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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I know, weird question, but I’m not the one asking it. I count a dozen commentators in the last year who think Trump deserves spandex and a cape.

Neal Gabler may have started it in a Reuters headline last July: “Donald Trump is a superhero—but not in good way.” Trump was just rising in the polls back then, and Gabler saw how effectively he was combining politics and entertainment, specifically “comic-book superhero narratives”:

“We live in the age of Iron Man, where an irrepressible, indomitable smart-aleck, able to verbally and physically parry just about anything, is the exemplar…. Trump has gained a following because he understands the power of the superhero narrative, which he has adapted to his campaign. In the superhero era, Trump recognizes that a sizeable chunk of the public is seeking a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoner, politically incorrect avenger who channels their grievances and runs roughshod over their opponents.”

Though Gabler argued Trump and his supporters actually detests democracy, Trump liked the superhero comparison. A few weeks later in August he told a kid: “Yes, I am Batman.” He was giving kids free rides on his helicopter during the Iowa State Fair. Trump didn’t bring his batcopter to the first GOP debate in October, but moderator John Harwood still asked: “Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?”

Come January, Joe Vince reversed the question, asking: “Does Threatening to Sue a Superhero Make Donald Trump a Supervillain?” That was old news though. A caricature of Trump had appeared in an issue of New Avengers back in 2008. He was an “obnoxious, limo-riding bad guy” who threatened to sue Luke Cage for moving the limo out of the way of an ambulance. That same month Globe columnist Scot Lehigh declared that “After keeping his superhero side a secret, Mr. Trump finally revealed [his] impressive alter ego”: “The Incredible Sulk.”

Image result for donald trump superhero

February things got serious. First Judge Michael Carter wrote “America In Search Of A Superhero: Explaining The Rise Of Donald Trump,” repeating Gabler’s comparison to Iron Man:

“Trump closely mirrors the movie adaptation of Marvel Comic’s character Tony Stark, better known as Iron Man. Stark is portrayed as an outspoken, brash, headstrong, single-minded, unapologetic, tough-as-nails, super wealthy celebrity, with a giant ego and playboy tendencies…. And Iron Man isn’t the only superhero Donald Trump is channeling. There is a lot of Captain America in his appeals to patriotism, his kick-in-the-door approach to dealing with ISIS (or is it HYDRA?), his yearning for a simpler time.”

Carter also compared Bernie Sanders to Spider-Man, but the superhero comparison only stuck for Trump. Two weeks later, New Republic posted Jeet Heer’s “Donald Trump, Superhero,” explaining how “The Republican frontrunner has fashioned himself after comic-strip champions and masked crusaders.” Quoting Trump’s “I am Batman” quip, Heer concluded:

“This might seem like a typical Trumpian boast, but the moment was revealing. Trump’s political appeal is based in no small part on the way he fulfills a certain ideal of heroic masculinity that was created in popular culture. Trump is indeed a type of Batman: To his fans, he, like Bruce Wayne, is a brash, two-fisted billionaire playboy who uses his wealth to fight against a corrupt system.”

Three days later New York Times commentator David Brooks likened Trump to “some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way” because his

“supporters aren’t looking for a political process to address their needs. They are looking for a superhero. As the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams found, the one trait that best predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter is how high you score on tests that measure authoritarianism.”

The superhero rhetoric peaked in March, with four new commentaries.  Ralph Benko asked: “Donald Trump, on Super Tuesday, proved he had superpowers. But Superhero or Supervillain?” concluding that “A plurality of voters see him as a Superhero.” Nicholas Ballasy interviewed Niger Innis, the national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, who said “a ‘superhero’ Republican presidential nominee would be a combination of Sen. Ted. Cruz (R-Texas) and Donald Trump.” V. Saxena noted that “Bill O’Reilly Kind of Implied that Trump Is a Superhero.” “There are enough Republican voters,” said the Fox News host, “who want an avenger and they’re going to vote for the avenger no matter what happens.” Annika ended the primary month declaring to The Guardian readers: “America’s need for superheroes has led to the rise of Donald Trump,” because “US national culture too often celebrates the swift, brutal justice embodied in the comic-book ideal, leaving a country divided and cinematic heroes at each other’s throat.”

Then the superhero chatter died down a bit with Trump’s competitors. Though unimpressed with the primary results, Kate Andrews did tell her Telegraph readers in May: “America deserves a better superhero than Donald Trump.” Reversing the comparison,  Charles Pulliam-Moore explained Marvel’s new HYDRA-hailing Captain America as a product of our political times:

“Now, more than ever, white people feel as if they are more discriminated against and that they’re gradually being edged out of the workforce by people of color. Marvel probably isn’t trying to invite direct comparisons between Donald Trump and a Nazi supervillain, but their characterization of young, listless white men getting caught up in the idea that the Other has somehow made their lives objectively worse has roots in reality.”

A couple of weeks before the Republican National Convention, Huffington Post’s Leo W. Gerard declared Trump a “Superhero to Billionaires,” “a hero to the diamond-encrusted-penthouse-door coterie for his plan to turn the United States into a fiefdom in which billionaires rule for the benefit of billionaires.”

After Trump was officially nominated, Conan O’Brien debuted “Captain Make America Great Again,” but it’s Trump who played the superhero card during his acceptance speech. “I am the law and order candidate,” he said, promising that “safety will be restored.” Our nation is “at a moment of crisis,” with “our very way of life” threatened,” and “I alone can fix it.”

The next morning, David Brooks re-dubbed him “The Dark Knight,” declaring (in a “super-scary movie trailer voice”):

“Welcome to a world in which families are mowed down by illegal immigrants, in which cops die in the streets, in which Muslims rampage the innocents and threaten our very way of life, in which the fear of violent death lurks in every human heart. Sometimes in that blood-drenched world a dark knight arises. You don’t have to admire or like this knight. But you need this knight. He is your muscle and your voice in a dark, corrupt and malevolent world.”

If a superhero in the White House sounds like a good idea, consider comics legend Alan Moore’s take on the genre: “I don’t think the superhero stands for anything good.” Moore told an interviewer that superheroes “were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine-to-13-year-old audience.” But since all they do nowadays is entertain thirty- to sixty-year-old “emotionally subnormal” men, Moore considers superheroes “abominations” and their continuing dominance “culturally catastrophic.”

Moore lives in the UK, and so won’t be voting here in the general election, but fellow comics legend Howard Chaykin agrees with him. “I believe that superhero comics are by nature children’s fiction,” he told a New York audience:

“The idea of a man or woman dressing up in these goofy outfits and going out and fighting crime is absurd…. Batman, at its core, is about a guy that had a bad day when he was eight, and we’ve been paying for it ever since. He’s a guy who, with his billions of dollars, instead of investing in the public sector and private sector, uses all of his million dollars to buy bondage outfits and really cool things to beat the shit out of people that he doesn’t know but knows are bad because that’s the way they look. Like Jews in Germany.”

That’s probably not the Batman the kid at the Iowa State Fair had in mind when he asked Trump about his secret identity. But is it the Batman we could end up with in November?

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