David Lynch is a brilliant artist who has never been great with words. He dances around any pressure to interpret his work, and typically reverts to odd, nonspecific pronouncements about the nature of the world and his vocation in a cheery, unassuming tone that often seems at odds with his dark, enigmatic storytelling. Lynch’s art — his movies, music, and especially his painting — speaks with far more clarity than anything he has ever said in public, and adheres to its own internal reasoning. His best movies are a mishmash of Americana and its nightmarish abstractions, impermeable dreams given cogent form.
All of that means the hysteria around his supposed positive claims about Donald Trump says less about Lynch’s political philosophy than the absence of one. Lynch fans declared the headlines clickbait, but they’re verbatim: “He could go down as one of the greatest presidents in history because he has disrupted the thing so much,” Lynch said. “No one is able to counter this guy in an intelligent way.” (He later said the comments had been taken out of context, and criticized the president.)
While it may be painful to hear, Lynch has never adhered to the gentlest liberal mindset, nor has his work reflected those ethos. He fetishizes an outmoded vision of American identity and bemoans its collapse. In the ’80s, he was a vocal Reagan supporter, even dining with him at the White House. In 1990, before the release of “Wild at Heart,” the National Review put Lynch on its cover.
However, before Breitbart can claim the filmmaker as one of their own — well, it’s too late for that — we should consider Lynch’s history of bizarro ideology, from his peculiar support of Ronald Reagan to his convictions about transcendental meditation. It all ties to elements of his work that have appealed to audiences for decades, yet it’s possible to acknowledge those ideas without throwing his artistry under the bus.
Let’s be clear: Lynch never pulled a Kayne. The director supported Bernie Sanders in 2016, voted for Gary Johnson, and his general disdain for governmental regulation as well as the corrosive powers of wealth suggest the markings of a center-left Libertarian (not unlike the “South Park” guys). Lynch also reveres the working-class plight, with everything from “Blue Velvet” to “Twin Peaks” burrowing inside the American dream from the inside out. He hates any system that tries to control people. The last season of “Twin Peaks” was all about the quest for clarity when faced with ominous, invisible forces governing the visible world.
Often, Lynch’s movies collapse into spectacular, cryptic bouts of lyricism far more powerful than any single character’s agency. Whether it’s the climactic shush of “Mulholland Drive” or the careening into an endless night in the final minutes of “Lost Highway,” Lynch embraces the notion of worlds disintegrating or veering off in unknown directions. Reduced to a pure aesthetic impulse, it’s a beautiful obsession. When he’s talking about America’s lizard-brain tyrant, it smarts.
Nevertheless, Lynch’s thoughts on Trump struck me as having less in common with Kanye or Roseanne than the eccentric Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek (himself a movie character, most famously with “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema” in 2006). After Trump’s election, Žižek called Trump “personally disgusting,” acknowledged his “bad racist jokes, vulgarities, and so on.” The Marxist academic predicted that Trump would yield “a big awakening” in American politics. In Lynch’s interview with The Guardian, he echoes that observation. “Our so-called leaders can’t take the country forward,” Lynch said. “Trump has shown all this.” The implication seems to be more that Trump so blatantly epitomizes the inanities of modern political machinations that he’s forced the entire system out into the open — and in the wake of his deranged rulership, a new system of accountability will take shape, hopefully better equipped to handle him.
And sure, that’s a ridiculous conceit, one that fails to take into account the terrible immediate reverberations of the Trump presidency — the cruelty, the bigotry, the horrific policies that inflict so much harm on people of color, the inane tax policies, the isolationist strategies scaring off American allies, and so on.
Lynch’s movies idolize post-war America — shiny sports cars, Elvis music, slick hairdos gleaming in the lights — and views the prospects of its extinction as a terrifying inevitability. They’re an extraordinary blend of Norman Rockwell and Francisco Goya. You don’t need to agree with that worldview to relish his astonishing, singular vision.
While there is a tendency to conflate conservatism with these signifiers, Lynch seems most drawn to conservative figures like Reagan exclusively because they reflect those signifiers. He’s wonky, not a policy wonk. As for the director’s actual political beliefs? I don’t buy them any more than I do the pseudo-science of transcendental meditation, which Lynch has preached to his followers for decades. In 2000, he went so far as to endorse TM’s “Natural Law Party” candidate for president, John Hagelin, a crackpot physicist who has profited off fraudulent claims about TM’s benefits stemming from the quantum realm. Yes, let’s put that guy in the White House.
Bottom line: Lynch has never adhered to a logic familiar to most of us. He has never made complete sense. That’s part of what has made his work so alluring over the years. However, there’s a through-line in all this — his movies exude an empathy for desperate, lonely characters battling through a chaotic existence. He wants the little guy to succeed against impossible odds. There is no way he actually likes the crude belligerence of Trump or agrees with his most corrosive policies. Still, it’s hard to imagine that any statement or new interview might clarify his position. All you have to do is look at the movies, and keep searching for answers. Lynchian magic has more to do with the quest than its outcome.