Wake in Fright: The Morning After


Dr Liz Conor awoke this morning to a virtual retinal detachment. She explains.

The Director of the bravura Australian film Wake in Fright Ted Kotcheff said of the dystopic he made in 1971 that his title came from an Australian folk-saying, ‘May you dream of the devil and wake in fright’.

“The idea,” he continued “is that it is frightening to wake up to the reality of who you are and what you’re capable of.”

On this dawn of the New Trump Order, it’s a film in need of a timely rescreening. A teacher from the Big Smoke, his life spirit eeking out of him in a poky plodding day-job, gets stranded in the outback.

Rather than find himself on an expansive rust ellipse of convention-shrugging larrikinism, he’s drawn in by the grog-sodden, glancing homosociality, misogyny and self-destructive brinkmanship of the blokes in town.

In this wasteland of numb sociality some sort of scabrous frottage – gambling in a compress of shoving men, fucking dull-eyed in the hard dirt – attempts to stand in for connection and union.

The protagonist tails along on a Kangaroo cull too graphic to sit through. There’s a lot of tight-throated jeering. There’s a lot of desolate slaying and slaking. Blood, beer, guns and the retribution, the benediction, of braying, eroded men making a spectacle of their manhood on some picaresque frontier.

The soft-eyed creatures they dispatch corroborate the virility of their killers through their mute terror.

Watching this cull was like trying to take in the Trump rout through raked fingers. Through sting-eyed hastened blinks. Incredulous. Sinking like a petrified skull into the suspended belief of a dreamstate. Gnawing dread. Adrift and queasy, the land indeed had slid.

Billionaire white men have conned the majority of Middle-Americans that it is figurehead African-Americans and women who are the elite. And they haven’t overcome entrenched and systemic disadvantage to become the first black or woman president. They have commandeered white men’s habituated place.

The ‘establishment’ is the now the resented locus for a massive backlash. The restoration of white men’s prelapsarian dominion has become a national fixation more urgent than climate change.

To be fair, a dynastic glass-ceiling wasn’t ever going to be quite so shattering. Woman or no, there was no disguising the public ascendancy and succession of the wife of a former POTUS.

Each time Clinton displayed her artfully elided but undeniably solid record of public service – her ‘experience’ advocating for disabled children, lawyering and senatoring – she simply reinforced her remove from those who rounded on her at the polls.

Clinton wasn’t groundbreaking to white men refusing to ‘check their privilege’. She was usurping. Each and every achievement of HRC hijacked and confiscated their prerogative.

The stats will be turned over and over in the coming weeks like some Coney Island wiffle ball toss. Trump’s appeal, it seems, was mostly to white men without college degrees and perhaps their women, who wish their husbands were better breadwinners so they can negotiate childcare with inflexible, onerous shifts.

But the demographic autopsy of his vote elides the valency of Trump’s swagger for a fraternity of vigilantes nostalgically patrolling some race frontier that has never been reconciled in the white American imaginary.

Clinton was a Faustian pact and their best hope of keeping Trump’s erratic gesticulations from the US nuclear codes. She simply could not occupy the same mediascape with the mandate of a celebrity.

Trump said it best, in January in the swing state that led the slide yesterday: Iowa. ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,’ he proclaimed (failing to mention that if that ‘somebody’ was black he’d have even less repercussions).

Inflammatory, attention-seeking, imperious, Trump intuited already that he could display all the character traits that would win slavish groupies and sweep him to power. A coterie of eye-candy on his arm. A command over beautiful, aloof women, all the better if extracted and wrested. A facility for bluster, bloviating and badinage. More front, we’d say here, than Myer and more brass then all the doorknobs at Schots Home Emporium.

Much as we’d all like to garrote the man while brooding that really nowhere in America is a stray bullet with his name on it, you gotta hand it to Trump, he knew with surgical precision who his audience was.

His gaffes and gaucherie cycled through the 24-hour news cycle with the blithe grifting of Lance Armstrong. Or more precisely like the nonstick plotlines of reality TV: highstakes eliminations, constant jeopardy and scripted reality. In this alt-trite reality a reputational bungy-jump merely precipitates an acrobatic, jawdropping feat of snapback.

Trump’s bouncebacks were so elastic, so vaulting, so unrelenting this morning we wake to the sense of retinal detachment.

Blindsided we feel now, but only until we marshal the will to fight the fucker on every front. Mawkish Trumpsters can take their baneful dreams and go to the devil.


Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.