Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump, Part 3: Lex Luthor!
Welcome to the third part of our ongoing series, examining all the ways that the artistic and entertainment communities have been trying to warn America that Donald Trump (or anyone like him) was up to no good.
This installment will go into some much darker territory, as we talk about Donald Trump’s striking resemblance to one of the most notorious icons of evil in the last century of popular fiction: Lex Luthor, the great nemesis of Superman.
In 1986, DC Comics restarted the continuity of Superman nearly from scratch, with refreshed takes on all the characters. (This practice, now known as a “reboot,” has become much more common in comic book, film, and TV franchises.) The new concept of Luthor, as co-created by writer/artist John Byrne and writer Marv Wolfman, presented the arch-villain not as he had originally been conceived (as an old-time mad scientist), but a modernized villain for the 1980s and beyond: Luthor became a corporate overlord, the richest man in Metropolis, who has used his boundless genius to create (and intertwine) both legitimate businesses and vast criminal enterprises, for which he was never caught.
Even at the time, direct comparisons were sometimes drawn between Luthor and Trump with his massive ego. One such point of comparison was Luthor’s best-selling memoir, entitled Simply Brilliant. The company named all its subsidiaries after its founder — “LexAir” “LexOil,” etc. — and the LexCorp headquarters, the tallest building in Metropolis, was a monument to the man himself.
A special comic in 1989, Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography, told the tale of reporter Peter Sands, who set out to tell the true story behind the man — uncovering all of his dirty dealings and involvement in international organized crime — before ultimately being murdered by Luthor’s henchmen. The painted cover to the comic was itself a takeoff on a certain other book: The Art of the Deal.
Luthor even ran for (and was elected!) President of the United States. But this turned out to be a mere ruse for him to wait for the right opportunity to exploit a national crisis, in order to use his executive authority to take down Superman. (This caper would prove to be Luthor’s undoing, resulting in his removal from the White House and his career change — for a while — to full-time supervillainy.)
But this is not the version of Lex Luthor that I’ll be focusing on here — he’s far too suave, subtle, and charming in his interactions with the public.
Instead, the iteration of Lex Luthor that Trump most closely resembles is none other than the classic version of a mad scientist bent on destruction and world domination — most specifically, the Luthor as portrayed by Gene Hackman in the 1978 masterpiece Superman: The Movie. (In this author’s opinion, it is still the single greatest superhero movie ever made — and unlikely to ever be surpassed.)
This Luthor had all the trappings of the man we have come to know as Donald Trump: his palatially decorated headquarters, an inner circle of questionably competent yes-men (and women) — and an obsession with real estate.
“How do you choose to congratulate the greatest criminal mind of our time. Huh, huh?” this twisted mastermind asked. “Do you tell me that I’m brilliant? Oh no, no, — that would be too obvious, I grant you. Charismatic? Fiendishly gifted?”
“Try ‘twisted,'” answered his girlfriend, Miss Teschmacher (portrayed by Valerie Perrine), after he’d used his hidden gadgets and traps to kill a police officer who was trying to gain access to his secret lair.
Luthor also reminisced about how his father had taught him so much about land: “He said, ‘Son, stocks may rise and fall; utilities and transportation systems may collapse; people are no damn good. But they will always need land — and they’ll pay through the nose to get it.”
“It’s a pity that he didn’t see from such humble beginnings how I’ve created this empire,” Luthor added. This certainly does sound kind of like Trump, who has talked about how his father “gave [him] a small loan of a million dollars” — but who always tried to warn The Donald against going into Manhattan, where he would ultimately achieve his true greatness.
“An empire — this?” asked Miss Teschmacher.
“Miss Teschmacher, how many girls do you know who have a Park Avenue address like this one?”
“Park Avenue address — two hundred feet below?”
As for Luthor’s actual criminal plot: Having pondered the wisdom of “buy low, sell high,” he explained to Superman (played by the late, legendary Christopher Reeve) that the question then became a matter of figuring out how to increase the value of the land he had bought. And so, he bought up vast stretches of desert land from California’s interior, at excessively high prices. The next step: Hijack one of the U.S. military’s nuclear missiles, and shoot it directly at a precisely calculated weak point on the San Andreas fault, triggering a series of massive earthquakes.
From there, Luthor explained, the West Coast as we’ve known it would break off and fall into the sea — killing millions of people in the process. But what remained, on the eastern side of the fault line, would stand remade as “the new West Coast — my West Coast” — with all the places named after himself!
In this detail of Luthor’s map of a remodeled California coastline, we see “Costa del Lex,” “Marina del Lex,” “Lex Springs, “Lexington,” and “Luthorville.” He also named one mountainous region “Teschmacher Peaks,” in an apparent, Trump-esque nod to his lady friend’s breasts — but couldn’t stand his sub-intelligent lackey Otis (played by Ned Beatty) attempting to get in on the naming business.
But come on, it’s not like Donald Trump has some insane scheme to blow up the world, kill millions of people, and remake the globe in his own image — right?
Actually, he does. And unlike the comic book and movie villain Lex Luthor, who hid himself away in an underground lair and worked in secret, Trump has boasted of his own plan many, many times in public. And even more disturbing, he’s gotten to enjoy some revelry as the crowds cheered him on.
Here is just one example, from a rally on Nov. 13:
ISIS is making a tremendous amount of money because they have certain oil camps, right? They have certain areas of oil that they took away — they have some in Syria, some in Iraq. I would bomb the sh*t of ’em! I would just bomb those suckers. And that’s right, I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries — I’d blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left.
And you know what? You’ll get Exxon to come in there, and in two months — you ever see these guys, how good they are, the great oil companies? And they’ll rebuild that sucker brand new, it’ll be beautiful. And I’d ring it — and I’d take the oil. And I said, I’ll take the oil.
It’s one thing to talk about destroying the enemy’s industrial capacity — but Trump goes the extra mile in his plan to deploy the United States military for the direct purpose of seizing control of the Middle East’s key natural resource, on behalf of American oil companies.
This has been a fascination of Trump’s, going back years. In a tweet from 2013, The Donald mused: “I still can’t believe we left Iraq without the oil.”
I still can’t believe we left Iraq without the oil.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 23, 2013
Just like Lex Luthor, Trump views the map of countries as a plaything, to be pounded and reshaped for his own power and financial gain — whatever the cost.
If the might of the United States military were mobilized and deployed to invade the Middle East for the express purpose of seizing its oil wealth, how many people would die in that conflict? How many more would be injured and killed in the course of a long-term occupation of the oil centers? How many people in the region would become further radicalized against the United States? How much bloodshed would result from this destabilizing, imperialist adventure?
And furthermore, what would become of America’s position of leadership in the world? How would other countries respond to a United States that had become a truly rogue nation, guided by the maniacal vision of a super-villain?
In short: If Donald Trump were elected president, what would happen to “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”?
Superman could scarcely believe that Lex Luthor was attempting his own vile plan. Just as, perhaps, nobody can seem to truly taking Trump’s malevolent scheme at face value. But even if Luthor’s plan had succeeded, he would obviously have gotten caught in the aftermath, especially after putting his own name all over his newly coastal communities. One to wonder if his only real goal, if not financial gain, was simply to commit a grandiose act of mass destruction and murder.
Luthor’s plan almost worked, even to the point where an emotionally devastated Superman’s final, desperate course of action was to reverse the worst of the carnage — by actually turning back time. But if President Trump became a real-life catastrophe, we wouldn’t be able to turn back time ourselves.
At first glance, Trump might bear a closer resemblance to the corporate mogul version of Luthor, whose various authors even set out to borrow attributes from The Donald. But the more I began to research it, the conclusion became unavoidable.
Donald Trump is much more like the Gene Hackman iteration of Lex: not a cold, calculating tycoon, but a giddily insane man-child whose ego and grandiosity may seem wacky and entertaining at first, but whose moral depravity and potential for sheer mayhem make him a true danger to us all.
This is the third in our new series “Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump.”