How the Trump Campaign Targeted The Walking Dead Viewers and Stirred up Fears of the Other
Remember this TV survey from earlier this year, which found that both Republicans and Democrats enjoy watching The Walking Dead? According to those results, Republicans actually like the show slightly more; it got listed as the second-most favored show by Republicans, and it came in sixth place for Democrats. Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner recently spoke to Forbes about the Trump campaign’s decision to put their campaign ads alongside The Walking Dead, which makes sense, given that the fandom for the show leans to the right. The demographic split in viewership also meant that Trump was probably able to target some undecided voters with those ads, as well.
This news might seem surprising, since The Walking Dead is a very racially diverse show… unlike Trump’s voters. You’d think that watching a show about a rag-tag group of diverse pals working together to fight zombies would encourage viewers to be more open-minded in their views on race. But that’s not the only theme of the show–the other theme of The Walking Dead, particularly the latest season, has been about not trusting outsiders.
The season premiere of the show kicked off with Negan, a terrifying newcomer, posing a massive threat to the much-beloved heroes of the show. The lesson is clear: you can trust your ride-or-die peers, but you can’t trust anybody else. Huge swaths of America aren’t as diverse as the core group of heroes on The Walking Dead, so trusting their friends and family could translate into “don’t trust diversity of any kind.” The sad irony there is that many studies have shown that living in a diverse area and having more diverse peers can make you less racist.
A lot of Trump’s campaign promises relied upon a fear of outsiders, particularly Syrian refugees and Mexican immigrants, and the supposed threat that these newcomers would take American jobs and resources, or destroy America from within. It makes a sad kind of sense that Americans who might’ve been on the fence about who to vote for would feel more strongly about Trump’s message right after watching a beloved character on their favorite TV show get murdered by an outsider. The message has no factual or logical basis, but that isn’t the point of it. It’s a message that is designed to play on irrational fears that are rooted in a lack of experience. A lot of Trump’s core voting base don’t even live near any Mexican immigrants; they live in parts of the country that are predominantly white. They are afraid of people they don’t know and will never have any occasion to meet.
It’s also worth noting that apocalypse narratives like The Walking Dead can sometimes end up having a surprisingly conservative and even libertarian slant, even if they have a diverse cast. After all, nothing says “small government” quite like an apocalypse–and a zombie apocalypse would absolutely reward the people in our country who have been collecting as many guns as possible.
Zombie apocalypse stories aren’t always libertarian fantasies, though. Back when the first Resident Evil game was getting a remake, I wrote about how the original game made big-budget scientific corporations into the enemy, rather than the zombies themselves, who were framed as the pitiable victims of a rich man’s hubris. The heroes of the game were special forces operatives with government salaries; the moral of that story was about imposing further regulations and embracing teamwork.
The first Resident Evil game came out in the ’90s, though, and zombie apocalypse stories have changed a lot since then. Zombies became wildly popular, but the meaning behind them changed a lot, and clearly, that meaning got successfully co-opted by Trump’s campaign. In any case, I have a feeling we’re going to be telling a whole lot of very different types of stories about apocalypses and survival in the coming years.
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