The story of a fictional small town in the middle of Arizona called Radiator Springs might hold the key to fixing the dangerous divisiveness that is plaguing American life.
Eight months after my son was born, Trump took the reins of the United States announcing the end of the “American carnage.” Like many, I tried to grasp in the following months and years how a country that had elected Obama twice, could move so far to the opposite edge of the political spectrum only to eventually fall off the cliff, face first into the cacti. For those of you who haven’t watched Cars since its theatrical release in 2006, here’s a quick refresher on the plot: on his way to Los Angeles, race-car sensation Lightning McQueen gets lost and lands in a desolate town in the middle of Utah — Radiator Springs. Radiator Springs used to be a lively, colorful, booming little town, but when the nearby highway opened, cars stopped driving through its streets “to save 10 minutes,” leading the town to its slow demise and leaving its inhabitants wondering how much longer they could survive in the place they’ve always called home.
It was around viewing #91 that it hit me: what happened to Radiator Springs is the reason Trump got elected. That’s how every authoritarian leader gets elected. Disenfranchised people with no economy to support their livelihood and their pride embrace a populist who finds them the scapegoat they’ve been looking for. Take your pick — immigrants, minorities, Muslims, Jews, coastal elites, China… And Donald Trump (with the help of sound bite media culture) accomplished the unbelievable trick of diverting the attention from the people actually responsible for the disappearance of small town economies (he and many of his wealthy friends) and redirecting it toward people who work 12 hours a day and can’t even afford their own homes.
What used to be the engine of American life, what has filled the collective vision of the American dream for more than half a century: the small town life, the self-serving community where everyone has a business to run and a role to play, has slowly disappeared in the heart of the country. A lot of manufacturing jobs did go to China, where they produce for cheaper to allow more of us to buy more plastic things we don’t really need, while increasing the margins for a few multi-million dollar companies. Back in 2016, Trump got a good start toward his win when he said all Mexicans were criminals. But he definitely won the election when he said he was going to make China pay.
So now what does this tell us? First it tells us that cinema studies are not just an after-hour dorm-room activity for nerdy, intellectual college kids. It tells us that movies, even those made for kids, can teach us a lot. It tells us that instead of binging as many hours of stories as we can, maybe we should watch less and think about them a little more. It also tells us, we should all re-watch Wall-E.
But here’s the scary part: we’re not making any of this better, even as the country voted for a new president. Because if the rural areas were hit first, suburban areas are next and the Covid pandemic has shone a blinding spotlight on this unsettling reality. Cars was written almost 15 years ago. Since then Amazon multiplied its revenue by 35 and we can only imagine what their 2020 numbers are going to be. If we order everything on Amazon, if we read all our books on Kindle, if we watch all our movies at home, we are all actively participating in the decay of our downtowns, destroying livelihoods and neighborhoods. Right now, everyone is worrying about restaurants, bars and barbers, and of course these businesses are hit hard. But in the long run, if we can help them survive this crisis, these types of businesses are actually probably going to be fine. The businesses that aren’t are the bookstores, the hardware stores, the toy stores, the stationeries, the movie theaters, the boutique clothing stores, the places that give a town its soul and give a community income and liveliness. Yes Amazon has everything, yes Amazon delivers fast, and yes Amazon is often cheaper. But is it worth pulling the curtain on Main Street America? Because there’s no way that’s not what’s next. Is the division and the exhaustion we’re all feeling worth getting that book in two days instead of waiting a week for our local bookstore to order it? Saying on social media we want to change the world is a good thing. Voting is a great thing. Taking responsibility and changing our everyday habits to help our society survive instead of pursuing speed, convenience and a $10 discount is better.
You think I’m over-reacting? You think I sound like an old man, rejecting new technology? Maybe you don’t, but I’ve heard it many times and here’s my answer: new technology is only worth it if it makes the world a better place. If not, it doesn’t belong in our evolution as a species. It’s not because something is new that it’s progress. What exactly gets better when a bookstore or a toy store closes? It takes money out of the pocket of our neighbors, erases a place of social interaction and helps make the same few people a little bit richer. Also, it’s going to make us all fat. (Again, you should re-watch Wall-E.)
The other recurring counter-argument is that Amazon creates jobs, that there is always creative destruction in an evolving economy. True, but let’s look at a map of America — these new jobs are now all concentrated in the same parts of the country, and we can all guess what color those states are on the Electoral map. Yes Amazon creates jobs, but the good ones are all on the coasts. When they announced the building of HQ2, I was hopeful. I though maybe they’d take this opportunity to rekindle a part of the country that desperately needs it. What did they choose? New York and a suburb of Washington, D.C.
If you look at history, it’s not hard to notice that geography is everything. Every war has been primarily about geography: the attempt by the leaders of a land to conquer another piece of land that has more or better resources. We can get upset at the Electoral College system all we want, but that’s precisely why the Framers created it: so that geography doesn’t fall off the map in our politics. So we don’t have wars.
I disagree with Trump on just about everything, except this: people in America should buy more American (a rule he of course doesn’t follow himself). People in France should buy more French. People in Japan should buy more Japanese… Only 29% of American wants Roe V Wade to be overturned, only 35% think gun legislation should be looser or kept the same and only 16% want to repeal the ACA’s protections for pre-existing conditions. I’m not great at math, but out of the about 160 million registered voters, none of these percentages add up to the 73+ million votes Trump got in the past election. That only leaves us with the “America First” message. That’s what resonates. That’s what people are asking for. There are clear benefits to globalization, and as a dad and husband of a multi-national family, I’m the first one to have benefited from it, but not all of it is worth it if it’s destroying the fragile peace the Western World has built since the World Wars. Because America’s newfound isolationism is not an isolated case: Brexit in the UK, the Yellow Vest movement in France and the rise of just about every eurosceptic populist politician in European democracies are proof that we’re going through a moment in time where the people are shouting that something is just not heading in the right direction. We can elect people who promise to put safeguards on global Capitalism. Or we, the people, can do it ourselves. Yes, it will be harder than casting a ballot every two or four years. But I have a feeling it will be 10 times more efficient.
Getting ourselves to a store or a curbside pickup will be less convenient than scrolling on our phones and having the thing delivered to our front-door 24 hours later. And we might pay a little more, but let’s think of everything we’ll get in return for that premium: the privilege of talking to a fellow human, the health benefits of going outside and the relief of knowing we’re not participating in the destruction of our towns and the rise of the next authoritarian figure.
Time constraint is also a fair argument. We all have busy lives, everything moves faster and we’re all constantly struggling to keep up, especially for families where both parents need to work to be able to afford anything. But here’s an idea: let’s delete Facebook from our phones — we just saved ourselves an average of 58 minutes per day. Double that if you include the time we need to calm ourselves down from everything we just read. If we choose to delete Instagram instead, it’s 53 minutes of our lives that we reclaim and the same amount we wasted by comparing our own lives to what we just saw. Easier said than done of course. I personally only successfully deleted one of the two. But this is a conversation we need to bring front and center, especially in a year where we see small businesses and retailers shut down at lightning speed.
My bottom line is this: if we really want to make the world a better place for our children, we need to start by watching more and better movies with them. And this holiday season, we should also ask Santa to do curbside pickup at our local toy store. That is if we have one left.