Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump, Part 1: The Penguin!
The most striking thing about the rise of Donald Trump has been how unreal it all seems — as if a cartoon character has come to life, defying all laws of political gravity (and maybe even physical gravity) to surge to the top of the polls, leading a major national party in the presidential race.
And so, we wish to introduce the first of a new series of posts, examining all the ways that fictional characters and popular entertainment figures have predicted the coming of The Donald. Some of them will be direct parodies of Trump, others will have predated him by decades — all of them are totally absurd, but no more absurd than Trump himself.
Our first villainous template for The Donald will actually come from long before he ever hit the scene in American culture, but who, we think, captures his nature so perfectly: The Penguin, as portrayed masterfully by Burgess Meredith on the classic 1960s Batman TV show.
You may recall that throughout the 2000s, Jon Stewart had a lot of fun on The Daily Show comparing then-Vice President Dick Cheney to The Penguin — based largely on their physical resemblance, especially the uncanny similarities between Cheney’s sneer out of one side of his mouth and the visage of Meredith’s laughing while using a fancy cigarette holder. However, I wish to argue here that it is Trump, not Cheney, who embodies the true spirit of “the pompous, waddling Master of Fowl Play.”
Meredith perfectly captured the nature of this long-running comic book character, originally co-created in 1941 by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane. With his tuxedo, top hat, monocle, and umbrella, The Penguin’s villainy is almost secondary to his emotional need to flaunt himself around — so that everyone will think he’s high-class and respectable. But in reality he’s just an obnoxious, trashy criminal — and the more high-class he tries to be, the more obnoxious and trashy he really gets.
In the 1966 summer theatrical release, Batman: The Movie, The Penguin led a secret plot with three other super-criminals. Unfortunately, the conspiracy couldn’t stay very secret, due in part to his egomaniacal need to emblazon his name on everything. For instance, when he purchased a “pre-atomic” submarine through a dummy account, he did so under the name “P.N. Guin,” making it easy for the World’s Greatest Detective to determine his involvement. And of course, he didn’t stop there: He then decorated the submarine with a garish penguin theme of a beak, eyes, flippers, and webbed feet. (Sound like anyone else?)
But the true apex of the Master of Fowl Play’s self-regard came soon afterward, during the fall TV season of 1966: The Penguin ran for mayor of Gotham City, on a campaign fueled entirely by his celebrity, public ostentation, and his vicious attacks on Batman. (The plot line would later be recycled for the darker, Tim Burton-directed movie Batman Returns, featuring Danny DeVito — but this author is quite partial to the original telling.)
The campaign was a parody of Republican nominee Barry Goldwater’s run in 1964, as The Penguin’s rally scene was full of stereotypical hallmarks of Goldwater supporters: young, blond Goldwater/Penguin Girls, little old ladies in tennis shoes, and proto-Tea Partiers dressed up in Revolutionary War costumes. (In this case, it was the rock band Paul Revere & The Raiders, for whom the Revolutionary garb was a counter-culture gimmick of their act.)
But here, The Penguin outdid Goldwater through sheer ego, passing out champagne and yelling such statements as, “Hooray for me!” And he put a new spin on one of Barry’s classic lines: What was once, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” The Penguin simply renders as: “Extremism in defense of vice, moderation in pursuit of virtue!”
In one scene, this megalomaniac waxed to the Dynamic Duo about his change of career: “Politics is wonderful! I can use all my lowest, slurpiest tricks — but now they’re legal. Oh! I should’ve been a politician years ago.”
And in the candidate’s debate with the Caped Crusader, The Penguin pledged there would be “no mudslinging” in the campaign — saying that the blame for any negativity would rest with his opponents. (Compare this with Donald Trump’s repeated insistence that his opponents and the media treat him “fairly,” when very often all they are doing is questioning him on his actual positions, statements, and record in public life.)
The Penguin’s proclivity for demonizing all of his opponents — independent of any actual facts — is also a harbinger of the current GOP frontrunner’s tendencies. Observe how The Penguin pivoted from his call for a clean campaign to then declare that underneath that mask, Batman must really be a dangerous criminal!
The Penguin announces:
Whenever you’ve seen Batman, who is he with? Criminals!!! That’s who. You look in the old newspapers — every picture of Batman shows him with thugs, and with thieves, and hobnobbing with crooks. Whereas my pictures show me always surrounded — by whom?! By the police.
…Now, which man do you want to run Gotham City? A man like myself — who is always in the company of the law?! Or a man like Batman, who rubs elbows with the worst elements of this city, and who is undoubtedly a desperate criminal himself? Think about it — without rancor! And remember this: No mudslinging in this campaign!!!
This most certainly calls to mind (among other outbursts) Trump’s truly nasty attacks upon Ben Carson’s character — comparing the good doctor to a serial child molester who can only be cured by castration. We can even see shades of Batman’s failed rebuttal, with his attempt to use logic and reason against a purely emotional attack, in Carson’s own flat response to such vicious depredations on his character.
Also observe the villain’s pronouncement to Robin the Boy Wonder, after he had signaled for his campaign goons to strong-arm the TV control room and blast The Penguin campaign jingle over Batman’s attempt to speak: “Tut-tut, Wonder Midget! Can I help it if I have enthusiastic fans?! Besides, now the voters won’t be bored to death by Batman’s babble!”
Watching Meredith’s performance, you might get a sense of déjà vu here. First of all, his low blow about the voters being “bored to death by Batman’s babble” evokes Trump’s charge against “low energy” Jeb Bush — as if voters merely want their elected officials to entertain them.
See, for example this Web video by the Trump campaign: “Jeb — For All Your Sleeping Needs.”
A video posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on
But far more chilling than that, The Penguin’s line about “enthusiastic fans” also bears a stark resemblance to what Trump said this past August, after two men were arrested in Boston for allegedly beating a homeless Hispanic man. As recounted by The Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker:
After they were arrested, one of them admiringly quoted his political hero. “Donald Trump was right; all these illegals need to be deported,” Scott Leader said.
Obviously, Trump isn’t personally responsible for the alleged behavior of two men in another state. But his reaction to hearing of the alleged beating of a Hispanic man was hardly worthy of a candidate for the Oval Office.
“It would be a shame… I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.” [emphasis added]
Decades before there was a name for it, The Penguin exhibited a penchant for masterful trolling. When he thought he was about to win, he called up Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara (who had been involved in drafting Batman into the race) to trash-talk them about how he would be their new boss — and would appoint his fellow miscreants, The Riddler and The Joker, to replace them. The phone call was necessary — perhaps because Twitter hadn’t been invented yet.
But there is also moral consolation in this Batman tale: Despite leading in the polls right up through election day, ultimately The Penguin lost the race. Once voters got into the booth, they just wouldn’t cast their ballots for this dastardly villain.
“There have been other candidates who have trusted too much in the polls,” Batman said proudly. “And they found out, it’s the votes that count. Smart politicians trust the voters, not the polls. After all, if you can’t trust the voters — whom can you trust?”
Batman, as was his plan, resigned the office immediately and handed it back to the previous mayor. (This does kind of make you wonder how trustworthy he really was!) But he then suddenly had to turn down new offers from both of the major national parties, all of whom wanted him to run for president as their candidate in 1968.
Certainly, many political observers have been hoping that Trump-mania would subside — that the public will get serious about the race as the actual primaries and caucuses approach, and they’ll look to another candidate.
Will the United States be as fortunate, and its electorate ultimately as wise, as Gotham City?
As we shall see in our new series “Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump,” The Penguin is just one of several pop culture precursors for Donald Trump.