The Horror Movie That Spookily Predicted Trump’s Bunker Fiasco
Alston Ramsay worked as a speechwriter in the Bush and Obama administrations. Now he’s a screenwriter. And Trump just ruined his new Hulu horror movie, “The Current Occupant.”
Like so many before me, I was recently trumped by Trump. I’m not the first, and I certainly won’t be the last, but I think I can at least lay claim to one novelty: He spoiled my movie.
Well, not exactly spoiled—but he certainly gave away the premise when he “inspected” the White House bunker a few weeks back and then made headlines doubling down on the incident with his half-baked Bible photo op. In an instance of life-imitating-art-imitating-life and so on ad infinitum, I’ve spent the better part of the last year writing and producing an institutional horror film with my brother Julius Ramsay about a somewhat unstable bloke who may or may not be the president of the United States, who may or may not be utterly mad, and—wait for it—who may or may not be imprisoned in the White House bunker. It’s even called The Current Occupant.
Yup, Trump beat me to the punch.
I’ve never actually been in the White House bunker, but I have dined in the White House Mess several times and always snag a few boxes of White House M&Ms when I’m there (even the ones with Trump’s signature on them). Back when I was swimming in D.C.’s shark-infested waters, I did so across the Potomac as a speechwriter at the Pentagon, a vantage point from which I had plenty of time to study the myriad characters always vying for influence and power in and around the Oval.
Which made the second half of Trump’s bunker episode even more surreal to watch, as the president and a coterie of what passes for a brain trust these days obediently followed him so he could futz around with a Bible in a comically feeble effort to both project strongman machismo and pander to a key voting bloc, all while achieving neither. Talk about chutzpah.
The trail of aides playing follow-the-leader reminded me of baby ducklings waddling behind their mother—even as she walks off a cliff. What it didn’t remind me of was any of the serious people who’ve held those and similar positions in previous administrations, Democrats and Republicans. No, these are fun-house-mirror versions of the public servants with whom I’ve served. Call it the Totalitarian State brought to you by Armando Iannucci—the cast of a genre-busting TV series that vacillates from trashy reality-TV series, to smug self-righteous political drama, to epic tentpole disaster all on an hourly basis.
Headlining this bizarre episode of As The Trump World Turns was of course the president, whose defining characteristics—paranoia, mood swings, delusions of grandeur, and my favorite, extreme difficulty using language—are quite literally the primary symptoms of advanced neurosyphilis. (For what it’s worth, I’ll buy dinner for the first social-media influencer who gets #NeuroSyphilisDon to trend.)
So there Trump was, in all his raging incompetence, stomping through Lafayette Square and looking every bit like the modern-day equivalent of a 19th-century carnival barker—a snake oil salesman who somehow reeled in the ultimate white whale: the American electorate (or at least a subsection thereof). But, to steal a line from The Dark Knight, he’s the dog who somehow caught the car—and that was about as far as his plan ever went. Which was painfully obvious as his lackeys awkwardly milled about the church while he fumbled with that Bible (Bible too big, hands too small?).
In the category of “only-on-television,” I’ve always found it exceedingly ironic that the most successful populist in American history—the towering hero of the working man!—is in fact a fat-cat billionaire from Manhattan who lives in an actual golden tower on Fifth Avenue. Ditto the irony in his hypnotic power over large swaths of the Christian Right. This is, after all, a man who doesn’t seem to know a single verse of Scripture or even the difference between the Old and New Testaments—and whose morality falls somewhere between a sociopath’s and a hookworm’s. Yet there he was thumping his chest in front of a church while brandishing, as he put it, “a Bible”—since he couldn’t even claim ownership of this particular one. You can’t make this stuff up.
Every star needs a supporting cast, and Trump is no exception. Now I’d expect most of the sycophants he generally associates himself with to be front and center at St. John’s angling for their share of the limelight, but I have to admit I was somewhat taken aback by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper demurely mugging alongside the rest.
Here I have to claim some level of expertise, having spent four years speechwriting for and hopscotching the globe with Robert Gates when he was secretary of defense. I can safely say that if a president had suggested the same stunt to Gates—and he’s worked for eight of them—he would have politely told the commander-in-chief to go have sex with himself (using slightly more colorful language). The other secretaries of defense, chairmen of the joint chiefs, and high-ranking generals I’ve worked for or seen up close—Don Rumsfeld, Pete Pace, Mike Mullen, Stan McChrystal, Dave Petraeus—likewise wouldn’t have been caught dead in a stunt like this. I can’t even imagine how Jim Mattis would have reacted, but it’s a nice fantasy to imagine Trump and Mattis going mano a mano, bare-knuckle-style, in the Rose Garden.
In a mealy-mouthed apology after the fact, Esper toed the party line that he didn’t know what was happening until it was too late. This, despite the fact that he queued up in a perfect line with the president and the rest of his merry band of tricksters. I believe there’s a name for that formation… yes… it’s called… a “photo line-up.” Let’s hope his powers of observation are more finely tuned to national security threats.
I don’t even know what to say about the day players in this episode, except that central casting was working overtime when they found Attorney General Bill Barr (a poor man’s John Goodman, slightly over-cooked in the microwave), but really phoned it in with National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany—all of whose casting calls must have read “generic political hack” and little else.
The two showrunners of this episode deserve special recognition. Ivanka may not have made the photo line-up, but she was nearby. It turns out the whole sequence was apparently her bright idea, a way for her father to assert his tough-guy persona after hiding out in the bunker the day before. It reminds me a bit of the caricature of producers who toss out good-idea fairies, no one pushes back for whatever reason, and before you know it, it’s in the show.
To wit, her latest initiative is a new campaign directed at the unemployed with the inspirational tagline “Find Something New.” Wow. Considering the devastating wreckage of the labor market, this feels a little less tone-deaf—and a lot more chop-off-your-own-ear-Van Gogh-style deaf. I don’t know if it was intentional, but that motto even has the same number of syllables as the most famous entry in this category: “Let them eat cake.” (As this goes to press…Ivanka…Goya beans…seriously, WTF.)
By Ivanka’s side and winning the “lurking background extra” award was Jared Kushner, an over-sized Gumby doll with vaguely humanoid characteristics—proof positive that the uncanny valley does in fact exist. But perhaps I’m being too harsh: he probably deserved a nice walk in the park to relax after modernizing the U.S. government for the 21st century, forging peace in the Middle East, and ending the novel coronavirus pandemic—all before breakfast. Hey Kush, it’s July already, is America “really rocking again?” Or by “really rocking again” did you mean “experiencing mass death, disease, social unrest, and unemployment again?”
The only missing regular from “bunker” episode was Mike Pence. I imagine he was too bogged down working on his Wall Street Journal editorial crowing about the end of the pandemic, which was presciently summed up by Kevin Bacon in Animal House almost four decades ago.
Speaking of films, back to my forthcoming one for a moment—and yes, there’s a point here beyond (more) shameless self-promotion. It’s one encapsulated by The Current Occupant’s tagline, which reads somewhat more appropriate to the subject matter than Ivanka’s: “The institution will change you.”
In most White Houses, that sentiment sums up an article of faith in the presidency. The power and responsibility inherent in the office inevitably change a person. Small men have become great men, and vice versa. Regardless of which way the pendulum swings, though, the salient point is change.
Not so for Trump. He’s the same guy he’s always been—and the same one he’ll always be. Which is great if you’re casting a long-running network comedy where the characters never learn or grow and their hilarious foibles only affect the rest of the cast—but not so much when it’s the leader of the free world on whose shoulders rest the fate of millions.
You’ll have to watch The Current Occupant to find out if our leading man is in fact the president of the United States—or simply a madman masquerading as such. Alas, outside of the land of make-believe, the answers to similar questions are all too apparent: the inmates have long taken over the asylum, and Trump’s First Inaugural vision of “American carnage” has become a waking nightmare from which none of us can escape.
Talk about a real-life horror show.
Alston Ramsay is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles. He worked in the Bush and Obama administrations as a speechwriter for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Gen. David Petraeus when he was commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. His latest film, The Current Occupant, is part of Blumhouse Television’s Into the Dark series and is streaming now on Hulu.