Spoilers for American Horror Story: Cult, Season 7, Episode 4, “11/9,” below
In the first three episodes of American Horror Story: Cult, the FX horror show played around with the idea of showing extreme people on both sides of today’s culture wars. In Season 7, Episode 4, “11/9,” the show turned the clock back to Trump’s election once more and took that central theme all the way to the finish line. It clawed past people’s political differences and exposed the underlying force that, according to American Horror Story, motivates us all: fear. And it showed us exactly the kind of person who might use that fear to unite us.
Kudos to actor Evan Peters, who’s been a main cast member for every season of American Horror Story so far, and a favorite among fans. He’s been a charismatic but mysterious force in Cult, his full role and influence only hinted at until now. It was easy to assume he’d be the leader of the eponymous cult–that he dons a clown mask and murders people in between chucking lattes at lesbians and running for city council. Viewers hoping for a twist may have been disappointed by that well-telegraphed development, but Peters’ Kai Anderson is so fun and terrifying to watch that it doesn’t really matter.
And it reveals exactly what role our real-world politics play in this fantasy: In the world of American Horror Story: Cult, Trump is not some Great Leader who galvanizes his followers into action. Or at least, that’s not the part of Trump’s persona and influence that’s relevant to the show. Instead, Trump serves as a proof-of-concept for Kai.
“City council is just the beginning,” he tells Beverly Hope (Adina Porter). “Then it’s state Senate. Then Congress. Followers in the millions–tens of millions–and then, as we have seen, anything is possible.”
“As we have seen,” as in, as Trump’s rise has demonstrated.
Kai is intensely empathetic, a trait you don’t normally see in a villain. He’s incredibly good at sensing people’s pain, whether he’s observing a trainer at the gym or a newscaster on TV. He sees that pain, and he exploits it to make people loyal to him.
Dr. Alexandra Stein, a former cult member who now studies and writes about cults, outlined her five-point definition of what constitutes a cult in an interview with Vice’s Broadly:
“One: The leader is charismatic and authoritarian. Two: The structure of the group isolates people. The third thing is total ideology, like, ‘You only need me and no other belief system has any relevance whatsoever.” The fourth thing is the process of brainwashing.” The fifth point, she says, is the result: “creating deployable followers who will do what you say regardless of their own self survival interests.”
Yup, that all describes Kai pretty well. Clearly AHS mastermind Ryan Murphy and the show’s other writers did their homework.
It’s safe to posit at this point that nearly every character on American Horror Story: Cult besides Sarah Paulson’s Ally is under Kai’s spell, including the neighbors, the reporter, the detective, the grocery store clerk, Billie Lourd’s Winter, and yes, even Ally’s wife, Alison Pill’s Ivy. The paranoia that everyone is against you is playing out on the screen. But the really fascinating thing about “11/9” was seeing how Kai attracted these disciples in the first place, different as they are.
Trump’s victory empowered Kai Anderson. It taught him that anything is possible, because fear motivates all people. Fear can explain why liberals afraid of Hillary’s establishment ties, like Ally, cast their ballot for Jill Stein, and why people who voted for Obama in 2012 “switched sides” and cast for Trump. In that fear, Kai sees opportunity.
“The world has become tiny, which means the fear in a small town in Michigan can infect the country–the world–in a few days,” he tells Beverly. “When fear finds more hosts, it gets stronger, scarier. The tiny fear in one woman turns into a beast that swallows the world by the time it spreads across the country. Great men and women have been weaponizing fear forever, but what all those men had was a great messenger. Someone with a pulpit and a microphone–someone to give that fear a name. Believe me, Beverly Hope, if you get the world scared enough, they will set the world on fire for us.”
Every character we saw Kai recruit in “11/9” was afraid–of losing their jobs and homes, of being crushed by an uncaring society, of their rights being stripped away, or of being humiliated. The one character who didn’t seem scared was pre-election Ally, so confident in the polls and the good sense of her fellow citizens. Why bother leaving the comfort of the couch to join the crowds? Why not cast your protest vote, when your side’s victory is a lock? It’s hard to imagine the worst possible outcome when you’re comfortable and unafraid.
Maybe that’s why Kai’s clown cult is doing all this to her–harassing her, stalking her, gaslighting her, isolating her, and making her feel insane. Ally is going to drown in her fear, and I’d bet that by the end she’ll be Kai’s most devoted follower.
Fear crosses party lines, breaks down walls, and reveals the basest nature in us all. That’s American Horror Story: Cult‘s grim worldview, and I’m finding it difficult to argue with.
Chaz Bono’s character, the p***y-grabbing store clerk Gary, put it best, his blood-spurting stump raised high in the polling place: “Welcome to Trump’s American, motherf***ers!”
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