will not be able to live in peace these four years (not that they ever could before), and I feel even more depressed that they will suffer in pursuit of a fairy tale that cannot come true.