(Spoilers for The Gift ahead)
Like a lot of Americans, I have had Republican Presidential front-runner Donald Trump (goodness, that phrase still feels as surreal to write as “Governor Schwarzenegger”) on the brain as of late. The demented jester of American politics used the Republican Presidential debate as a bully pulpit in the truest sense, antagonizing Megyn Kelly for having the audacity to ask him to defend all of the awful, misogynistic things he’s said in the past (and present) and generally being the biggest, most obnoxious and self-absorbed baby onstage.
When Trump’s comments about Kelly got him uninvited from a gathering held by Republican bigwig Erick Erickson, Trump responded predictably, by accusing Erickson of being a “loser.” For veteran Trump watchers, it was a common refrain. Hell, The Washington Post recently ran a lengthy list of all the people Donald Trump has called a loser, a list that includes such luminaries as George Will, Bill Maher, Rosie O’Donnell, Graydon Carter, TV writer and producer Danny Zuker, Seth Myers, Russell Brand, John McCain and pretty much everyone in the world who isn’t enthusiastically onboard the Trump express.
Trump calls enemies (you’d have to go back to Richard Nixon to find a public figure who cultivated enemies with the fervor of Trump, whose enemy list is longer than Infinite Jest) losers so extensively that it’s become perhaps his signature linguistic tic, more so even than “You’re fired.” How telling is it that Trump’s catchphrase is the single most traumatic combination of words most American employees will hear in their lifetime this side of “It’s Cancer?” What does it say about the American public’s masochistic relationship with Trump that it just loves to hear him say awful words that will break the heart of whoever he’s glibly delivering them to?
“Loser” is so synonymous with Trump that when Simon (Jason Bateman), a wealthy, accomplished business shark in the compelling new psychological thriller The Gift, calls Gord (Joel Edgerton), an awkward, emotionally stunted outcast he tormented in high school, a “loser” as their relationship grows increasingly explosive and combative, it almost feels like he’s referencing Trump, or quoting reverently from Trump’s playbook for bullies.
The Gift benefits tremendously from the baggage Bateman brings to the role. The upside and downside to playing a character as iconic as beloved as Arrested Development’s Michael Bluth is that audiences will always assume you’re playing some variation on your signature character. Consequently, we originally process Simon as being something of a Michael Bluth-like character–a little colder and meaner, but also fundamentally smart and charming and handsome and droll in that inimitable Michael Bluth kind of way.
Writer-director-star Edgerton then methodically disabuses us of the notion that Simon is anything like Michael Bluth. When Simon tells his empathetic and compassionate wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) that Gordo is a loser, it’s revelatory not just in the way that Simon sees Gordo but how he sees the world: as a Darwinian realm of winners and losers, where winners deserve to triumph and losers deserve every hardship that befalls them.
In that moment, it becomes achingly apparent that despite the worldly, sensitive, Liberal facade he puts forward, Simon has never really evolved beyond the nasty, reductive world of teenagers, where popularity is everything and every cruelty is justified by some warped moral code that seemingly demands that the people on the top relentlessly punish the people on the bottom for their shortcomings–as vague and impossible to prove or disprove as being “a loser.”
When it comes to rhetorical sophistication, an adult calling another adult “a loser” is roughly as mature, specific and sophisticated as accusing a rival of being bad, or gross, or smelling like barf, which it’s also very easy to see Trump doing. Whether it comes from the mouths of Trump or Simon, the word “loser” almost invariably says more about the person using it than the person it’s directed towards.
In The Gift, Simon becomes harder to like and sympathize with the more his bullying meanness comes to the surface but Trump has emerged as the unlikely Republican front-runner precisely because he seems to tap into some weird, disconcertingly widespread desire for a Bully-In-Chief, someone who’ll be an asshole on our behalf.
In personal style, Trump is a throwback to Presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who acted decisively and conclusively without wasting time with forethought and careful analysis. They were doers, not thinkers like President Obama, Jimmy Carter and George H.W Bush. Simon acts decisively as well, and invariably in his own relentless self-interest. Over the course of The Gift, it emerges that bullying is an inveterate part of Simon’s emotional make-up; that he’s a bully, who punishes people he considers losers and social inferiors in the business world as well as in his private life.
Watching the debate, it felt as if Trump was perversely running for President partially as a populist hero and partially as a sneering billionaire villain. It was actually much easier to imagine Trump as the bad guy in a Three Amigos reboot starring Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and James Franco, or as the billionaire industrialist out to shut down the teen rec center in a breakdancing movie from the 1980s than it was to imagine Trump conducting official business from the White House in his capacity as the President of the United States.
The Gift makes the mindset that divides the world into winners and losers, bullies and the bullied, seem at once monstrous and pathetic, deeply destructive and injurious to the human spirit. But in the absence of plausible heroes, that mindset in a creepily pure, unadulterated form is making Trump’s campaign a riveting sideshow. It’s conventional wisdom that bad guys always get the best lines and the best scenes and perversely enough, at this point Republican voters seem to want a leader who is closer to Biff from Back To The Future than he is to Marty McFly.
The Gift’s moral ambiguity makes it difficult to root for the bad guy, or even to determine who really is the film’s ultimate villain, Simon or Gordo, but the screaming lack of moral ambiguity in Trump’s campaign makes it perversely fun to root for the bad guy, or at least to be morbidly fascinated by his campaign, although it’s open to debate as to whether the public actually wants to be led by the kind of guy who loves firing people and probably thinks most of the people he would ostensibly be serving fall decidedly on the wrong side of the all-important (to the Trumps and Simons of the world, at least) winner/loser divide.
Nathan Rabin is a freelance pop culture writer, the original head writer of the Onion A.V. Club, the author of four books, including You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me and Weird Al: The Book and the creator/author of the legendary My Year of Flops and Forgotbusters columns.