It’s not hard to walk around in 2020 with the feeling that all the metaphors have become literal. Donald Trump brings his supporters to a rally and then leaves them out in the cold. Joe Biden’s campaign rides a bright, well-branded cheery bus; Trump’s drives a hearse. But perhaps the most apt is his constant misuse of Oscar Brown’s civil rights song “The Snake” as a fixture of his rallies, meant to demonize immigrants and refugees when the analogy to his own presidency couldn’t be clearer. He quietly dropped it from his rotation earlier this year, but in these last forty-eight hours of his re-election campaign, it’s come roaring back once again.
The story is simple: a tender woman takes in a snake from the freezing cold, nursing it back to health. Trump doesn’t just recite it, he performs it. He gesticulates, makes faces, puts on dramatic voices. The snake hisses and schemes, Trump raises his voice and tempo, and finally, in the climax, gives the woman a vicious bite.
Trump loves this part the most; the cruelty was always the point for him, and revels in the stark brutality of the sudden attack. The crowd does not gasp in fear, but instead rises in a cheer; they know what’s coming, but they are perfectly willing to sacrifice this woman to prove their point. The woman cries. The bite is fatal, and with her heartbroken sobs she asks why the snake would do that to her, after she helped him so much.
“Oh, shut up, you silly woman,” Trump glowers, his jowls twisted in a grin, “you knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
The best part of living in the Stupid Ages is that now that history is fully and finally over, the events of distant pasts repeat themselves in increasingly farcical ways, over and over again, until finally they have boiled away all nuance entirely, leaving only the raw, gelatinous mold of truth left to be shaped. Not truth in the sense of clarity and righteousness that cleanly cuts through falsehood, but truth in the way that truth is flexible, manipulable; subject to the same forces of raw sewage that everything else is.
This is to say that late capitalism has overridden the very last of what were once cultural norms and replaced them with brute force. What once were national scandals have become minor annoyances to be avoided. Cold War paranoia has morphed into reflexively vague conflations of Putin’s fascist plutocracy and China’s market socialism under the common banner of foreign enemy superpowers meddling in our elections. Sex scandals, once the silver bullets that could take down anyone or anything, have become as ineffective as online petitions. In the midst of the largest agitation for racial justice in a generation, police officers applaud murderers, take cheerful selfies with self-avowed violent hate gangs, and pepper-sprayed people in line to vote.
The golden thread undergirding all this, as well as the breakdowns of all institutions everywhere, is brute force. They don’t care if the public or the media puts pressure on them because they don’t have to care, because they can just call it fake news or the deep state or the establishment or whatever, and then they can barely eke out a win and point to it as the eternal mandate for them to seize power forever, and fuck you if you try to stop them. We are already living in the repetition: a full three of George Bush’s legal team who worked on the 2000 election lawsuit are now confirmed members of the Supreme Court, each being openly courted to rule that Trump should maintain the presidency whether or not he actually wins a majority of votes.
This phenomenon is not unique to Republicans, but you’re fooling yourself if you think Democrats are even half as capable of such boldness. The parties have finally emulsified down to their final stages: Republicans believing in nothing more than the craven pursuit of power at all costs, and Democrats believing that power is a complex series of levers and pulleys and sprockets and screws to be delicately handled, lest they ever actually be used.
They play a constant game of snakes and ladders. A little progress forward, a lot of sliding back, progress only defined by the arbitrary rules of the game board, and now the Republicans have gleefully thrown it away and set the house on fire, and Democrats are frantically searching not for an extinguisher but for the rule book.
Again, this metaphor is literal in the figure of Trump himself. The theory of Trump has always been in polar opposites: he is a devoted, ideological racist, but he has no ideology but his own shambling wet id. He says and does whatever he knows will benefit him most, but he also vaguely parrots the last thing someone said to him. He manipulates media attention and scandal with surgical precision, yet he rage-tweets blindly at wee hours because of what he saw on TV. He brags about how elite and superior his wealth and status is while demonizing any and all opponents as “the elite”.
This even extends out to all other aspects of him: his base is valorized as the forgotten working class, yet his actual base are the petit-bourgeois car dealership millionaires. He’s a deep vector of spite weaponized against the “losers” and “suckers” and also the pitiable put-upon victim, constantly reminding anyone who will listen about petty decades-old grievances. He’s deeply, personally miserable, his health is failing, he never wanted to be president; yet his ego is only possibly sated by the crowds of adoring fans and the unlimited power he wields. He’s genuinely having the time of his life.
Even his policies are like this. He’s running as both the “criminal justice reform” candidate and the “law and order” candidate. He paints his opponent as both a sleepy incompetent fool and as a radical leftist who will burn down the suburbs. He goes out of his way to antagonize Black communities while claiming he’s the best president for them since Lincoln. He is a uniquely monstrous and terrible tyrant in American history, and yet he merely carries out mainstream Republican policies with just a slightly ruder veneer than they’d like.
It feels like an eternity ago to remember the canard being thrown around during the 2016 cycle of whether to take Trump seriously but not literally, or literally but not seriously. The answer was both. One way of reading this disparity would be that he says what he thinks will play well for the polls and the media, while his true beliefs are murkier. This wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it’s a calculus that could apply to any politician. This isn’t base hypocrisy either, it’s fundamental to who he is as a person. Trump is both a pathological liar and a pathological truth-teller; the challenge comes in finding the appropriate synthesis to these two opposite truths. Many of his shocking and horrific polices shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise: often they are things he said he would do in the first place. We knew damn well he was a snake, and we’ve known this whole time.
He gets away with it through brute force. It doesn’t matter how many norms he blows past or how many laws he blithely breaks. In doing so he has not really broken them at all but revealed them for the flimsy paper and string they always were. The rules binding society together only ever worked if people collectively agreed to play by them. But he doesn’t want to, so he doesn’t, and there’s seemingly nothing anyone can do to stop him.
Except vote, of course. But as we see even before our eyes, what can that do? Voter suppression is rampant and targeted against Black and Latinx communities, the Supreme Court is already lost, and even in the worst economic downturn in a century, a pandemic killing hundreds of thousands, a historically unpopular incumbent, and Biden’s consistent lead of 8 to 10 percentage points, the question on everyone’s minds isn’t whether Biden will win the vote, it’s whether Trump will be able to get away with the cheating we have already predicted he’ll try. We already know he’s a snake.
If Trump loses this election, he will sulk and whine and immediately cry foul and claim voter fraud, whether he loses by ten votes or ten million votes. The plan is right there in plain sight. He’ll act like he won, petition the Supreme Court, and expect his handpicked trio of justices to deliver his result, and fuck you if you try to stop him. First as tragedy, then as farce, then as farce again and again and again.
Hideo Kojima’s seminal Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2005), for the Playstation 2, primarily explores the theme of “scene”: the various climates in which events occur and the impacts of these climates on people, institutions, and nations. This is explored in personal stakes all the way up to geopolitical stakes. Legendary soldier The Boss, who from her very childhood was forced into the world of secret societies and international espionage, is placed at odds with her country, her family, and even her own body, due to the shifting climates imposed upon her by larger institutions far beyond her control. The Fury, an astronaut driven mad by visions of the Earth on fire, was driven to delusions from the scene he witnessed upon re-entry to Earth from outer space. Two soldiers from two warring states are only directly enemies due to the scene they are both placed in; in the future they may be allies or completely ambivalent.
This concept of “scene” is even embedded into Snake Eater’s gameplay itself, in that for the first time in the series the player must forage food to survive (yes, eating snakes) and wear camouflage to blend in with the “scene”, thus interacting with and manipulating the environment to achieve certain objectives. MGS 1 and 2 both take place in very-near-future American military installations with advanced tech, MGS 3 is a new scene, a prequel taking place in the Soviet jungle during the height of the Vietnam war.
The protagonist of the game is known by the codename “Naked Snake”, or just “Snake” for short; he is functionally identical to Solid Snake, the protagonist of the first two games, given that in the canon Solid was a clone of Naked decades later. His mission is to find and assassinate his former mentor, who had gone rogue and teamed with a Soviet GRU colonel to frame America for a nuclear bombing and incite World War III, so that America could clear its name and prevent nuclear escalation.
Many twists and turns follow from this basic premise, but the “scene” is set clearly from the beginning: large-scale geopolitical institutions such as governments and The Philosophers, a secret society controlling the world, using soldiers and medics and inventors and civilians as pawns, obscuring things so much that the strings become invisible and they begin to act according to set paths, completely ignorant of the broader picture.
These scenes created by these powerful actors additionally reshape society itself, essentially subverting classical Marxism’s base-superstructure model by retaining strict control over both base and superstructure as to further entrench their sociopolitical hegemony; due to the deft layers of these scenes, individual actors cannot break from the cycle because these institutions can easily reframe the scene at will, including to the point of rewriting history to suit their own narratives.
The Metal Gear Solid series is known for being simultaneously deeply self-serious and deeply, stupidly silly. The dialogue is by turns melodramatic and hackish, whole sections are set aside for convoluted pop culture references and fourth-wall breaks, and the characters are all incredibly goofy and strange, occasionally with an awkwardly-translated pathos to them that can either cut deep into your soul or miss the mark entirely. The tonal shifts can be incredibly jarring, but they work because they elevate the series from your average Tom Clancy-esque thriller into the kind of profound political questions the genre typically eschews.
One of the most iconic scenes in Snake Eater is when, after defeating sniper The End in a harrowing boss fight, Snake must climb an incredibly long ladder. It doesn’t sound like much, but the entire thing takes over three minutes in real time. At first he climbs in silence. Then, slowly, the vocal track of the game’s James Bond-esque theme song starts to play in a gradual crescendo, while all you are controlling as the player is that Snake is still dutifully climbing the ladder. It’s a completely unexpected, bizarre moment, but it breaks through absurdity to become genuine.
The climb itself becomes a test of determination despite being a very easy task; the player is never given any indication of their progress and so must keep climbing as the perspective lengthens to comical exaggerations. The floor fades away in the distance, and no matter what, no matter how long it seems, you must keep climbing; and then in a sudden, rapid shift of perspective it’s over, and Snake climbs out to the ceiling, and that’s that and it’s time to move on.
Just like that, the scene is changed, and you are forced to reorient and continue. The ladder is never brought up again.
Here’s the other thing about snakes: they shed their skin.
Trump’s ability to morph and camouflage himself and play bully and victim at the same time is just the same. He sheds the skin of his elite upbringing and slums it with the Midwesterners he openly hates, then he sheds that skin to go gladhand with some Evangelicals and hold a Bible upside down, he briefly sheds this skin long enough to mock them behind their backs, then wriggles back into his gold-lined skin to greet his guests at Mar-a-Lago, then, finally, removes the last of it to angrily tweet from the toilet about how unfair his ratings on Fox News are.
Which one of these is his true skin is perhaps missing the point; they all are, and they each function as his attempt to manipulate the scene of American discourse. In that he has possibly been the most successful force in history: no president or even individual person, loved or hated, could probably ever claim to be so central to the front of mind of every American for this long. Those who love him, even if their numbers are dwindling, do so with stars in their eyes; those who hate him wish fervently that he shits himself on live television and dies shortly thereafter. There are those who strongly dislike him but cannot bring themselves to use the word “hate”, and might genuinely be praying or wishing for him to become a better person; I am not in that group and I won’t be shamed for it.
Unlike the Philosophers from Metal Gear Solid, though, Trump is not successful at completely subverting the culture because he is a creature of it. He is too lazy to mount a full-scale propaganda campaign, yet he is tireless and fruitful in his laziness; another contradiction. He is only able to work this manipulation on a small segment of the population. Not once, even for the calls of a “presidential pivot”, has he deigned to broaden his message to any but those who accepted him from the beginning.
From this scene, it seems that he’s almost trying to lose. Doubling down on esoteric Hunter Biden emails that got him impeached already. Blatantly refusing to engage with the Covid crisis despite literally catching the disease himself. His poll numbers have spiraled for months because he seems physically incapable of actually mounting meaningful leadership. Had he risen to the occasion and actually handled the crisis with a bare minimum of competency, he’d sail to re-election in a wave not seen since Bush ’04. At least that time history would repeat as tragedy.
He has surrounded himself, like the mobsters he always idolized, with a parade of yes-men too craven to ever deny him anything; he has himself become warped by the scene he created. There is an argument to be made that this is not because of his own self-aggrandizing idolatry, but because he is very stupid. Once again, both these contradictions are true.
His base, even dwindling, still comprises of at least 4 in 10 Americans. Forty percent of people seeing the wanton destruction this man has caused, and they still sidle up to him, and even though he will bite them, they don’t care; because for a moment before the poison set in they got to believe they were the snakes, too. They will follow him up the long ladder and down the short rope, laughing all the way.
So the final tool he has left is brute force. To simply break everything he can in one last attempt to intimidate the American people into meekly accepting him without a fight. He won’t care how bad it is for optics or legality; all those are just fictions designed to make excuses for those in power. The scene must be changed, the circumstances of our political moment must be radically altered for any meaningful defeat of Trump to truly take hold. If the Democrats are caught tinkering with their levers and knobs and pulleys again while he’s bursting down doors and declaring himself winner for life, maybe they deserve to lose after all.
This is the part of the essay where I’m supposed to imbue you with some hope, some final inspirational sendoff. Go vote and save our democracy. Go vote and kick the dang freakin’ Cheeto out of the White House. I think he will lose, and spectacularly so, and that we might even avoid mass civil unrest by his base lashing out in their final moments before the venom takes hold. But if you’ve gotten this far in this essay on Election Day, I know you aren’t exactly feeling a hundred percent optimistic right now.
Here is the final thing to remember about snakes: they come in broods. Even if Trump loses, he has already given birth to a swarming, writhing mass of little imitators, each of them ready to rare their heads on us in 2024 and beyond. He himself won’t go away: these rallies and Fox News appearances will become a constant new normal. We can’t ignore them or pacify them. We can’t lay traps to get them because they are too smart for that, they will turn the traps back on us and reset the scene before we blink.
These snakes will come in different forms: some will be outright QAnon agitators or white supremacists. Some will be sudden austerity hawks the moment a Democrat takes power. And some will be, as in the case of the Lincoln Project, a group of self-avowed “moderates” coming up with puppy eyes that the monster they created has escaped their control. The moment we turn our back, they will strike, too. We should have known they were snakes when we took them in.
There will be a time, somewhere in the vague future, for reconciliation and healing and moving forward together as a nation. But if Biden — like Obama before him — allows the architects of cruelty to escape unharmed and unaccountable for their actions, if Trump and his cronies throughout the entire Republican party are allowed to simply give an aw-shucks grin and continue on unabated, we will deserve their venom.
We must climb the long ladder of progress, even if it seems infinite, and eat the snake. This is not something we can simply trust will happen by the infinite forward march of time or the moral arc of history, but because of our own direct actions. It will be thankless and exhausting work, and it won’t even feel worth it. But it’s the only way through. Only then can we change the scene and move on.