This past year’s most nakedly political films — “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Nomadland,” “I Care a Lot,” “Hillbilly Elegy” — share a common preoccupation. Each taps into resentment against corrupt or exploitative elites. In 2020, populist wrath took the film industry by storm.
It wasn’t the first time, either: Hollywood has long fanned populist ire, churning out tales of elite corruption across the ideological spectrum. On the right, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 landmark achievement “Birth of Nation” depicted Klansmen struggling to purge corrupt Reconstructionists through purportedly heroic lynchings. On the socialist end of the spectrum, Ma Joad issued a stirring call for workers to confront the “rich fellas” in the 1940 film version of “The Grapes of Wrath.” And anchored ideologically between them, 1939′s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” lionized a plucky junior senator battling the machinations of sordid party bosses. This cross-ideological consensus — that the decadence and profiteering of elites need to be cleaned out by virtuous uprisings of common folk — gave cover to populism’s most authoritarian leanings, bent not on securing democratic equality but on rallying around a strongman to purge noxious interlopers.
Now, only months after a violent mob breached the US Capitol Building and as right-wing parties in Hungary, Brazil, and India march forward unabated, the perils of stoking populist zeal have grown ominously clear. So it’s worth remembering that Hollywood’s pro-populist consensus was once waylaid by a film whose politics have long gone unappreciated, when noticed at all: “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Based on Tennessee Williams’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize winning play, the 1951 film bears witness to an epic showdown in New Orleans between tattered liberalism, embodied by Blanche DuBois, and the hypnotic siren call of populism, made incarnate in Stanley Kowalski.
In Stanley, the ingredients of populism mix and stew. He carries the psychological scars of military service. World War II has left him emotionally hardened and acculturated to vertical ranking. (Recall that nearly 1 in 5 insurrectionists on Jan. 6 were ex-military.) This background leaves him predisposed to zero-sum warfare and to see Manichean dualisms everywhere: Allies and Nazis, workers and owners, loyalists and enemies, virgins and whores. Stirred into these binaries are paranoid economic grievances, which flare into unfounded fears that he’s been swindled out of a cut of his wife’s family estate, Belle Reve. And finally, he feels, irrespective of actual harm, aggrieved by gnawing insinuations of disrespect. Blanche, the sister of Stanley’s wife, Stella, inflames his insecurity by calling him “something sub-human” and apelike, among other insults calculated to down-rank his social position.
Populism feeds off a contradictory desire for liberty and romanticized longing for a bygone social order. Stanley exploits this tension by invoking Louisiana Governor Huey Long’s mantra — “Every man’s a king” — only to pin on an addendum: “And I am the king around here, so don’t you forget it!” What looks like a rallying cry of personal freedom gets freighted with nostalgia for feudal dominion and patriarchal rule. Populism, “Streetcar” shows, pays lip service to equality even as it yearns to cement the pecking order.
And in this pecking order, some “real” Americans belong, others not so much. In the early 20th century, Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Irish, and Poles fought their way into the category of whiteness. Stanley traces this pattern, purifying his racial ancestry with nationalist gloss: “What I am is a 100 percent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it, so don’t ever call me a Polack.” He repudiates the Creole-infused pluralism that suffuses the French Quarter in blues and jazz.
Once the fight for dominance is on, Stanley uses every weapon in the authoritarian toolbox. After losing at poker in a booze-fueled night, he pummels his wife’s face with his fist, but his iconic plea — ”Hey Stella!” — manufactures a spectacle of victimhood, as though he’s the one who’s been betrayed, persecuted, and abandoned. His aim, eventually, will be to comprehensively disrupt Stella’s sense of reality, to the point that he can impose a false narrative on her sister’s testimony of assault. These twin tactics — inflaming grievances and fomenting an ecosystem of alternative facts — are hallmarks of modern-day populism.
The key insight here is that enraged populists thrive off animus. Even after it’s become clear that Blanche is a desperate pauper with no hidden fortune lurking amongst her rhinestones, Stanley tortures and humiliates her. The triumph lies in debasing her. It’s a prescient insight into the right-wing Twitterverse pleasures of owning the libs and trolling triggered snowflakes. Fairness and positive-sum cooperation are not viable if the only win is defiling the loser. Democracy can’t operate on these terms. Blanche’s fate — confinement to an asylum — foreshadows the fate of dissidents and deviants in an illiberal society.
For all this, “Streetcar” is as much a warning directed at liberalism as it is an indictment of populism. Blanche talks a big game about progress and civilization, of poetry and music and art, but her romantic idealism is a self-deception: She’s benefited from crimes she’s witnessed. Her “improvident grandfathers” undoubtedly “exchanged the land for their epic debauches,” but she won’t own complicity with the sins of the fathers. A liberal society that funnels prosperity from sources of exploitation — slavery, Jim Crow, theft, family separation — and then hides behind a mask of purity is doomed to have its virtues exposed as a fraud. It’s impossible to evade the parallels to our ongoing failure as a nation to reckon with our racial past.
Still, whatever the weaknesses of liberalism, “Streetcar” frankly shows that the populist alternative on offer — anti-intellectual, paranoid, and zealously tribal — leads to autocracy. It’s hard to imagine a more prescient warning.
Tom Joudrey is a writer in State College, Pa., who has also contributed to Slate and The Guardian.