Donald Trump Jr has value. No, really. It’s the same sort of value a nuclear accident has. Toxic waste spewing out of a badly run power plant has a horrific impact but it sometimes leads to safety improvements. Maybe the same could be true of the toxic waste spilling out of Donnie’s social media feeds on the subject of the police.
His crass response to the conviction of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd was to cheer a right-wing website’s post of a Die Hard meme (he says it’s his favourite Christmas movie) alluding to calls for police reform.
“Large Turnout At Memorial For Hans Gruber Who Was Thrown From A Building By A Police Officer,” said the post, referencing the baddie played by the late Alan Rickman, who is thrown from the Nakatomi Plaza by police officer John McClane.
For the uninitiated, McClane is the super cop who manages to keep encountering groups of crazed criminals while he’s off duty and has to wage a lonely struggle to foil their dastardly plots while rescuing groups of scared hostages.
McClane is a walking, talking trope. He’s someone we’ve seen in a million and one cop shows and movies. He’s world-weary, has a messy personal life, and has to battle not just the bad guys but also myopic and uncaring officialdom along the way (the films, at least the early ones, work because of their execution).
What Don Jr inadvertently demonstrated with his post was the power of this messaging. Enough power to play a role in the marked reluctance of previous juries to convict cops when they commit criminal offences while on duty? Maybe so.
Ask yourself why companies spend billions of pounds/dollars on TV ads. The reason is: because it works. A friend of mine working in that sphere once described advertising as “a science”.
It involves repeatedly pumping the same message into people’s homes so that it sinks in and shapes their thinking. This is why certain drinks brands seem young, attractive and the sort of thing you chug after playing sports in the sun, even though they patently aren’t healthy.
Certain fast foods will make your kids smile, and the burgers always look scrumdiddlyumptious. You see the ad and you want to buy one. And why on earth would you want to be seen with a cheaper phone that might work better when all cool kids have the same brand?
When the commercial break is over it’s back to the world-weary cops who bend, even break, the rules in their fight against both the criminals and a system designed to protect the bad guys.
Seriously, the only cops like Derek Chauvin you typically see on screen are those from the Office of International Affairs (known as complaints investigation in the UK).
They’re all snakes, determined to fit up our heroes for the most minor infractions. To properly protect you and your family the cops need to be left alone with the power of judge, jury, and executioner. Even if you live in nice suburbs with white picket fences and manicured lawns where your chances of an encounter with violent crime are about as great as witnessing a member of the Trump family saying “you know what, maybe I was wrong about that”.
I know people are mostly aware that what they’re seeing is fiction when they tune into a cop show or movie. But when those dramas ram home the same message again and again it’s bound to have an impact as Don Jr, whose political antennae are quite sharp despite the buffoonery he indulges in, demonstrated by calling upon that Die Hard reference.
It’s true that these days we do sometimes get to see the very different experience of policing black people have on screen. There’ve been awards winners like if Beale Street Could Talk, more action-packed affairs such as the Queen & Slim, or even Black & Blue. In Britain, we’ve had Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue, part of the Small Axe anthology on the BBC, but let’s not kid ourselves that all is sweetness and light on these shores. Just ask any black teenager who takes a walk to the shops while wearing a hoodie.
Netflix has Two Distant Strangers, a hot tip for the best short film Oscar, which warps the premise of Groundhog Day to devastating effect, showing its protagonist unable to escape getting killed by a police officer again and again when he just wants to get home to his dog.
It’s doesn’t make for easy viewing. Don Jr and his acolytes are probably never going to watch it. The same may sadly be true of middle America. I had to hunt around for it. Despite its Oscar nod, the algorithm didn’t cough it up on my home screen.
These perspectives really need to find their way into the crime dramas people consume daily, because if the entertainment industry were to reform its messaging to give a more nuanced view of policing, it might help to further the goal of the police reform that’s clearly badly needed.
Perhaps it’s time for an Internal Affairs series focussing on the people who police the police? But do the real-life versions deserve it? Or perhaps the question is: If the Internal Affairs cops were doing their jobs well in the first place, would we even be here?