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Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump, Part 6: ‘President’ Al Franken!

Welcome to the sixth 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 someone like him) was up to no good.

One of the wisest political minds to analyze Donald Trump might actually be sitting in the halls of American government: Sen. Al Franken (D-MN). Why him, you might ask? Because he already wrote the book on Trump’s campaign, nearly 20 years ago.

In early 1999, Franken published his novel, Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency, a political satire in which his fictional self embarks on a presidential campaign as an obnoxious celebrity candidate.

The media first regard Franken’s campaign as a curiosity. But due to a strange confluence of events, he goes on to become the frontrunner in the race and ultimately wins the Democratic primaries and even the general election in massive landslides.

Sound familiar?

Candidate Franken's fictional (and highly dishonest) campaign autobiography. Click images to enlarge.

Candidate Franken’s fictional (and highly dishonest) campaign autobiography.
Click images to enlarge.

After actually winning the presidency, however, Franken’s disastrous term lasts only 144 days. In a scene reminiscent of the fall of President Richard Nixon, the Supreme Court rules unanimously that Franken’s personal diary is not protected by executive privilege, and he resigns in disgrace after its contents reveal, in his own words, his criminality and despicable personal character.

The book is made much funnier by the knowledge that, 10 years later, its author successfully pursued an actual career in politics. It should also be noted that Franken’s 2008 competitor, Norm Coleman, seems to have never significantly taken advantage of this novel or used excerpts of it out of context — such as the audiobook version, which was read aloud by Franken himself — a true act of campaign malpractice. One thing is clear, though: Franken forever ruined the timeless sub-genre of political comedians joking about how absurd it would be if they were to actually run for office themselves.

Franken consulted with a variety of political and media experts for the book, most notably his friend Norm Ornstein, resident scholar (and some might argue, the resident sensible liberal) at the American Enterprise Institute.

“It is true that this book has extraordinary relevance today,” Ornstein told The National Memo. “It shows how a bombastic, populist candidate can resonate with a substantial slice of the public, and mesmerize the press. The line between satire and reality is often faint, but in this case it is entirely erased.”

Indeed, this author would like to offer up an idea: If in fact Donald Trump ends up as the Republican nominee, the Clinton campaign would be very well-advised to pair up Sen. Franken (who, as a longtime friend of the Clintons, has endorsed Hillary) as Clinton’s partner in debate-preparation sessions — that is, with Franken channeling his old fictionalized character in order to portray The Donald.

(Also come to think of it, it might even be useful for Franken to help Clinton now, playing Bernie Sandersbut let’s not go too far off on a tangent.)

Franken never actually follows Ornstein's advice to cease his

Franken never actually follows Ornstein’s advice to cease his “very illegal activities.”

The book depicts Franken running a campaign initially based on the single issue of ATM fees — over which, as Ornstein explained, the book’s various consultants all got a big laugh when Bernie Sanders made them an actual issue this year. Franken manages to connect just about any issue, from health care to jobs, to ATMs and the evil banks that charge fees on them — just as Trump launched his campaign on his extravagant promises of an impossible wall that he keeps insisting Mexico will pay for.

Franken’s campaign, however, soon becomes a vehicle for another issue: attacking banks as institutions, and enjoying massive fundraising from their rivals in the insurance industry, taking up their agenda to repeal the final vestiges of the Glass-Steagall regulations so that they can get into banking themselves. (By contrast, in real life Bernie has campaigned vigorously against the past repeal of Glass-Steagall’s separation of commercial and retail banking.) Franken’s fictional campaign thus demonstrates a pitfall of populist campaigns: Demonization of one industry can all too often serve some other industry, and its own robber barons who would stand to benefit from a new wave of government action.

Much of the book is written in the form of a secret diary. After his fictional attorney Joel Kleinbaum tells him to stop keeping it, Franken simply goes on using an obvious code: His wife Franni becomes “F,” the lawyer Joel is “J,” adviser Norm Ornstein is “N,” etc. Throughout the diary, candidate Franken discusses his sexual misadventures, various political frauds and outright crimes committed by his campaign, casual racist and sexist jokes, his worship of himself, and the total pride he takes in everything he does, regardless of its actual value. (One wonderful little passage details Franken’s excitement over a particularly impressive bowel movement.)

But the single biggest theme of the journal is the candidate’s total hatred of the voters among whom he’s campaigning, and his continued amazement at how easy it is to get the “fools” to like him.

From the very first diary entry: “Mud. Also snow. Also people in New Hampshire incredibly stupid. Visited grotesque old lady and man who wanted to talk about Medicare but had lost dentures. Yuck! Think woman will vote for me; man on fence.”

And another: “F organized ‘Farewell, Al’ hayride for local underprivileged youth but told me to stay behind at last minute when I made joke about anyone who lives in N.H. being by definition underprivileged.”

And this doozy: “When I tell J how unbearably dull Iowa seems to me and how I just want to kill myself and everyone in the state every time I look out the car window, he laughs but says he hopes I’m not still keeping diary. I laugh. Also, one other thing I’ve noticed: Iowans are really fat.”

This culminates in a scene where, as told in a fawning Newsweek article, Franken is asked about gun control by a loud rally attendee:

Avoiding a canned, rote response, Franken almost appears to be inventing his policy right there on the spot. To hammer home his opposition to private ownership of semi-automatic assault weapons, Franken pulls a chilling rabbit out of his intellectual hat. “If I had a machine gun, I could kill each and every one of you in just a few seconds,” Franken tells the crowd, which at first lets out a collective gasp, then applauds, and then finally rises to a standing ovation in acknowledgment of the potency of Franken’s graphic hypothetical.

Does this ring a bell?

Back in January, of course, Trump boasted to a rally in Iowa of the sheer loyalty of his voters: “And you know what else they say about my people, the polls? They say I have the most loyal people — did you ever see that, where I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like, incredible.”

And just like candidate Franken declaring his genuine desire to shoot people, Trump’s line got a YUGE round of applause. (It was, in fact, this exact moment of Trump on the campaign trail that jogged this author’s memory of Franken’s book, and the stunning resemblances to it that Trump presents.)

Franken also has a severe dislike of Christians, possibly related to anti-Semitism that his character might have encountered as a child in a rural Minnesota town as related in his unreliable campaign autobiography, Daring to Lead. (In real life, Franken grew up in the heavily Jewish Twin Cities suburb of St. Louis Park.)

But even beyond contempt for Christians, he clearly has no concern for any common morality, except so he might please the public. He records in one diary entry: “Prayer breakfast with Gentile clergymen. Must memorize popular Christian prayer: ‘Our Father, etc.'”

A candidate engaging in rote memorization of prayers in order to fool a religious audience, of course, bears a striking resemblance to Trump’s great moment in January at the religious-right institution of Liberty University, when The Donald quoted from that venerable New Testament volume, “Two Corinthians.”

“But it is so true, when you think,” Trump said. “And that’s really — is that the one? Is that the one you like? I think that’s the one you like, ’cause I loved it!”

Franken’s campaign is based heavily around the politics of personal destruction — not too different from Trump’s own alpha-male campaigning approach of tearing his opponents to ribbons. See his attacks on Ben Carson (who has now endorsed him!) or Carly Fiorina (who now supports Ted Cruz) or Jeb Bush (who has disappeared).

But first, Franken has to clear the air on his own misbehavior, as he described in Daring to Lead:

I admit that during the SNL years I caused pain in my marriage. Specifically, the sort of pain that might have been caused if I had been repeatedly unfaithful to my wife and spent a number of holidays and anniversaries away from home in the company of a series of mistresses.

When I decided to run for president, I knew there would come a time when I would have to address this issue. It’s become an unfortunate fact of life that anyone running for president in this day and age must not only present a compelling vision for the future of the country, which is time-consuming enough, but also expose his private life to the closest possible scrutiny.

He then lays out a bizarre set of preconditions for reporters, making it clear that they are not to ask him about any extra-marital affairs — past or present.

But then, just several pages later, as candidate Franken is delivering a vastly exaggerated image of his own accomplishments in public life, presenting himself as a crucial aide to President Bill Clinton, he goes out of his way to throw mud at his main opponent:

Being a White House insider had its shocking and unseemly side. This was brought home to me every time I would encounter Al Gore, whose uncontrollable libido and inappropriate sexual behavior toward anything with two legs and a hole in between brought shame and ill-repute to Bill Clinton’s presidency

Gore’s one-track mind afforded little room for contemplation of issues not related to his dick. I remember Gore leaving a meeting to go chase girls after a particularly unimpressive performance. I turned to Panetta, rolled my eyes, and asked, “Is it just me? Or is that guy a complete zero?” Panetta confirmed my worst suspicions about the vice president, saying something to the effect that putting him on the ticket had been a mistake.

And of course, Trump is an unlikely figure to lob moral attacks at others, having boasted in the past that his sexual escapades while avoiding STD infections were “my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave solider.” And let’s not even get into the jokes he’s kept on making about his own daughter.

But let’s get back to one of Franken’s primary methods of running against Gore: Vicious personal attacks, and behavior so outlandish that the staid, traditional Gore simply never has any idea how to respond. As an example, Gore is followed around by Al Franken’s fictional brother Otto Franken, a violent and vulgar drunk who systematically challenges Gore’s honesty and basic humanity.

franken-book-cartoon-gore-bankers-whore

Can you imagine that: Al Gore getting done in by a campaign full of lies and simplistic emotional attacks, rendering useless any calm and factual response?

Otto also engages in multiple criminal activities, from running a meth lab and laundering money to the campaign from a phone-sex line, to assaulting pesky reporters and rival campaign staff with his weapon of choice, a wooden board — and if this sounds too outlandish, just look at Trump’s suspicious campaign finances and his active fomenting of violence against protesters.

Franken also cultivates media friendships, a process that finally results in Howard Fineman’s fawning news article for Franken as the campaign heads towards two crucial events: Franken nearing victory in the race for the presidency (after the “Y2K” bug wipes out everybody’s bank accounts) and Fineman joining the Franken campaign as its new press secretary, after being paid off for his silence before he uncovers the truth about Franken’s various acts of skullduggery.

franken-book-newsweek-the-front-runner

The article shows the fashion in which a politician can manipulate the media/politics revolving door, constructing an elaborate fraud and a personality that encourages the public to fall in love and see what they want to see.

franken-book-newsweek-the-front-runner-phone-family-diary

So what happens when he actually does win the presidency in a historic landslide? Like the dog who finally catches the firetruck, Franken is stunned upon taking office at the awesome responsibilities he has just taken upon himself — and promptly has a mental breakdown, as catalogued in a fictional book-within-the-book supposedly authored by Bob Woodward.

franken-book-bob-woodward-the-void-cover-100-days

When his inaugural address goes horribly awry, the new president hides himself in the Lincoln bedroom, surrounding himself with all the newspapers’ terrible reviews. As First Lady Franni Franken explains to Chief of Staff Norm Ornstein, “It was like this after his Stuart Smalley movie bombed.”

One can certainly find a parallel in Trump’s obsession with his own news coverage, with the polls — and his very negative response to his loss in the Iowa Caucuses, as he insisted that Ted Cruz’s dirty tricks to win it were so heinous that the election should be overturned.

After an examination by a doctor for depression, the White House team decides to lie to the public, and say that President Franken is actually suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome as a result of the Epstein-Barr virus — that’s right, the president had become “low energy.”

But even this is only the beginning of their troubles, as Franken is actually misdiagnosed: He isn’t suffering from depression. He’s bipolar, and the initial treatments only increase his manic behavior: Punching former South African President Nelson Mandela, scheming to personally bludgeon Saddam Hussein to death, and finally having himself cloned.

To be fair, Trump hasn’t exactly done any of that stuff — not yet, anyway.

This is the sixth in our series “Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump.”

Check out Part 1: “The Penguin”Part 2: “MAD Magazine”Part 3: Lex Luthor; and Part 4: ‘The Dead Zone’; and Part 5: ‘The Waldo Moment.’

Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump, Part 5: ‘The Waldo Moment’

Welcome to the fifth 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 someone like him) was up to no good.

Would you believe that there are a lot of people out there who think Donald Trump bears an uncanny resemblance to an incorrigibly vulgar cartoon blue bear named Waldo?

Waldo comes to us courtesy of “The Waldo Moment,” a second-season episode from the British anthology sci-fi show Black Mirror. Written by series creator Charlie Brooker, “Waldo,” like all Mirror episodes, is set in its own distinct universe, telling a different acidic, disturbing satire that reflects our technology and media mores back to us.

In “The Waldo Moment,” the title character is entered into a by-election for a suddenly vacant MP seat as a publicity stunt. The fact that he isn’t human turns out not to be an issue at all for the voters. Waldo is a profane parody of the sort of well-informed teddy who might show up on educational children’s shows to explain what a “politician” is. Only Waldo, like a mean-spirited Colbert, lures oblivious pols onto his show and then calls them a “pussy” over and over again.

And who is Waldo? This is Waldo:

Waldo-bird

Meet Waldo

Seriously. I’m not the only one who sees the resemblance…

“The current state of the race reminds me a lot of an episode of Black Mirror, a terrific BBC show about a dystopian near-future,” Cillizza wrote in The Washington Post back in September.

Trump’s kinship with the foul-mouthed gold-toothed bear is so striking that someone was able to mash up clips from the episode with actual Trump sound bytes:

Waldo is a kind of digital marionette that assumes the facial expressions and voice of a comedian named Jamie, who manipulates the character’s movements from behind a screen. As the episode begins, we gather that Jamie’s personal and professional lives have run aground. His former peers in comedy have gone on to bigger and better things, his most successful gig as an actor was playing “a corn on the cob in a high-interest personal loans commercial,” and we gather than he is struggling with the fallout from the breakdown of a relationship. When he gets the opportunity to run a fake campaign for an MP seat, he seems the least thrilled of anyone.

Of course, he isn’t going to win, and that’s the point. This is just to drum up enthusiasm for a potential pilot. The constituency is solidly conservative, so even the young Labour candidate, an earnest but pragmatic careerist named Gwendolyn, who steals Jamie’s heart, isn’t going to win — she’s just there to dutifully pound the pavement, and pay her party dues. Everyone’s just going through the motions, in Jamie’s words, for their reel.

But what catches Brooker’s eye isn’t the party politics of parachuting surefire candidates into safe-seat constituencies — it’s the way the crude antics of gotcha comedy and reality television find currency in the political arena.

The episode charts Waldo’s progression from a sideshow to a viable, popular candidate — to the delight of social media and the immense consternation of every sensible person watching this spectacle unfold.

As with Trump, the peculiar joy of watching Waldo spar with the other candidates and with journalists who gamely try to corner him, lies in the glib delight and ease with which he smashes through — and exposes — the staid conventions of the whole process. When Trump openly ridiculed his Republican rivals for having once accepted his money, it was hard not to savor the moment, regardless of your politics. Waldo shuts a pundit down by noting that he is bringing them the best ratings they’ve seen in months – how many times has The Donald done the exact same thing to assert his dominance over the news networks?

 

Waldo and Trump can mock the political-media maelstrom by reflecting, perverting, and amplifying everything that people find craven and insubstantial about it. Jamie (Waldo’s voice and wayward soul) isn’t interested in politics, so Waldo isn’t either — great thing is, he doesn’t have to be. His team will google whatever he needs to know — summoning rebound stats and nasty anecdotes which they can feed to him in real time. If the news crews want to point their cameras at Waldo’s producers, all the better. Since every candidate has a group of researchers, handlers, and mouthpieces — by being upfront about it, it all just feeds into the deconstruction. He’s phony, but so are they. If Waldo has a point, that’s it, and it turns out to be a winner.

His unwillingness to buy into the bull makes him a “mascot for the disenfranchised,” in the words of one pundit. Like Trump, Waldo succeeds at harnessing people’s disgust with the entire political process. But where Trump feeds off anger, Waldo’s ascent is powered by apathy. We know exactly who Trump’s “disenfranchised” supporters are — a contingent of incensed, mostly white Americans, who feel threatened and dethroned. But Waldo’s fans appear to be simply bored, their nerve endings and democratic ideals deadened by too much nicety and sameness in politics. In the words of one character, Waldo encourages people not to care. Trump encourages people to do much worse.

Waldo doesn’t have any hateful dogma fueling his campaign. He doesn’t want to build a wall; he isn’t enamored of the power and devastation of nuclear weapons; he doesn’t claim to be able to make anything great again. He just mercilessly “takes the piss,” to use the succinct British idiom that is Waldo’s touchstone, and in doing so becomes a lighting rod for protest voters. This is all just for attention.

But if their ideologies are divergent, their tactics are not. Waldo and Trump don’t play by the rules because they don’t have to.

Chris Cillizza, comparing Waldo to Trump, writes:

Waldo has no qualms about using profanity, lewd jokes and all sorts of non-PC behavior to win verbal sparring matches with his opponents. Those traditional pols have no idea how to handle Waldo because he is, well, a made-up bear. Waldo loses, but his impact on the public — and against politicians — is huge.

But wait, you say, Donald Trump is not an animated bear. You are correct! But Trump’s ability to say and do things no one else would makes it very difficult for Bush to win a fight with him. If your opponent doesn’t play by the rules — or doesn’t acknowledge there are rules at all — it’s no fun to play a game with him.

Bush learned that the hard way, Cillizza noted. As do Waldo’s hapless rivals.

Waldo and Trump are beholden to nobody, merrily unencumbered by any interest outside the advancement of their own celebrity. 

The irony is that Waldo is owned by someone — the network — and he is responsive to their bottom line. Waldo becomes too marketable to let go of, and after a conscience-stricken Jamie abandons the character, his unscrupulous producer takes over the reins and turns Waldo into something much uglier, inciting violence by promising 500 pounds to anyone who can pelt Waldo’s opponents and hecklers with a shoe. Another echo there of The Donald, who has supported and even provoked violence at his rallies and among his supporters. (A hasty, and frankly weakly conceived, epilogue suggests that, long after the events of the episode, political operatives have harnessed Waldo’s reach and turned him into a dangerous, global instrument of control.)

The A.V. Club‘s David Sims argues that one large and simple flaw of the episode is that “Waldo isn’t funny, and he rarely even makes the kind of cogent points” we’d expect him to make. “He didn’t need to be funny, but outside of one particularly successful rant, his content is entirely dumb dick jokes and profuse swearing, which would certainly attract some media attention, but probably not the kind of phenomenal success he experiences in the episode.”

Frankly, I think this is a feature, not a bug. Not only has Waldo’s schtick supplanted actual political discourse; his crass mocking tactics, which are largely devoid of any insight or wit, have taken the place of actual comedy. I don’t find Trump’s ad hominem attacks and free-association ramblings very funny, but God knows his supporters do. According to any conventional standard, Waldo and Trump fail miserably as both entertainers and politicians — but in their respective bizarro universes (one a British sci-fi show, the other the United States in an election cycle) they succeed spectacularly as both. At least according to the vox populi on social media. Trending on Twitter is, Waldo’s producer notes, democracy in action. So be it.

“The Waldo Moment” becomes an iteration of the old story of an artist who loses control of his art, who achieves widespread success and is crushed by it. Jamie may not have political integrity, but he yearns to have artistic integrity, to be true to his craft and to the work of devising the best joke. And Waldo was never a very good joke — he knows that keenly. That this vile blue bear should become his breakout role is an embarrassment he knows he can never walk away from. 

Even the politicians, in their own weary, eroded way, are allowed to show a glimmer of sincerity. Gwendolyn chastises Jamie: “If you were a revolutionary, that would be something,” but he’s not. He’s an equal opportunity spitballer. The conservative candidate observes that Waldo is making the whole system look absurd — “which it may well be,” he muses, “but it built these roads.”

Just because you play by the rules, that doesn’t make you an ineffectual phony. And just because you break every convention, it doesn’t mean you can achieve meaningful, positive change. The would-be MPs aren’t dolts, and Waldo isn’t a radical. He makes people laugh because the things he says are gauche and unexpected — but only an idiot would actually laugh at, let alone vote for, such a creature.

In the final analysis, the comparisons between Waldo and Trump are really only skin-deep. There is no puppeteer behind the curtain with Trump, turning his gears, losing faith, second guessing the vile nonsense coming out of his mouth. It’s just Trump all the way down. And there’s something more insidious and dangerous than a mere mercenary bid for publicity powering Trump’s campaign.

Ultimately, “Waldo” isn’t a satire of political theater, and it isn’t about demagogues and toxic ideologies. It’s a damning indictment of the idiocy of a hashtag electorate that thinks going viral and being legit are the same thing.

“The Waldo Moment” is less prophetic for what it says about Trump than for what it says about us.

This is the fifth in our series “Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump.” 

Check out Part 1: “The Penguin”Part 2: “MAD Magazine”Part 3: Lex Luthor; and Part 4: ‘The Dead Zone.’

Screengrab: ‘The Waldo Moment’ from Black Mirror (via Channel4/Netflix)

 

Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump, Part 4: ‘The Dead Zone’

Welcome to the fourth 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 someone like him) was up to no good.

Stephen King is the author responsible for such dream-haunting creations as a memorably pissed off telekinetic prom queen, a denim-clad dimension-hopping deity, a temperamental train engine with a poor sense of humor, a murderous St. Bernard, and a burial ground that takes recently deceased loved ones and spits them back to Earth as feral butchers.

But his most terrifying invention may be something much closer to home — a coarse, unstable demagogue who enters the political arena seemingly out of nowhere, rides a wave of populism to an unlikely White House victory, and raging with messianic self-regard incites a nuclear apocalypse.

This is Gregory Ammas Stillson, the antagonist of King’s 1979 novel The Dead Zone, and he’s as frightening as anything cooked up by the prolific novelist’s imagination. This year in particular, Stillson seems an eerily prescient portent of our current political climate.

“I’ve seen the comparisons drawn between Trump and Stillson on Twitter — always makes me smile,” King said in an email.

In The Dead Zone, an unassuming New England schoolteacher, Johnny Smith, survives a brush with death, and awakens from a seven-year coma with the power to see future catastrophic events. After some early successes with his new skillset — saving various lives from disasters, closing the case on a stubbornly uncatchable serial killer — Smith comes to realize that an ascendant wild-card candidate for the House of Representatives, a combustable, egomaniacal political newcomer named Greg Stillson, will one day take the Oval Office and bring about World War III.

King introduces the character as the sort of carnival sideshow that can enliven a political campaign, but one that cooler heads could reasonably expect to fade away before any votes are cast: “First,” King writes, “Greg Stillson shouldn’t have been able to get elected. His campaign promises were, by and large, jokes.” Sound like anyone we know? A fictionalized Walter Cronkite explains that he may be running an “eccentric campaign,” but nevertheless has a comfortable lead over more established candidates.

Another character is more frank: “He’s as crazy as a rat in a drainpipe. But I do believe the sober-sided electorate…is going to send him to Washington this November. Unless he actually falls down and starts frothing at the mouth. And I wouldn’t completely rule that out.”

King’s description of a Stillson rally may have read like satire in the late-70s; now it seems to eerily prefigure the reality-show hijinks and circus theatrics that have become hallmarks of The Donald’s campaign. Stillson takes the stage to John Denver’s “Thank God, I’m A Country Boy,” wearing a “hi-impact construction worker’s helmet  cocked at an arrogant, rakish angle on his head.” Why the helmet?

“You wanna know why I’m wearin this helmet, friends n neighbors? I’ll tell you why. I’m wearin it because when you send me up to Washington, I’m gonna go through em like you-know-what through a canebrake! Gonna go through em just like this!”

And before Johnny’s wondering eyes, Stillson put his head down and began to charge up and down the podium stage like a bull, uttering a high, yipping Rebel yell as he did so.

He closes the rally by tossing fistfuls of freshly boiled hot dogs into the crowd, screaming, “Hot dogs for every man, woman, and child in America! And when you put Greg Stillson in the House of Representatives, you gonna say [sic] HOT DOG! SOMEONE GIVES A RIP AT LAST!

Like Trump, Stillson peddles promises, not plans, and he’s expert at spackling over his ignorance with a loud voice and the canny use of adjectives like “greatest.”

Stillson declares that he will put his seasoned experience as a bonafide rainmaker to use: “If he’s elected,” one observer wryly notes, “we’ll have rain whenever we need it.” Not entirely unlike the way Trump promises that, under his presidency, America will win so much that her citizens will “get sick of winning.”

Trump vows to build a continent-spanning wall and somehow get another sovereign nation to foot the bill. Stillson has an improbably grandiose public works project of his own: He’s going “to send all the pollution right into outer space! Gonna put it in Hefty bags! Gonna put it in Glad bags! Gonna send it to Mars, to Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn! We’re gonna have clean air and we’re gonna have clean water and we’re gonna have it in SIX MONTHS!”

Rather than inducing bewilderment and skepticism, Stillson’s fans — like Trump’s — respond to such manias by erupting into “paroxysms of joy,” and the ones who aren’t unironically delighted are “killing themselves with laughter.” In short, the wrong people are taking these candidates seriously.

As with Trump, in the early stages of Stillson’s campaign, his explosive language and dramatic temperament deflect critical attention. “His colorful, controversial personality seemed to stir only amused admiration from the national press,” King writes.

A recent Vox post soberly articulates our own national press’s collective mea culpa for the attitude of charmed dismissal that characterized so much of the early coverage of Trump’s candidacy. (Guilty as charged.)

King artfully depicts how Stillson’s charisma doesn’t simply mask his malevolence, but feeds off it. Like Trump, an inextricable part of his appeal is his apparent capacity for violence, his implicit promise of restitution, his knack for making the powerless feel powerful again, and his obvious willingness to shoot first and ask questions never. Where Trump applauds his fans for roughing up a Black Lives Matter protestor, Stillson draws supporters who come to his rally armed with sawed-off pool cues (à la Hell’s Angels), and brandishes violent campaign slogans like STILLSON’S GOT ‘EM IN A FULL-NELSON and LIVE FREE OR DIE, HERE’S GREG IN YOUR EYE!

Like many a pundit who saw Trump’s imminent implosion with each new extension of the tycoon’s contempt and violent rhetoric — whether it was directed toward Mexicans, veterans, or Muslims, Johnny Smith at first sees Stillson’s undisguised fascistic impulses as sure sign of his limited political prospects. Entering a rally, he witnesses “a wild mix of horror and hilarity,” and appraises the raging throngs of Stillson fans as “Brownshirts…. Brownshirts is all they are.

Well, so what? Maybe that was even good. Americans had a rather low tolerance for the fascist approach — even rock-ribbed righties like Reagan didn’t go for that stuff […] Stillson couldn’t be a few paces from overstepping himself. If it wasn’t quite so weird, it really would be funny. [emphasis in the original]

In David Cronenberg’s successful 1983 film adaptation, the role of Stillson was portrayed with grinning menace by Martin Sheen (the antimatter to his performance as Jed Bartlett). Sheen’s Stillson is a more well-scrubbed, less visibly volatile character than the one depicted in King’s novel with his “faded jeans and a two-pocket Army fatigue shirt with the words GIVE PEACE A CHANCE embroidered on one pocket and MOM’S APPLE PIE on the other.”

When Trump’s sanity gets called into question, the illustration almost everyone uses is the “red button” — could we trust Trump with the nuclear codes? No less an authority on sanity than Bobby Jindal, onetime amateur exorcist and Trump’s bested Republican rival, said America couldn’t have a “egomaniacal madman” sitting on the nuclear trigger.

When asked at Tuesday’s debate which part of the nuclear triad was most important, Trump responded: “For me, nuclear, the power, the devastation, is very important to me.” Trump was so caught up in his visions of glorious carnage he apparently forgot that the “triad” actually refers to the three methods of nuke delivery — via bombers, ICBMs, and submarine-launched missiles.

A spokesperson for the Trump camp clarified his position a few days later on The O’Reilly Factor: “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?” she asked. The power and the devastation will be yuuuuge.

In the following clip from the movie, we see Johnny’s premonition of a future President Stillson, whose campaign-trail charisma has curdled with power into something far more alarming — an unshakeable conviction that the American people speak through him, and they’re telling him to bring about nuclear Armageddon.

King noted that Stillson has literary and historical forbears, among them Willie Stark, the “Boss,” from Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, who in turn draws from Huey P. Long, the Louisiana governor and U.S. senator who was assassinated in 1935.

“Trump is an American ‘Tell it like it is’ populist in a long tradition of them,” King said. “Although [Trump] came from money rather than sharecropper poverty, people vote for [people like him] because they speak in the vulgate of the common people, and because they want to paste mainstream politicians in the eye. Trump is the voice of anger and racism. The anger won’t get him in trouble, but the racism guarantees he won’t be elected.”

President Trump is a horror story even King can’t entertain.

This is the fourth in our new series “Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump.” 

Check out Part 1: “The Penguin”Part 2: “MAD Magazine”; and Part 3: Lex Luthor

Screengrab: Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson from The Dead Zone (1983), Dir. David Cronenberg

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.

“Who’s Who in the DC Universe,” #11. Click images to enlarge.

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.

Hmm, what were they trying to imply?

Hmm, what were they trying to imply?

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.)

President Luthor declares war on Superman:

President Luthor declares war on Superman: “He is an alien. A curse upon this planet.”
“Superman/Batman,” #3.

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.)

“Is that how a warped brain like yours gets its kicks — by planning the death of innocent people?”

“No — by causing the death of innocent people.”

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?

“Doesn’t it give you a kind of a shudder of electricity through you, to be in the same room with me?”

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.

“Otisburg? Otisburg? OTISBURG?!?”

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.”

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”?

“You don’t even care where that other missile is headed, do you?”
“Of course I do. I know exactly where it’s headed: Hackensack, New Jersey.”

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.” 

Check out Part 1: “The Penguin”; and Part 2: “MAD Magazine”.