The opening scene of the new season of American Horror Story, appropriately subtitled Cult, is set on US election night, in November of 2016. A diverse group of liberals (including a lesbian couple, an Asian-American couple, and a black woman) watch MSNBC, nervously awaiting the results. Meanwhile, a Cheeto-munching young, white “alt-right” type, alone on his couch in another home, stares at Fox News.
When the race is called for Donald Trump, the liberals are in shock: “I won’t believe anything until I hear Rachel Maddow say it, she’s the only one I trust,” one deadpans.
Meanwhile, the far-right man celebrates by humping his TV to chants of “USA, USA.”
In February, American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy revealed that the new season of his anthology series on FX would be about the 2016 US presidential election. Since then, Murphy and FX have been cagey about how much, exactly, the show will deal with the contentious election.
After the first three episodes, it’s clear that the answer is: a lot.
American Horror Story: Cult is perhaps the least subtle political satire ever made, but that’s probably the point. In post-Trump America, there’s no time for subtlety. The story, as Murphy’s series often do, becomes progressively more ridiculous. A cult of homicidal people in clown masks wreak havoc across an affluent Michigan suburb. A gerbil explodes in the microwave. The phrase, “a lesbian George Zimmerman,” is uttered.
But beneath the over-the-top antics and the show’s rote home invasion and psychological thriller tropes, is an engaging meditation on fear—how it plays tricks on the mind, how it pits human beings against one another, how it wins elections.
Cult is the only season of the show so far that doesn’t feature some kind of supernatural element. All the horror is steeped in real-life fears, ones that have been brought further into the light, for many, since Trump became president of the United States: emboldened racists, attacks on minorities, and the deterioration of human decency.
It doesn’t feature Trump or Hillary Clinton as characters, but it might as well. A right-wing man, strengthened by Trump’s victory, decides to run for city council on a platform of inciting fear. Played by American Horror Story regular Evan Peters, he answers the question, “What if the Joker from Batman was also a white nationalist?” His philosophy is that fear is a good thing, that it sets us free, shows us who we really are (or who we yearn to be). He’s unhinged, but also charismatic, and quickly attracts a team of damaged souls as his groupies.
But Cult isn’t just a parody of the racist and xenophobic contingent of Americans who have felt emboldened by Trump’s victory. The show is also critical of oversensitive, egotistical liberal Americans, ones who might display an exterior of compassion and inclusivity but are part of the problem that’s dividing the country further into political cults.
Sarah Paulson, another American Horror Story veteran, plays one half of the show’s stereotypical progressive couple—lesbians who refuse to allow their young son to give his pet a cisnormative name. She’s a guilt-ridden Jill Stein voter who’s deeply triggered by Trump’s win and begins to succumb to her various anxieties and phobias (one of which is, of course, a fear of clowns). “Go to hell Huffington Post, fuck you Nate Silver,” she says, before she starts going crazy.
Her psychologist’s advice for dealing with the anxiety brought on by Trump is to “check out of the world and into your life,” but the demonic clown cult—both real and imaginary—makes that difficult. Therapy is tough when The Purge is happening outside of your home every night.
What’s unique about Murphy’s show, apart from its signature campy style, is its timing. It’s not satirizing long-past history, it’s satirizing this precise moment in time, what Americans are living through right now.
Saturday Night Live and other sketch and talk shows parse and mock the latest news. But unlike American Horror Story, those shows traffic in caricature, “skewering” politicians, government leaders, and public figures. Murphy’s show targets the vanities and self-deceptions of the rest of us—showing how we’re all complicit in the horror that is modern American politics.
The show works best when it’s doing that: turning the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election into a personal horror story. Cult is not what American Horror Fans might be used to, but it’s the scariest nightmare Murphy has conjured up yet.
American Horror Story: Cult premieres Sept. 5 on FX.