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Trump’s superhero narrative is clearly laughable – but there is a sinister side to it too

The protagonists of superhero movies are always discovering that they’ve been lied to and manipulated by shadowy forces who control the world and their perceptions

Noah Berlatsky
Thursday 15 December 2022 19:29 GMT
Donald Trump has announced that he’s selling digital trading cards featuring himself
Donald Trump has announced that he’s selling digital trading cards featuring himself (Truth Social / Donald Trump)

“MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT!” former President Donald Trump blared from his social network Truth Social on Thursday morning. Trump then announced that he was releasing a Donald Trump Digital Trading Card collection (collect them all!) The cards depict Trump as a superhero. In one he stands in a Trump wrestling ring wearing a skintight costume, with flag cape, giant “T” on his chest, and rippling abs.

The superhero imagery and the crass cash grab have both provoked a wave of mockery, as you’d expect. Reporter Maggie Haberman noted that Trump at one point had wanted to be wheeled out of Walter Reed hospital with a Superman shirt under his outfit which he could pull open to reveal his good health at an opportune moment. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough laughed out loud at the cards. “We are in third grade!” he exclaimed.

Trump is and has always been ridiculous, and people pointing that out is all to the good. It is worth noting, though, that third-graders and Trump are hardly the only ones who love superhero imagery these days. On the contrary, superheroes are probably the single most popular entertainment genre in the US. The Marvel Cinematic Universe alone has released 30 films with a gross of some $25bn, which makes it the most successful cinema franchise ever.

People love superhero narratives. And I think they love them largely for the same reason Donald Trump loves them. Superhero stories are particularly blatant empowerment fantasies. They encourage audiences to marinate in feelings of extreme weakness and helplessness, and then offer them an experience of literally godlike power and perfection. The bullied transform into righteous bulliers, wreaking revenge on those who threatened and humiliated them. It’s a calibrated narrative rush.

Steve Rogers, for example, starts off as a 98-pound weakling, so skinny he looks as if his limbs are going to snap like twigs. Then he is injected with the supersolider serum and turns into Captain America, a paragon of American manhood, with rippling thews and a commanding intonation. Clark Kent is a downtrodden, bespectacled nebbish; Lois Lane scoffs at his overtures. Then he becomes Superman — and nobody scoffs at Superman. Just so did an ailing Trump imagine himself pulling open his shirt to reveal that red S, showing that he was not a sick man, but a presidential titan of health.

Secret identities are important to superhero empowerment fantasies. But so are plots. Superhero narratives always show the hero as defeated, weak, crushed, before the final apotheosis of triumph. In this year’s Black Adam, the hero is comatose underwater in a secret prison storage facility in the second act. He’s robbed of mobility and even sentience, all so he can reemerge at the crucial moment and more dramatically crush all his enemies before him.

Not infrequently, the disempowerment in superhero films is cognitive and conspiratorial. Protagonists are always discovering that they’ve been lied to and manipulated by shadowy forces who control the world and their perceptions. In Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), Captain Marvel (2019), and The Eternals (2021), the heroes learn that the good guys they thought they were fighting for are really evil. Empowerment means seeing through the corruption to the truth. And then beating the snot out of the liars of course.

As I am not the first to point out, superhero fascination with empowerment, disempowerment, and conspiracy mirrors the fascism that Trump, and MAGA, also find so congenial.

The Nazis claimed that Jewish people controlled the world, and also believed that Jewish people were weak, cowardly, and corrupt. Germany, they said, had been “stabbed in the back” and betrayed by Jews following World War I, leaving the nation vulnerable, defenseless, disempowered. The Nazi movement, according to the Nazis, was a superheroic reversal of supine disempowerment, in which Hitler revealed the truth of the Jewish conspiracy and energized the formerly inert German people.

Trump announces he’s selling digital NFT 'trading cards'

MAGA revels in similar myths. The QAnon movement, as the most extreme example, believes that the world is controlled by Satanist child abusers, with Trump the only barrier to the total victory of evil. And in general on the right, Trump is always the underdog, battling against an all-powerful Deep State and nefarious election rigging. The sense of weakness and persecution fuels Trump’s calls for extremes of violence and self-assertion. “We’re going to have to fight much harder,” Trump declared following his 2020 election loss. Statements like this directly inspired the January 6 insurrection, as often outlandishly dressed Trump partisans rioted in the capital, the stars of their own murderous empowerment fantasy.

This isn’t to say that all superhero narratives are proto-fascist or pro-Trump. The Eternals and Captain Marvel both have fairly explicit feminist messages, which Trump partisans are hardly likely to find congenial. Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) and the television series The Boys both feature deliberately Trump-like villains. Art is complicated, and superheroes can be used to tell a range of different kinds of stories.

But it’s also not exactly an accident that Trump and superheroes have risen to ascendancy in the same place at the same time. It’s easy to laugh at Trump’s transparently self-aggrandizing superhero fantasies. And everyone should laugh at them. But it’s also worth asking why currently our cultural fantasies writ large are so indebted to a Trumpian dynamic of self-pitying victimization leading inevitably to violent, flag-draped empowerment. If Trump loves superheroes so much, the rest of us might consider buying different trading cards, and telling different stories.

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