How Trump Won: Heroes, Villains and Surviving the Apocalypse
I argue that to understand the appeal of President Trump one has to appreciate the political world he has forged with his supporters – which is a combination of cultural imagery, narrative and metaphorical world-building.
In short, the cultural ‘furniture’ that the Trump frame/world rests on can be found in aspects of fantasy and science fiction art which is now dominant in Western culture. More specifically, the Trump political narrative (and world) is built on cultural framing related to conflict and it includes a complex cast of heroes and villains, which is heavily dependent on a long-established tropes in comic books, graphic novels, movies and video games.
In the following analysis, I am attempting to make two arguments:
- President Trump evokes a ‘conflict/survivalists’ frame to attract and retain supporters.
- Art, through culture (in this case, geek/nerd culture), creates political worlds and heavily influences real-world political action.
To support these arguments, I will describe how conflict is framed and then animate this general discussion with specific examples, such as Frank Miller’s 300 and Arthurian legend related to President John F. Kennedy. Finally, I will attempt to cast the Trump survivalists frame in the context of fantasy/sci fi tropes.
Political Conflict and Cultural Framing
Conflict relies on cultural imagery to cast heroes and villains. To make war (the most extreme form of conflict), like any dark tale, requires the artful presentation of the saviour and the oppressed, or the trope of protection from a looming evil. Von Clausewitz (2006) famously quipped, “War is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means” (p. 252). I would add that war is an aspect (or outcome) of charged imagery. States go to war not based on rational decision-making models, it is the irrational (therefore human) response to one’s own imagery as the hero and the acceptance of the casting of the other as the enemy. The claim a political leader can make the decision to send their country to war outside of a cultural frame or imagery is false.
The imagery of conflict looks surprisingly similar whether it is interpersonal, in a community, or at the national or international level. In all cases, someone is trying to frame the other as the threat and themselves (or an ally) as the hero/remedy. The framing in this case, like all framing, attaches to pre-existing narratives. What we intimately know as good and bad/ evil and just must be activated in order for the framing of the other and the self to take hold. This is not a one-way process, a collectivity may reject the whole or part of the conflict-related imagery, indeed, this is often the case.
The effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the framing depends on the craft, design and insight of the framing invoked. Attempts to frame another as a threat may be rejected if it just doesn’t “feel” right. This is true in fiction and primary world social relations as both operate from the same artistic premise. A feeling we have toward an estranged uncle may present itself in the doubt we have toward a national political leader or even toward an entire collectively. A skilled politician will attempt to cast a political opponent in the context of framing we already know. The hope here is to draw a connection, possibly false but no less effective as an image, between two seemingly unrelated figures. For example, Hillary Clinton, in the early 2000s, would refer to her Republican rival Vice-President Dick Cheney as Darth Vader.
In a conflict scenario, those involved are always battling framing being launched in their direction, whether they acknowledge this or not is irrelevant. Indeed, allowing an opponent free reign to build metaphorical frames as they see fit usually results in their triumph. In formal debating, this is allowing your opponent to define the terms of the debate, but imagery is more than a mere turn of phrase in a dictionary, powerfully controlling the term of reference in a debate is to evoke an artistic uptake of the term – we know it, ‘cause we feel it. As Lakoff (2011) famously noted, “metaphors can kill” (p. 1).
Let’s linger on a specific example from a contemporary graphic novel as a narrative which relies on political conflict to energize its frame. An interesting example of the power of visual imagery appears in the work of eminent graphic novelist Frank Miller’s 300, originally published in 1998 (Miller & Varley, 1998/2006). At some level this artwork relates to the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) which occurred during the second Persian invasion of Greece. At this battle, a superior force of Persians was met by various Greek military units featuring Spartans, Thespians and Thebans. The battle lasted a few days and eventually the Greeks were overrun and slaughtered almost to a person.
However, Miller’s graphic novel follows more closely the trope in the 1962 20th Century Fox film The 300 Spartans, which casts this tale as a small group of Spartan soldiers (300) attempting to defend their freedom against an indomitable empire employing slave-soldiers. To tell his tale, Miller does not give us a literal history lesson of the Battle of Thermopylae, but he employs a harsh palette of black and grey drawings accented with hues of blood-red, earthy brown and bronze yellow. His drawing is stark as his figures are rendered almost entirely in shadow, with fierce features cut through with jagged spear and sword edges. The Greek landscape he depicts is far removed from one you would find in a tourism brochure; Miller’s Greece is almost entirely barren of vegetation with mountains and plains rendered in moody darks more reminiscent of a moonscape than a Mediterranean paradise.
Miller’s writing is less inspiring than his visuals, his characters speak in unencumbered prose, mostly shouting slogans about glory in battle. The 2007 Zack Snyder film, 300, which the graphic novel inspired (Frank Miller was the executive producer) follows Miller’s visual style closely, giving the film almost a graphic-novel-on-screen feel (Nunnari, Canton, Goldmann, Silver & Snyder, 2007). To a person, the Spartans are depicted with idealized male muscle structure (everyone has six-pack abs), men enter battle in loin cloths, a spear, shield and helmet and little else. Meanwhile, the Persians wear a variety of costumes into battle and were often wearing make-up and long, flowing dark robes. The King of the Persians, Xerxes,is portrayed as an effeminate god-man, appearing almost naked with a variety of body piercings and tattoos. The Spartan King, Leonidas, derides the Persian soldiers as “boy-lovers” and clearly shows contempt for the aesthetic appearance of Xerxes. This is ironic because many historians agree that ancient Sparta had institutionalized homosexual relationships into the Spartan military, it is almost certain that an actual Leonidas would have had many “boy-lovers” in his lifetime. In contemporary society having boy-lovers is appropriately a serious crime, but in historical context a Spartan king would not likely have criticized such behaviour.
The overriding theme in both the book and film is acute, visceral violence – scores of soldiers on both sides are shown being hacked limb from limb with showers of blood racing across the screen almost continually from the point the battle is joined. Also, Miller moves closer to a fairy-story frame, the enemies the Spartans face are not just human, for example, the Persian King is a form of wizard who is able to summon a host of other worldly beasts to serve in his military. His army is populated with wraith-like warriors, ogres and some form of sirens, with a variety of other fantastical creatures. Employing these types of magical characters combined with his unique drawings certainly evokes a faerie realm of its own. Indeed, Miller is not concerned with historical accuracy and it seems clear that he is telling a story designed to activate a specific set of values, and, I imagine, he wants to entertain his audience.
The 300 film and book have been both praised and criticized for being a conservative (ideologically) film. Miller’s story glorifies male military prowess, and showcases military discipline, loyalty and skill. Although the Spartans are supposedly fighting to preserve their democratic freedom, the military command structure is rigidly hierarchical – ending with King Leonidas whose soldiers are sworn to follow his every command. The right-wing magazine, National Review, praised this film as one of the best conservative films of the last twenty-five years (NR Symposium, 2009). The graphic novel also won three Eisner awards.
As I noted earlier, this work has been criticized for its historical inaccuracy and for its support of conservative and pro-military values. However, one critic makes a point well worth exploring in the context of cultural imagery: in response to the claim that 300 would create a wider following for conservative causes Newsday critic Gene Seymour (2007) observed that “the movie’s just too darned silly to withstand any ideological theorizing” (para. 3). Yet, Seymour’s critique of visual art as narrative risks missing the point, 300’s power comes from its visual language and the very thing Seymour may find silly is what helps many others form a mental picture of what it is to be male, a leader and a soldier.
This is a tale about loyalty, leadership and discipline in the face of certain defeat and it is told largely through arresting drawing and painting. There is a common bias in the academy and journalism favouring word over picture: the belief seems to be that weak prose trumps (forgive me) strong visuals – I contend it is not that simple; to fail to grasp the power of a picture in film and books is to fail to grasp the influence of movies like Star Wars (which is never to compete with Shakespeare for dramatic prose but surpasses many other films for its visual sophistication).
300 is in the company of excellent graphic novels and films for its strong visual production, the imagery lingers in the mind’s eye and can embed itself into the cultural framework in a way that overcomes the weakness of the prose. In fact, it is helpful in some cases not to have too many words competing with the visuals when creating a powerful narrative and world-building.
I contend that the Trump administration’s imagery relies on the narratives which evoke the politics of conflict, expressed in artworks like 300. The following section on Kennedy and Arthurian legend builds my analysis by adding another example of how a real-world politician is linked to a narrative in the fictive realm; and the section on “Trump’s Frame” will further link Trump’s image/ world with conflict-narratives apparent in contemporary fantasy and sci-fi art.
Kennedy and Camelot
The ability of a president to cast themselves (with help from others) in a narrative as a hero did not start with Donald Trump. For example, President John F. Kennedy is interesting in that he is one of the more powerful examples of how a real-world politician became reimaged through a fairy-tale fiction. On Dec. 6, 1963, one week following his Dallas assassination by a sniper in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy arranged an interview with Life magazine writer, Theodore H. White. The article is a graphic account of the last moments of the President’s life but the First Lady insisted on including references to the mythical realm of Camelot and her now famous quotation: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot…there’ll be great presidents again … but there will never be another Camelot” (White, 1963, para. 13-14).
With the assassination fresh in the public’s mind, the Camelot references stuck. The image of Camelot, and all the enchantment it entailed became embedded in the lore of the Kennedy administration. This seems to have been Mrs. Kennedy’s intent. As noted in White’s memoir, In Search of History: A Personal Adventure (1978), she did not want “…Jack left to the historians” (p. 520).
It is difficult to find an interpretation of the Kennedy presidency following his death which does not make some reference to Camelot. Indeed, the image she evoked in this article is still with us. For example, Stratford (2013) explains that “It’s almost embarrassingly easy for a modern historian to record facts, but mythology is still in there, mucking up the works. People latch onto Camelot, much more than either Kennedy the man, or the politician” (para. 4). Stratford (2013) seems to lament this linkage observing “Camelot keeps us from the whole story. He, and we, deserve better” (para. 10). But the image of Camelot does not obscure the Kennedy presidency – it offers a powerful frame within which to experience his presidential legacy, and shows the insight of Mrs. Kennedy that her husband’s legacy needed protection from the historians, political scientists and journalists. The Arthurian shield-wall was up to the task.
The Arthurian legend is not to be equated with a single narrative stream; over the centuries, this fiction has been re-framed many times. It seems to have begun in 1138 with Geoffrey of Monmith’s Historia Requm Britanniae, and has been retold in the poetry of Chrétiens de Tryes, Marie de France, Thomas Malory, Alfred Lord Tennyson and others.
In addition, the Arthurian legends are supported by powerful visual imagery. For example, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King was published in the 19th century with the masterful etchings of Gustave Dore, which often overshadow the text evoking an emotional connection with the viewer. In addition, art history is replete with artists who reference the legend, including the Pre-Raphaelites, Edmund Blair Leighton, William Morris,Edward Burne-Jones and the later British Romantic, J.W. Waterhouse.
In the 1960s, the Arthurian myth was experiencing a revival in American culture with such works as T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Disney’s animation The Sword in the Stone, and the 1960 Lerner and Lowewe Broadway musical Camelot. Indeed, Mrs. Kennedy’s “one brief shining moment” reference comes directly from the musical – a show she tells us was one that President Kennedy loved. The comparison was direct, believable and perfectly timed. It is important to note that the comparison is not literal. For the image to take hold, it has to evoke similar feelings, but not the exact details of the story. Jack and Jackie Kennedy entered The White House in the 1960s as a handsome and youthful couple full of optimism and ended in tragedy, not unlike the meta theme of King Arthur which evokes the courage of brave characters dying for causes. The Camelot musical featured an impressive cast starring Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, Robert Goulet and Roddy McDowall – movie and stage stars of their time known for their skill, beauty and elegance as performers.
Little imagination is needed to see that both John and Jaqueline Kennedy could have themselves been cast in this musical if appearance and style were the primary criteria. Both the world of journalism and academia deal primarily with text, which may often be blind to the power of visual imagery. Jackie Kennedy as a one-time photo journalist herself clearly had an understanding of the power of imagery to frame a narrative. She must have understood that President Kennedy and she looked the part, which gave physical substance to the Camelot comparison. This point was made artfully in the movie Jackie, when the main character, Mrs. Kennedy (Natalie Portman) observed in one scene, “I believe the characters we read on the page become more real than the men who stand beside us” (Larraín, Aronofsky, Liddell, Franklin, & Larraín, 2016, 1:29:44).
Finally, Manchester (1983), a member of the Kennedy entourage, makes my point well in his published reflections on President Kennedy and Camelot:
Actually, of course, there never was a Camelot. It exists only in legend. But that does not discredit it. Legends cannot be measured by dialectic…If you dismiss them as lies, however, you would not only offend those who cherish them; you would also be wrong. (p. 273)
President Kennedy has become a legend through the wisdom of his widow who was able to frame his legacy through Arthurian myth. I posit that President Trump is now imaged through a similar process, but he is being linked to a different myth: what I term the populist, survivalist frame.
“Forget policies and plans, just enrapture them in a tale. One that starts in hatred and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.”
– Andres Miguel Rondón, How to let a populist beat you, over and over again, 2017
Donald Trump offers an opinion on artistic imagery in the “Introduction” of his 2004 book, Trump: Think like a Billionaire: Everything You Need to Know About Success, Real Estate and Life that merits analysis in relation to imagery. Trump writes:
We are all drawn to beauty, whether it’s the allure of a person or the elegance of a home. Whenever I’m making a creative choice, I try to step back and remember my first shallow reaction. The day I realized it can be smart to be shallow was, for me, a deep experience. (Trump & McIver, 2004, xxii)
This may suggest that Trump has a simplified, if not vacuous, approach to creative projects. Certainly, in the 2016 presidential election, his opponents made much of his tendency to over-simplify complex issues. However, Trump may have discovered an important ingredient of imagery. If you remove the word ‘shallow’ and replace it with immediate for example, then knowing takes second place to feeling. Political pundits have framed visceral, felt responses as irrational and unsophisticated; but for political imagery to be effective it has to be felt and work instantly, and it appears that Trump may understand this fundamental premise of the power of imagery.
What should be recalled is that cultural imagery may serve any ideological or political agenda.
As one of my students remarked during a seminar on the appeal of the first Obama presidential campaign, his campaign goal, in her words, was to make us “fall in love” with him. Indeed, the process one experiences during a first date may be more apt a description than any rational measure of a political campaign. As the public policy professor, David Gergen (2016) states in attempting to understand the Trump campaign’s success “…in politics, emotions count as much as math” (para. 13).
What President Trump was able to partially build, with the help of his audience, is a world where they have political power (Trump and his supporters). He lumbered on to the stage sporting a garish red ball-cap (but an endearing symbol to the everyman), promising a new realm where he and his tribe have agency, aided through the call and response of: ‘lock her up’, ‘drain the swamp’ and ‘make America great again’ – all necessary for this frame to be activated for this world.
The image was technically built through a camera lens and social media (Twitter) but its primary forge was a culture prepared to accept a revolutionary message. No imagery can flourish without some fertile cultural/artistic soil, and an energized group (aggregate of interests) ready to receive and shape it. Trump recognized this frame and was able to exploit it.
In popular culture, the United States is brimming with narratives which cast the marginalized as heroes and state actors and institutions as corrupt and incompetent. It is based in anger and fear, but does offer a route to empowerment for a significant group who feel marginalized. I term it the survivalist narrative, at its core it offers a hero who knows the ‘truth’, he (usually a ‘he’ but not always) sees the weakness in society and its inability to see the coming apocalypse. In this narrative, the hero endures the destruction of society and then emerges as one with the skills and the mind-set to survive. Dominant films and graphic novels help build and sustain this narrative through exemplary artistic skill: MAD MAX: Fury Road, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones all contribute to sustaining this frame, as they all produce protagonists who struggle against world-changing political violence and overcome it with a survivalist response: cope with the environment, and respond with deadly violence fuelled by vengeance.
Even popular culture superheroes have moved from supporters of the government (i.e. the rule of law) to the survivalist narrative. One potent example is Frank Miller’s Batman, through this retelling of the Batman trope the dark knight becomes a brutal vigilante who openly challenges state authority, exposes corruption in public officials and offers frequent examples of victor’s justice through maiming and even murdering opponents he defeats.
There are also some examples where women take the role of vigilante-n-chief in a post-apocalyptic world (or one which is looming) including: Stella Oleson (Kiele Sanchez) in 30 Days of Night: Dark Days and Alice (Milla Jovovich) in the Resident Evil series.
This narrative/world is also expressed in numerous video games titles, such as the Fallout, Gears of War and the DayZ franchises (just to name a few).
The survivalist narrative is robust but vague, government is the enemy but it is cast in shadowy conspiracies with some kind of elusive evil working behind the scenes – e.g. the smoking man in The X-Files, and The Darkness in Supernatural. The narrative even extends to religious texts, for example The Book of Revelation in The Holy Bible forecasts a coming apocalypse triggered by an ancient evil who exploits corrupt political institutions.
In the context of this frame a survivalist is armed with ready answers supplied by their numerous heroes in artistic media, and maybe supported by real world military training and experience with deep woods camping. The whole frame has numerous entrance portals and can support the fictive narratives of a multitude of participants – you just need to feel like an outsider who thinks their abilities and values are underappreciated, combined with a view that the political system is seemingly unresponsive, corrupt and unable to protect those it rules.
Ultimately, this narrative is based on the value of protection: the survivalist deems the state should be a vehicle for offering protection for them and their families – if the counter -narrative is offered that the state serves others’ interests and lacks the ability to shield one from foreign powers and domestic ‘criminals’ then the soil is ripe for a fictive creation where a ‘strongman’ leader rises to take power – Trump’s strongman/outsider stance makes sense in this world, indeed it is deeply desired.
Art is Politics…
Art makes culture and culture creates politics. Geek/nerd culture presented in comic books, video games and movies is a powerful force in shaping frames, narratives and worlds. The Trump team has carved out an aspect of this world and has been able to occupy the survivalist trope so adroitly that it has led to unexpected political success for him. Not unlike how President Kennedy has been linked to Camelot, President Trump is being linked to the outsider, ‘survivalist’ narrative. Once a leader’s image has been enmeshed into a compelling narrative they are on the path to becoming a legend. And legends are insulated from a certain amount of political criticism and are afforded real power while in office.
However, it is important to make the point that if you like the artistic media I’ve mentioned above that does not necessarily mean you are a Trump supporter, there is not a direct causal relationship between one and the other. Culture is dynamic and subtle; the human imagination is complex and frames and narratives interface with each other in numerous ways which cannot easily be captured through an empirical method. However, through careful observation, patterns and themes may be gleaned and connections made between art/fiction and primary world politics. In the last analysis, the stories we make and share are important and impact all aspects of social life in ways that neither artist nor audience can fully predict or control.
- I thank Drs. Diane Piccitto, James Sawler and Anna Smol for their advice and editorial assistance with this manuscript.
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