There are a lot of ways you could describe Donald Trump: Business man. Reality-television star. Republican front-runner. Vehement racist. Comic book supervillain?
Yes, the Donald may not don the garish costumes and makeup of the Joker (although one could debate about his hairpiece), but much of what he says does sound as if it could have come out of the mouth of someone about to aim a giant laser at a Gotham City bank vault.
This month, in the comics, the new Captain America battles a Trumpism-spouting supervillain-turned-free market populist. Which begs the question: Can the nation understand Trump’s ridiculous rhetoric only when it comes out of the mouth of a comic book character set on world domination? According to Marvel Comics writer Nick Spencer, it’s possible.
If you’ve been paying attention to the near-ubiquitous Avengers line of Hollywood movies over the last 10 years, you’ve gotten to know Captain America (played by Chris Evans) and, recently, his partner, the Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie). Blond-haired and blue-eyed, with a patriotic speech for every occasion, Captain America is a man out of time. A World War II veteran, he’s ready to fight Nazis, superspies and alien invaders as easily as he does corrupt bankers or polluters.
In the comic books, however, the original Captain America hands the job over to his friend and partner, the Falcon, an African American born in the ’80s, from Harlem, who lost his family to street violence. This new Captain America is battling enemies a little closer to home. He takes stands on racial issues, immigration, human traffickers and national security—moves that anger both big money and big villains. In the comics, “Black Cap” is captured by the Viper, who lectures him on the flaws of his hero ideology and lays out a speech that could be drawn right from the GOP 2016 platform.
Viper, like all good capitalists, has rebranded. While he once led a group of snake-themed crooks called the Serpent Society in the ’80s, they’re now calling themselves Serpent Solutions, offering low-cost, highly efficient “services” to big business, with plausible deniability to boot. The speech Viper gives sounds like something that Trump might spout at an Iowa rally.
According to Spencer, he wasn’t trying to call out any particular politician but instead was trying to create an amalgamation of a lot of what we’re hearing in the campaign season, which isn’t much of a stretch. Viper’s words on government regulation holding back business sound a lot like Ted Cruz. His belief that even free air ain’t free echoes Jeb Bush’s defense of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s actions during the Flint water crisis. Marco Rubio is obsessed with American exceptionalism, and just like Viper, Trump is always promising to make America “great” again (Viper says “marvelous”). Spencer sees all of this rhetoric as part of a larger problem.
“The parallels that are there come from this: Regardless of how you feel about him, Trump is clearly a very effective salesperson when it comes to selling himself,” Spencer says. “And Viper, as an ad man, would certainly learn from that. But I would also caution: I do think you could do the same speech with a supervillain on the left—it’s really more about how larger interests use political passions and fears to their own advantage.”
Historically, comic books shied away from directly addressing issues like race, class and economics, choosing fantastic allegories so as not to offend what used to be a mostly white and male readership. Want to talk about racism and integration battles in the ’60s? Create the X-Men, and have Professor X and Magneto battle as reductionist surrogates of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Want to start a conversation about the post-9/11 surveillance state? Have Captain America battle a sentient computer program trained to eliminate threats to national security. Terrorists become robots, immigrants become aliens and gay people become mutants. However, Spencer argues that Captain America, especially an African-American one, is uniquely positioned to tackle real-world ideologues and the dangers they pose.
“The character [Captain America] has a long history of that—the first issue cover [of Captain America in the ’40s] isn’t Cap punching a supervillain; it’s Cap punching Hitler. And that cover came at a time when there was still considerable debate within the United States about whether or not to get involved in World War II,” Spencer said.
The new Captain America is not having an easy job taking down the right-wing-populism-spewing supercrooks, and that’s not just because they have him tied to a chair and drugged. Part of it is because of the societal challenges he faces.
“This country has a tortured history when it comes to issues of race,” Spencer says. “The idea that it would be an easy road for an African American stepping into a role like that just didn’t feel right to me.”
Nevertheless, we all know that in the end the hero always wins, no matter how ridiculous the circumstances (like getting saved by his flying sidekick after he’s been thrown out of a 12-story window). But what works in comics may not play out that way in the real political world of the 2016 election season.
Most of what Donald Trump says is ridiculous, racist and wholly impractical for anyone serious about running this country, and it shouldn’t take a man in a rubber snake mask for most people to understand this. When we see Viper say these things in a comic book, it’s almost laughable in both its cruelty and cynicism. But when Trump says the same things, journalists and television networks give his blathering serious consideration.
In the end, like all costumed clowns, Trump will probably face the same defeat that we all know Viper and the rest of Serpent Solutions have coming to them—whether that’s at the hands of Super Rubio, the Cruz, the Sanders Man or the dynamic campaign duo of Billary Clinton. Nevertheless, it is disturbing to see that in our modern campaign environment, you can act like a crazy megalomaniac bent on world domination, but as long as you have the right sales pitch, a good costume and a willing press corps, no one will recognize you as the bad guy.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.