In the ongoing culture-war raging across the nation, conservative America and Hollywood have never been confused for bedfellows. One could say the two represent, geographically and ideologically, the inert counterweights of American culture. Granted, the relationship has always had its quirks. Despite their cultural aversion, conservatives do spend big on Tinseltown blockbusters. Yet there’s little doubt that Hollywood is seen by conservatives, not to mention the news industry, as the quintessential engine of their self-perceived cultural persecution.
With this in mind, one would think a would-be Hollywood blockbuster that centers around rural conservatives while demonizing urban liberals would be met with a kind of détente by right-leaning America. Just imagine: the film industry extending an olive branch to an oft-ignored, yet loyal, consumer base. A chance to finally respond to all those alleged liberal media stereotypes that have warped Americas’ mind by portraying everyman heroes in the way that conservative media wants.
Maybe that’s what Universal Studios had in mind when they developed The Hunt, a would-be political thriller backed by the producers of The Purge franchise. The Hunt allegedly revolves around a bunch of uber-elite, skyscraper-dwelling progressives who decide they’ve had enough of a Trump-centric America, and seek vengeance by hunting down everyday conservatives with high-powered weapons. Basically, it’s a modern, social commentary-ridden spin on the eighth-grade-lit classic, The Most Dangerous Game. Which, if you even pretended to read back in middle school, provided you with a clear roadmap for where the plot of The Hunt would go: the crazy, bloodthirsty liberals are bad; while the sympathetic conservatives, hunted down for offenses as trivial as being pro-life, are good. Slam dunk, right?
Enter Donald Trump. The man’s persecution complex is so massive, he honestly believes that being held accountable for breaking the law would put him on par with women burned at the stake for having beauty marks. This is a leader, or so-called leader, who only sees the world through the myopic lens of incorrigible insults or unrelenting praise — nothing in between. This is a cultured man who only source of information is a news channel that is actually less informative than remaining in sheer ignorance. So, naturally, when Trump found out about The Hunt, he interpreted it as nothing less than an affront by Hollywood against his loyal supporters. He naturally threw a fit on Twitter, brought down a destructive media whirlwind by calling everyone racist (except for himself, of course), and The Hunt was shelved indefinitely by Universal.
Given the context, this misunderstanding is at least mildly plausible. After all, Hollywood has a long history of portraying conservative figures, and sometimes conservative values directly, as backward, corrupt, hypocritical and intolerant. The reasons for this varies, as does the degree to which it happens. The controversy surrounding The Hunt, though, is different because it thoroughly encapsulates the fallout that occurs when you rally around Trump, the cultural totem pole.
This misunderstanding only occurred because, again, the president’s sole information source is Fox News, which chose to present The Hunt as liberal-wish fulfillment and thus anti-conservative Hollywood propaganda. Laura Ingraham went so far as to suggest that the film’s goal is to inspire future mass shooters targeting conservatives. Perhaps this is not surprising for a news channel whose product isn’t news, but rather grievance porn for sad, old white men jonesing to feel relevant to modern American culture. Trump naturally fell for it, hook, line and sinker.
Because Trump’s conservatism is defined by absolute loyalty, not clear values or a deft understanding of public messaging, anything short of nakedly obvious propaganda must be liberal swine. It’s cultural movement defined by how wronged something makes you feel, so even portrayals that are both morally gray and relatively positive will be received and repurposed as nothing more than a clever slight. In a world of “for” or “against,” anything as mildly ambivalent as The Hunt can only be an “against.” This might be the most pitiable yet astounding aspect of Trump’s affect on conservatism: He has turned his base into the legions of — yes, I’ll use the word — snowflakes, all obsessed with shadow grievances and cultural purity tests associated with liberalism more than conservatism.
Trump created a maelstrom of victimization and misinformation so large that Universal decided that shelving The Hunt was easier than trying to explain it. It’s not like the people upset by this would ever trust a movie studio anyway. The narrative was already baked in; the outrage launched thousands of tweets; the small window for PR spin slammed shut. Thus goes the tale of a president and conservative media kneecapping a Hollywood giant and winning a major culture-war battle fought by nobody but themselves. Supping on little more than rejection and suspicion, they have guaranteed that film studios will think twice about any risky ventures meant to appeal to viewers outside of loyal urban elites. If Trump cannot understand nuance and emotional complexity, neither can those who support him — or else.
In an America with a semblance of a rational, let alone calculating, conservative movement, The Hunt would have been hailed as the second coming of The Hunger Games. They would have promoted the pants off the thing; America loves dystopian fantasies starring rustic innocents facing off against globalist, cosmopolitan elites. They could have silenced liberal critics under the old guise of “free speech” and being too uptight to deal with any negative portrayals of themselves. If it was anything like The Purge, cultural conservatives could have turned The Hunt into a decade-long cinematic taunt of the left.
Yet instead they’re left with nothing, because they’ve wrapped their movement around a fragile man who’d yell at his own shadow if he felt threatened by it. The right wing killed a one-off experiment in positive right-wing movie branding because all it demands is either rigid praise or total annihilation. Conservatives have long wondered why they don’t receive a greater share of the cultural spotlight, since they do make up a large proportion of the electorate. Their shelving of The Hunt should stand as a reminder that seldom is there enjoyable art that also functions as emperor-sanctioned cult messaging. Especially when the cult believes their own name should be invoked only in endless jest.