A beloved classic, The Munsters ran from 1964-1966 on CBS. It was no coincidence that these years constituted the apex of the Civil Rights Era. LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 two months before its debut.
TV’s color barrier was not entirely intact in 1964. For example, future Mission: Impossible star Greg Morris had made a memorable appearance in an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show the year before. But network television was not yet ready for black leads. That would come in 1965, with I Spy and its co-star, Bill Cosby. Still, Hollywood—then as now—had lessons to teach.
The Munsters (and its ABC-based competitor, The Addams Family) were designed as allegorical stand-ins for integration. Both oddball families were plunked into normal suburban life, with the intent of showing that no matter how we look, we are all the same.
In one episode, father Herman Munster (the Frankenstein character, played by Yale School of Drama graduate Fred Gwynne) takes son Eddie (the Wolf-boy) aside and teaches him a Very Important Lesson:
“The lesson I want you to learn is, tall or short or fat or thin, or ugly or handsome, like your father, or you can be black or yellow or white. It doesn’t matter. But what does matter is the size of your heart and the strength of your character.”
What a lovely sentiment. But now it is 2020, Donald Trump is President, and what matters is only whether you are tall or short, or fat or thin, or ugly or handsome, or rich or poor, black or yellow or white.
We know this from minimal observation. Setting aside, for propriety’s sake, Trump’s obsessions with models and porn stars, one can simply look to the quality Trump obviously values most: A person’s looks. For instance, a source reported that Trump “can’t say two sentences” about former administration official Richard Grenell without “saying how great of a looking guy he is.” Likewise, Trump appointed National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien simply because he “looked the part,” with bonus points because he didn’t have John Bolton’s mustache. Caligula believed his horse handsome in the same way.
Trump’s pimping of the White House staff reveals deeper problems than poor management technique. The American people know what Trump—and, by extension, the Republican Party—thinks is the “look.” And most Americans don’t have it.
Certainly, minority groups are excluded. That’s not what the “look” looks like at all.
Women are not entirely excluded but they must have their own look, and Trump’s preferences for his women are a matter of public record.
It’s Munsterism turned upside down. It expressly matters—it only matters—how you look. Trump’s superficial approach not only manages to reduce his few minority appointees to mere tokens, it reduces all his appointees to mere tokens. The size of one’s heart and the strength of one’s character are irrelevant, even suspect. Only the craven have the capacity to do and say anything Donald Trump demand.
The extent to which this is dispiriting depends on how much you personally conform to the “look.” Obviously, those that benefit from Trump’s prejudices—the newly-orange, square-jawed, legends of their own mind—are quick to defend the methodology.
But Republicans cannot continue to endorse this approach and still persist in their dogma that “all lives matter.” Sure, Republicans begrudgingly concede that people can go on living—as stormtroopers or service droids. But life’s true favors go only to people with the “look.” When Republicans say “all lives matter,” they may as well come out with the rest of it. All lives matter, but some handsome, middle-aged, hair-plugged, Republican lives matter more than others.
History will remember Trump as the Great Excluder, as he and his monolithic, Fox-News-obsessed “base” reject all but the narrowest bands of American experience. This is precisely why the phrase Black Lives Matter carries particular resonance after four years of Trump. While the statement has layered meaning, in this context it means that black lives matter. It also explains why the bumper sticker response “all lives matter” is so enraging. Those that use the phrase are most likely among those least likely to believe it.
But pervasive racism is just a single component of Trump’s malignant effect on American politics and culture. His approach relegates much of the American public to secondhand citizenry. Elderly Americans are COVID tinder. Protestors are Antifa. Democrats are human scum. Whistleblowers are traitors. Reporters are the “enemy of the People,” the People being, in Trump’s estimation, his supporters. Subtle, this is not.
And even his supporters’ participation in this scheme bears scrutiny, because one of the Trump era’s persistent ironies is that so many of his own voters don’t have the “look.” But Trump needs them nonetheless, and so has constructed for them a symbolic mien, adorned with red hats, confederate flags, upside-down bibles, and heavy arms. The Republican Party meanwhile is so removed from common experience that it seems not to understand why this gives the rest of America, and the world, more than a little pause.
None of this is accidental. Republicans insisted for decades that character set them apart. Then they murdered the premise, lit it on fire, and danced on its grave. When Republican senators demur from defending the latest Trump tweet or the proliferation of the Confederate flag, they are saying they don’t care to revisit that decision. This too is unsurprising, as doing so would require introspection far beyond the capabilities of one who would make that decision in the first place.
So we are left with the sitcom wisdom of one Herman Munster. How America managed to regress from the simplistic wisdom of a thinly-written (but well-cast!) 1960s sitcom is anyone’s guess. Certainly, Herman’s statement is naive and unreflective of American experience—sitcom aspirations suitable for Very Special Episodes. Yet, if one had to choose between the aspirations of Munster and Trump, it would be an easy choice indeed—for about 60% of us.