Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Superheroization of American Politics: Sanders, Trump, and the Cult of Personality

Unless you’ve been living in a Hollywood-proof cave for the last decade, you’ve probably noticed that every other Hollywood movie that comes out these days is about superheroes.  Some of these movies are good: Deadpool was hilarious, the X-Men teach us to accept each other’s differences, and even killjoys like me have to admit that those Avengers movies are pretty damn entertaining.  

But the whole thing has gone a tad too far, hasn’t it? I’ve blogged before about why I don’t like superheroes.  Basically I’m uneasy about the glorification of power, hyper-individualism, and elitism. 

The superheroization of nerd/geek culture is annoying, but it causes little actual harm.  Curmudgeonly nerds like me still have plenty of other SFF media to consume, and to be completely honest, we nerdy curmudgeons need to dislike something popular in order to maintain our street cred.  

But the cultural forces that give rise to the current cultural moment of superhero obsession may be causing real damage elsewhere, particularly in American politics (see here, here, and here for different takes on the superhero-politics analogy).

The Cult of Personality and Superheroization

Because it’s relevant and one of my all-time favorite songs, let’s begin with the video for Living Colour’s 1988 hit, “Cult of Personality."

Although I happily voted for Barack Obama, his 2008 campaign made me nervous in one way.  Many of his supporters adored him with a fervor that bordered on a cult of personality.  They seemed to be attracted to his personality, his speaking persona, his biography, etc. rather than his actual policies or ideas.  In political discussions with my leftist friends I heard a lot of “I just like him.”  (For my part, I was mainly attracted to his quality of not being a Republican, but the historic factor of becoming our first African-American President was also important.)  Watching him speak one night in 2008, I remarked that I was glad he was using his powers for good.  I voted for him again in 2012, but by then the shine of superheroization had been worn off by the grime of actual governing.

The 2016 Presidential Race as Superhero Science Fiction

The 2016 Presidential race feels like a science fictional superhero movie in which a reality TV star and a self-avowed socialist are both serious contenders for the US Presidency (see my post on how skeptical therapy might help you through this primary season).  As thoroughly different as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are in style, policy, and sanity, they have one thing in common: some of their followers revere them with near messianic fervor.  

Some – I said some! – Sanders and Trump supporters are equally convinced that their candidate has super powers: the ability to single-handedly conjure a political revolution (telekinesis?) or a mystical deal-making power (mind-control?).  Some supporters tell us their candidate will use his powers to lead America to victory over the evil forces of economic inequality or political correctness or whatever.  Their candidate, we are assured, is the only one who can fix whatever is wrong with America, and you are foolish, immoral, or both to believe otherwise. 
The internet is full of forums where you can discuss the policies of Sanders and Trump, but I’m not talking about their ideas here (translation: please don’t spam the comments section with Sanders/Trump campaign rhetoric).  I’m also not in any way saying that there aren’t grown-up, soberly political, and superhero-free reasons to vote for Sanders (I’m honestly less sure about Trump, but that’s another topic).  I’m really talking about the effect some of their supporters are having on our political discourse.  I’m not even limiting this effect to these two individuals.  For example, alleged time-traveller and Presidential candidate, Andrew Basiago, also has superhero qualities.  

Sanders and Trump are definitely not the same politically; their specific superhero qualities are different, too.  Like Superman, Sanders is a member of an ethnic group that has been treated unfairly, but like Spiderman, he’s a New Yorker with a fondness for small, powerful things (radioactive spiders, $27 campaign donations, etc.).  Like Batman, Trump’s real power is being super rich, and both love hiding in secret lairs (the Bat Cave, Mar-a-Lago, etc.), although Trump’s loud mouth and poor treatment of women make him more like Tony Stark.

What’s Wrong with Superheroization?

Maybe it’s human nature that we have impulses to follow personas rather than critically evaluating ideas and policies (on that note, Frank Herbert's Dune is a fascinating science fictional study of the social and political effects of cults, both literal and of personality).  Furthermore, I don’t deny that part of leadership is the ability to connect with people to explain and promote your ideas and actions.

My worry is that while we’re fixated on political superheroes, we forget that politics is in large part a messy, monotonous, profoundly unsexy business that involves compromise and cooperation to make ideas work in practice.  We may be excited by the lofty ideals and entertainment value of The X-Men and The Avengers, but politics looks a lot more like the drudgery and sober-mindedness of C-SPAN and PBS.  While we childishly wait to be saved by our political superheroes, we’re neglecting the grown-up cultivation of our own political powers.


  1. Truth be told, I don't think there's a single candidate that I like. It feels like a no win situation. There's so much more going on than just the presidency at work here.

    1. I see it less as a no win situation and more as a "let's try not to lose too bad" situation. To me voting is basically a strategic decision. I don't expect to like a candidate beyond finding that person's views, experience, and plans the most conducive to starting from where we are to getting somewhere a little better, or at least not much worse. If I had to wait for a candidate I completely agreed with in policy and strategy, I couldn't vote for anyone unless I ran myself (and I wouldn't make a very good politician). I've been thinking of a post in which I'll elaborate some of this, so look for that in the future!

  2. Even though I supported, and still do even now, Obama during his 2008 campaign I saw the same "Superheroization" you mentioned. It gets really weird when you see and otherwise rational person say a candidate is going to solve all the country's problems almost overnight.

    One person I remember hearing on NPR thought Obama would solve both the health care crisis and global warming during his time in office. I actually feel this naïve mindset contributed to the disaster of the 2010 midterms.

    Because Obama couldn't get everything done some thought he could by 2010, there were liberal pundits already saying he was failed president little better than Bush.

    As you mentioned, this Superheroization tends to make some believe democracy is simple and that problems are purely black and white. This overlooks the fact that in all likelihood there are millions of people who totally disagree with your ideals.

    In my opinion, even though I am an ardent liberal, this is the main reason we need at least two healthy and rational parties so ideas can be debated and compromises formed.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I agree that this mindset had a lot to do with the lack of enthusiasm for Obama a lot of people had in 2010. Not that I think Obama is perfect, but a lot of people had unreasonable expectations and then punished everyone by making it possible for Tea Party types to gain so much power.

      In this election cycle, I'm annoyed, but not surprised, that we're focusing so much on personal likability while giving Trump a free pass on being a dangerous and ridiculous candidate because he's entertaining. The good thing about the focus on likability, though, is that Trump is extremely unlikable to most Americans, and will, I think, lose the general election very badly.

      Like you said, I think we need a healthy and rational Republican party. If I were a Republican, I'd be embarrassed by this election. I'd like to believe that we're currently experiencing the last gasps of a particularly nasty version of reactionary conservatism (both in politics and in geek culture with the Rabid Puppies, Gamergate, etc.). Not that I think that type of thinking will ever completely go away, but my hope is that in the next decade or so it will become less obnoxious.

  3. A more sober-minded and data-based example of the kind of thing I'm talking about here:

  4. Another article on a similar theme: