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Whether or not you agree with his policies, could President Trump actually be a superhero? According to Professor Jason Dittmer, comic hero Captain America has much to tell us about the White House’s current inhabitant.

Illustrations acquie Boyd, with apologies to Lichtenstein

On 18 April 1938, the superhero genre was born. Comics company National Allied Publications published Action Comics #1, Superman’s first-ever outing. It was fun, it was colourful, it was action-packed – and it hinted at something darker. For readers on the eve of the Second World War, Superman embodied an America both repelled by and drawn to fascism.

In Europe, Hitler and Mussolini were on the rise, bringing with them dictatorship and the culture of an ideal physical race. This meshed perfectly with the very American values of the rugged individual, breaking the shackles of society and starting a new life on the frontier.

Almost 80 years later, the superhero genre is more popular than ever. And the ever-growing canon of films, spin-off TV series, books, fan fiction and the comics themselves continue to reflect the values of the society in which they were created. Comics have always been an art form on the edge: constantly just on the brink of being cancelled if they don’t sell enough, and conceived on the hoof by writers and artists with a nervous eye on the fast-approaching deadline. The result is a relentless now-ism – and is why comics are exciting. These characters mean something, and they carry baggage. But they’re flexible. They can be reinvented for new times.

Take superhero Luke Cage, currently riding high with his own TV series. He goes back a long way. In 1971, the films Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song came out, and blaxploitation was the hot new thing. The following year, Marvel Comics published Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, the first black superhero to star in his own comic. But he didn’t reach the big time until 2016, when Cage (played by Mike Colter) sprang from the printed page for the first time into his own live-action series, reinvented for the #BlackLivesMatter generation.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the age of Donald Trump and the superhero that perhaps tells us the most about his rise: Captain America. Like Luke Cage and Superman, Captain America was a product of his time, created by the US government to be a ‘super-soldier’ who could fight the Nazis. Looking at the narrative from 2018, the whole process seems rather problematic – essentially, they took a normal guy, pumped him full of drugs and turned him into a steroid-ridden freak. The all-American boy was himself a pinnacle of those darker forces, a poster boy for the eugenics movement. And Captain America has come to realise this. As he has turned against his creators, so has American society become more and more suspicious of its government. This is a narrative of government as a corrupting, evil influence that pollutes an otherwise altruistic public life.

It’s important to note that Captain America is not a pure libertarian: his anti-government views are directed at particular individuals rather than the idea of government itself. Yet in the last 10 turbulent years, the comics, and more recently the blockbuster films, have gradually moved Captain America from being the personification of authority to the leader of a resistance movement. The role of the government in these stories has gradually darkened. Now, the UN is demanding that they have the power to mobilise and deploy supergroup The Avengers, of which Captain America is the leader. The Avengers are divided. Tony Stark (alter ego Iron Man) is a multi-billionaire tech genius and ex-weapons dealer who is on the side of the government: he believes that these vast powers should be brought under control. And Captain America is implacably opposed to this – even though, in the end, he surrenders and submits to the judgment of the legal system.

See you in court After a federal judge in San Francisco blocked the President’s executive order withholding funds from sanctuary cities if they failed to comply with his immigration demands, Trump took to Twitter.

Make America great again Decades after President Reagan used the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again”, Trump registered his version, requesting exclusive rights to its use for political purposes.

We worship God A favourite of the President’s, and used at rallies up and down the country, some have been quick to point out that not all Americans worship ‘God’ in the same way Trump claims to.

It’s easy to see how this narrative fits in with Trumpian rhetoric: the little guy against the power of the state. Indeed, examining some of his speeches and tweets during the election campaign, it is clear that Trump scripted himself very much in the superheroic mould. Washington, this story ran, was broken. A hero was required who could go to Washington to fix it – or break it, if that was the only way to fix it. Trump cast himself in the role of Captain America, powering in with his shield of righteousness, the indestructible Superman. It’s a very simple, us-versus-them, Manichean, black-versus-white (sometimes literally) worldview. And I believe that it’s this swaggering way of being in the world that is key to understanding his appeal.

This simplistic narrative is hugely powerful. By putting himself at the heart of it, Trump – a very human man and not, in fact, a superhero – can get away with having actually no ‘super’ qualities at all, either of hero or villain. If he was Captain America, he’d be a superb physical specimen or a man of action. If he was a villain, he’d be the opposite: not a physically imposing figure but super-smart. He’d be the Joker, perhaps, or Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor. He’s neither. But to his supporters, that doesn’t matter.

Of course, what with the ‘bugged phones’ and the ‘secret tapes’ and the Russian hackers and the swirl of complex conspiracies and tangled family loyalties, you might reasonably argue that what’s coming out of Washington is less like a superhero film and more like a 1970 thriller. Yet perhaps our mystification as to who Trump actually is – the white hat or the black hat, hero or villain, perpetrator or patsy? – is a sign that we should look further at the way in which our systems are pushing outcomes that come to be embodied in those we like to label as heroes and villains. Because, increasingly, in the end of the second decade of the 21st century, we see everything through the superhero lens.

Over the last decade, the way that different political parties talk about each other has changed. It’s always been hostile, they have always grumbled at each other, but now that black and white view has become firmly entrenched. As media bubbles form, they sustain the views of others as being entirely antithetical to our own views. In short, it’s getting harder and harder to envision compromise – which is what our democracy tends to thrive on. We’re seeing the build-up of a tension between a political system and our cultural views.

Yet as political outcomes become ever harder to predict, looking at superhero comics to see what the future holds seems as good a method as any. Trump has yet to filter through, but it’s interesting to note that Captain America’s old enemies, the Sons of the Serpent, a group of white supremacist supervillains, made a comeback in 2015. Now they’re pushing the idea of building a wall on the Mexican border. “Until the mighty wall is built, you come here for employment which is rightfully ours!” a Son declaims to Mexican workers. “And if denied it, you seek welfare paid for by our tax dollars!” When Captain America arrives to take them on, they mock him: “Look who it is, y’all! Captain Socialism is here to save the day!”

On Twitter, in a perfect example of the way politics and superheroes are colliding, the @PresVillain account (currently at more than 45,000 followers) doctors old Red Skull pictures – Captain America’s original bad guy – and puts real-life Trump dialogue in his mouth. “To me, they’re not even people,” says the Red Skull’s son, standing with his father in front of a Nazi flag – Eric Trump’s real-life view of Democrats. Meanwhile, in Spider-Man: Homecoming, we see the perfect embodiment of the Trump supporter: Vulture, a decent, hard-working guy, forced out of business by the US government’s dark machinations, and only turning to crime to feed his family.

What, if anything, will prove to be Trump’s downfall, we wonder? He has, after all, proved us wrong time and time again. But if we’re to look again through that superhero lens, we see that every supervillain – and their henchmen – eventually get their comeuppance. Lies, impeachment, a revolt from within: we will have to wait and see which – if any – prove to be Trump’s Kryptonite.

Jason Dittmer is Professor of Political Geography and the author of Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero.

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Portico Issue 4. 2017/18