During the 2016 campaign, some conservatives had fun comparing then-candidate Donald Trump to Batman villains. Ben Domenech would slip in a reference suggesting Trump as The Joker from Christoper Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Sonny Bunch conducted a more general survey.
I was amused, but idly wondered in passing why the comparison was not to Bane or the Joker, but to Nolan’s vision of the Batman. After all, Nolan’s Dark Knight was a generally angry, attention-seeking, and vengeful billionaire out to drain the swamp of Gotham City by striking fear into the hearts of his enemies.
Having thought less idly about it, I think I have an answer.
Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is in substantial part about the corruption of a modern society and the decline of small-l liberal institutions, particularly government. One of the themes explored in the films — particularly the end of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight — is that cultural decay breeds escalation.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker is presented as an escalation, but Alfred makes a key point to Bruce Wayne:
“Bruce Wayne: Targeting me won’t get their money back. I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.
Alfred Pennyworth: You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”
People jumped on the notion that Trump was the man the GOP didn’t fully understand, though his decades in the public eye might have informed them. In this reading, the GOP was squeezed into desperation by the leftist overreach of the Obama era.
But what if Trump was the Batman? What if Trump is the escalation? What if the Left, despite all of its long-term successes, sees the Democratic Party at its lowest ebb in a century, with the Electoral College delivering the crown jewel into the hands of no less than Donald J. Trump?
In reality, the history before the start of a particular episode is much more complex. Trump is not the first escalation. Progressives, for better and worse, aren’t into norms. But it often seems as though Trump’s fans and defenders do not want to acknowledge that he was in fact an escalation.
Indeed, Trump’s supporters often want to have their cake and eat it too. They back(ed) a man whose political point of entry was Birtherism, who condoned or encouraged violence at his rallies, and accused a rival’s father was involved in the JFK assassination, to name but a few items on his resume.
Moreover, his biggest fans did hail him as a wrecking ball to be swung against the corrupt elites of the coastal corridors. And one of the primary sources of his appeal was his unfiltered rhetoric; his fans and his votes particularly valued that “he FIGHTS!”
Trump’s supporters nominated and elected a #WAR politician. Did they really not anticipate that the swamp, the elites, would not similarly decide to escalate, would not go to war? Because one of Nolan’s lessons is that, as small-l liberal institutions sink into decline, escalation is met with escalation.
It also seems as if Trump’s supporters have failed to realize that, by riding a man who gleefully tramples norms and has little appreciation for institutions into the White House, they have largely forfeited any moral authority they may have had to demand that institutions like the bureaucracies and the establishment media play by the rules.
That forfeiture doesn’t mean that the Left’s reaction to Trump is morally just, legal, or even effective. It just means that the abandonment of norms and institutional restraints by the GOP in embracing Trump will cause people to take the more high-minded attacks on Trump’s enemies less seriously.
And this is why Trump is not the Batman. Nolan’s Batman operated outside societal norms on a tactical level, but those tactics were married toward a vision of a restored and reformed small-l liberal society.
Trump, otoh, no longer shows much interest in draining the swamp, and it’s showing up in his approval ratings. The Coiffed Crusader seems to have a difficult time even controlling his own White House.
Trump’s fans think that his O’Reilly-esque small-c conservatism is that vision of an America Made Great Again, when it looks a lot like white identity politics to others. If Trump were the Batman, he’d be seriously attacking the corrupt, sclerotic administrative state that fuels white identity politics. Instead, Trump is a figure who depends upon those politics for his political success, and perhaps now his political viability. He is a Batman with all of the fury and vengeance, but without the civic spirit.
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