Trump in the Age of Captain America/Captain America in the Age of Trump
By ucqajha, on 12 June 2017
Written by Aesclin Fridurik Jones, Second Year History of Art Student, UCL
Captain America embodies an America with the confidence and superhuman ability to shape proceedings in the world. For his readers, he is the symbol of strength, freedom, and chief antagonist to America’s enemies. As the product of American foreign policy and militarism, genetically bred with American ideals, the image is troublesome. To liberals today, Captain America stands for something rather nasty, an unfashionable nationalism that proposes American exceptionalism and denial of any wrongdoings of the past. Professor Dittmer prefaced his talk on ‘Captain America in the Age of Donald Trump’ with the connection between the two figures, and further discussed its role in the presidential election. Although widely supportive of the US government from its inception, the support of the Captain America cartoon series during the post-1945 years slowly dissipated to something of a mild distancing from US policy. The hero played no role in the Vietnam War for instance, never wanting to alienate a section of its readership, the writers steered clear from the Captain’s deployment for America. Ambivalence, and sometimes scepticism was alluded to by the comic, but never an all out partisanship. It is in this regard that an association between Captain America and Donald Trump has been employed politically.
President Trump, to his supporters, appears to cut through American bureaucracy and stand apart from previous politicians. His supporters are remarkably confident of his almost superhuman ability to personally drive change in US government policy. Cutting government regulation and bureaucracy are part of his rather vague agenda. He is presented as the strongman to turn around America’s economic stagnation in parts of the rust belt, and to fight the nation’s political elites in order to return America’s standing as the defender of liberty. If his followers truly believe this, then the association between Donald Trump and Captain America can be easily made. To the Right-wing in America, Captain America stands for something ultimately different — a face of American strength abroad and conservative attitudes to the man’s role in life.
Captain America stood for something more than life gives to the average American citizen. As does Donald Trump, he can appeal to the disaffected but mistaken claims of the dispossessed in America to whom the Alt-Right appeals. For those demographic and political groups, Trump can represent something of a response for the misplaced discontent of those males who claim to have lost status because of the growing status of women and minority groups in the professions and public life. Trump is the upending of the norm, the suspending of the things that have affected his forgotten America. Elements of Trump’s campaign played to this notion, and some employed the parallels with the Captain America image for political benefit.
Professor Dittmer referred to Mikhail Bakhtin’s conception of the carnival, as a suspension of everyday behaviour and convention; the influence of fictional superheroes to evoke this feeling is similar to Bakhtin’s position. Captain America is the embodiment of suspended reality, appealing to a popular desire to possess superhuman qualities. The physicality of the superhero, which allows them to break out of the binds of human limitation, has quite an appeal. The rational organisation of everyday existence is uprooted by the superhuman, and hope is given to those willing to accommodate the fantasy. President Trump maintains the strong physicality of Captain America as integral to his image. The unpleasantly virile masculinity of a business tycoon with his vulgar displays of wealth, and the aspiration this appeals to in his voters, speaks to an American dream that many feel is lost. The physicality of Trump’s stocky build, and his strange display of a handshake, certainly contribute to his image. This image almost always comes across to us in Britain as clumsiness, and a lack of restraint. He is that blunderbuss of American confidence and force that upends the normal political flow of things. His unwillingness to allow a space for journalists to criticise him, as he attacks them as false sources, is uncompromising and does most to appeal to his electoral base. It is funny how popular culture allows for so many connections to current affairs.
You can watch Professor Jason Dittmer’s session on YouTube.