Opinion: America failed to heed Stanley Kubrick’s warnings. Trump is the proof

Editor’s Note: Noah Berlatsky (@nberlat) is a freelance writer in Chicago. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

“I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” Cigar-chomping Colonel Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) intones those classic lines of anticommunist paranoia in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” The movie was released 60 years ago this week.

Noah Berlatsky - Noah Berlatsky
Noah Berlatsky - Noah Berlatsky

Ripper’s obsessive anticommunism, and the film’s particular nuclear worries, date it to its Cold War year of release in 1964. But Kubrick’s portrait of a US government mired in fascism, incompetence and cowboy fantasies of violence still has a queasy relevance. The Soviet Union is no more, but Jack Ripper with all his precious bodily fluids and his terror of invasion by outside, feminizing forces is still a recognizable stand in for the border-obsessed, homophobic America of former President Donald Trump and his MAGA movement.

The plot of “Strangelove” riffs on, and critiques, the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The US and the USSR built up large nuclear stockpiles on the theory that as long as both sides believed that any attack would result in planetwide annihilation, no one would attack.

In Kubrick’s film, however, the mentally unstable Col. Ripper decides that nuclear war is necessary to prevent sneaky, impure Communist infiltration. He orders a wing of bombers to attack the Soviet Union—and all the safeguards designed to ensure credible deterrence make it almost impossible to call them back. The Soviet Union, for its part, has created a Doomsday device which will destroy the world if even one bomb falls on the country. Gripped by mutual fear and impelled by one rabid doofus, the world swoops and stumbles towards annihilation.

Filming on the set of 'Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb' in March of 1963. - Express/Getty Images
Filming on the set of 'Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb' in March of 1963. - Express/Getty Images

Nuclear war remains a live fear today. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in 2022 once again raised the specter of open conflict between global nuclear powers. The worries about the Soviet Union outpacing the US in number of warheads—the “missile gap,” discussed with great bluster and mugging in the film by General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott)—have largely been set aside. The collapse of the USSR left the US as the world’s sole superpower, and Russia and the US basically have parity in warheads. Today, even critics of US militarism tend to focus more on the potential of another pointless tragic quagmire like Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq rather than on the threat of nuclear apocalypse.

Strangelove’s terrors aren’t precisely our terrors. But the nightmare still has a lot of familiar contours. For example, per far right John Birch conspiracy theories of the era, Ripper believes that fluoridation of drinking water to prevent tooth decay is “the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face.”

Ripper thinks public health campaigns are a threat to his moral, physical and sexual autonomy—that somehow fluoride makes him vulnerable to Communist control and, implicitly, makes him sexually impotent. Similarly, far-right extremists today have embraced Covid anti-vax conspiracy theories, claiming (falsely) that Covid vaccines cause large numbers of deaths or that they lead to infertility or change people’s DNA. You can easily see Ripper today donning a yellow star while claiming that vaccine mandates are the equivalent of the Holocaust, as many on the right have done.

Sterling Hayden, as General Jack Ripper, fires a machine gun while Peter Sellers, as Group Captain Lt. Mandrake, feeds him the bullets in a still from "Dr. Strangelove." - Columbia TriStar/Getty Images
Sterling Hayden, as General Jack Ripper, fires a machine gun while Peter Sellers, as Group Captain Lt. Mandrake, feeds him the bullets in a still from "Dr. Strangelove." - Columbia TriStar/Getty Images

The appropriation of Jewish suffering in the antivax protests also resonates with Kubrick’s morbidly funny skewering of ongoing fascist influence post-World War II. In his book, “The Anatomy of Fascism,” Robert O. Paxton defines fascism in part as “political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity.” Ripper’s violent fear of his bodily fluids becoming corrupted and Trump’s ranting insistence that immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of our country both fit with standard fascist rhetoric of purity. Whether it’s immigrants or Communists coming over the border, the far-right frames it as a breach of bodily integrity which must be answered with violence.

Ripper’s Americanized fascism is mirrored by the film’s actual Nazi; Dr. Strangelove himself. Strangelove is based on Wernher von Braun, a Nazi rocket scientist who emigrated and worked on American military programs. Peter Sellers plays him with an Austrian accent and a manic sneer; his black-gloved hand is only partially under his control and keeps snapping up into a Nazi salute as shouts “Heil, Mein Fuhrer” when he should say “Mr. President.”

The disturbing part about Strangelove isn’t that he’s a Nazi; it’s that he fits so well into the American milieu. US generals mumble a couple disparaging remarks about “Krauts” but when Strangelove suggests that they escape fall-out radiation by moving all the most important and valuable people into mine shafts, they listen with breathless enthusiasm. They’re especially taken with Strangelove’s idea for creating a breeding program with 10 women for each man. “The women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature,” he hisses.

Actor Peter Sellers on the set of "Dr. Strangelove". - Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images
Actor Peter Sellers on the set of "Dr. Strangelove". - Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

The plan to outbreed the Soviets echoes neo-fascist conspiracies about White genocide, otherwise known as “The Great Replacement Theory” — the fear that there’s a plot to lower White birthrates and overwhelm (supposedly) American culture with alien, non-White babies. Nearly half of Republicans agree that there’s a sinister plan to encourage immigration and replace White voters. The history of the anti-abortion movement is also rooted in worries about falling White birthrates; the fear was that abortions would reduce the White population, destroying American culture.

Getting distracted by horny fantasies while the world burns isn’t exactly indicative of great focus or competence. And in fact, Strangelove and his American admirers are farcical bumblers; the doctor can’t even conquer his own hand, much less the world. Ripper virtually boasts about his own sexual dysfunction. For Kubrick, though, this ineptness doesn’t undercut the malice. It compounds it.

The US president (also played by Sellers) doesn’t realize he’s signed orders that give power to use nuclear devices to lower officials. For its part, Russia’s Doomsday device is more dangerous because the Communist leader Kissoff foolishly didn’t let the US know it existed. (“The premier loves surprises,” his ambassador admits apologetically.) Ripper wouldn’t even attempt to destroy the world if he weren’t a self-bamboozled buffoon; his stupidity leads him to take horrific risks. Similarly, Donald Trump wouldn’t have attempted an almost sure-to-fail coup if he weren’t the most dangerous kind of fool: one who is also a demagogue. It’s not enough to want to overturn democracy; you need to have fooled yourself into thinking you can get away with it.

At the end of the film, bomber commander Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) manually opens his bomber doors and rides a nuclear warhead down towards its target, waving his cowboy hat and yodeling triumphantly as he ensures the end of the world. For Kubrick, that image of American patriotism, bloodthirstiness and utter foolishness encapsulated American reckless nuclear brinkmanship.

Sixty years later, the mix of terrifying violence and reckless incompetence still resonates, even if the Cold War is over. We can still see King Kong’s approach reflected in a range of issues. Today, it suggests the eagerness with which we have thrown ourselves into global warming on a great belching cloud of carbon dioxide. Or our march towards a potential second Trump term. Or our blithe refusal to embrace even moderate public health measures, like masking, in our current Covid-19 surge. Or President Joe Biden’s insistence on sending Israel weapons despite accusations that the weapons are being used for war crimes.

Kubrick in 1964 warned that American hyper-patriotism coupled with fascistic conspiracy theories and the human propensity for bumbling could result in disaster. The nuclear explosion he foresaw didn’t quite happen (at least not yet.) There are now also many other additional options for chaos and misery. We may now be learning to love greenhouse gases, or Covid, or fascist takeovers, rather than (or in addition to) the bomb. But Jack D. Ripper is still smoking that same cigar, and Dr. Strangelove is still smiling.

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