Boris Johnson’s sweeping victory in England made me think, hardly for the first time, that the only purpose in being a liberal/globalist these days is to keep the companies that manufacture antidepressants in business.
It’s depressing because I think I have come to understand the appeal of Johnson, of Trump, of Bolsonaro and Duterte and all of the populists that democracies around the world have not only elected but continue to keep in power. Their endurance, despite (or even because) of their blatant disregard for civility and/or honesty, is not simply attributable to the support of racists and ignorant hicks.
To help me explain this, I’m going to draw upon the most intellectually rigorous source material I can: the Star Wars movies.
I’m far from the first person on the internet to draw parallels between Donald Trump and Emperor Palpatine, and if you’re going to do that, I think you need to extend the metaphor to cover the entire setting of the films.
Let’s examine the lead-up to that fateful moment when everyone’s favorite gungan, Jar Jar Binks, singlehandedly destroys the Galactic Republic by calling for the emergency powers vote. Examine, if you will, the state of the Republic prior to that moment: It was a freaking mess.
There was so much political logjam in the Galactic Senate that when one member world actually launched a full-scale invasion and conquest of another, partisans in the Senate blocked the Chancellor’s attempt to even bring the issue to the floor. Think about it: Imagine the Texas National Guard invades Louisiana and takes it over, and Congress does nothing.
Political logjam in our country has been the norm for at least the last decade; unless one party controls all three branches of government, nothing can get done. The Republican congress pursued a scorched-earth “deny Obama anything” stance that went as far as keeping him from appointing a Supreme Court justice to an open position. The Democratic House isn’t going to let Trump pass any significant legislation. The only time either president got/gets anything done is through executive orders, which then get challenged and tied up in courts, and regardless of the final decision, the other side decries a biased judiciary.
Every time the federal budget needs passing, the government either shuts down or comes just shy of shutting down because no one can agree, and in the end all they ever do is kick the can forward with extensions.
The power of lobbyists is so strong that despite 72% of Americans being in favor of some form of gun control, it ain’t ever gonna happen because the NRA won’t let it. We know that rich people control our elected representatives through SuperPACs. And so on and so on.
Even should the country elect a Democratic president in 2020, the endless impasses aren’t going to change.
Pick your own pet issue — immigration, healthcare reform, whatever — and then realistically assess its prospects for even coming up for a vote, let alone getting resolved. The people of the UK were tired of the endless go-nowhere debates on Brexit; at least Johnson had a clear, if ridiculously oversimplified and unrealistic, plan for it.
Now imagine the people of Naboo. Their planet’s been freaking invaded, and their elected representatives are too busy squabbling to notice. In comes Palpatine who, with Amidala’s aid, challenges Velorum for the Chancellorship.
We never get to see that election, but I wonder if it looks like America in 2016. Velorum argues for staying the course, incremental reform, democracy, and he’s probably super smart and has all sorts of well-thought out solutions. Then there’s Palpatine who says, “dude, elect me and I’ll get things done.”
True, he doesn’t say “I’ll get things done by turning the Republic into an Empire and oppressing everyone and killing Ewoks,” but honestly, even if he did, even if he said, “elect me and I’ll create Darth Vader,” can you blame the people of Naboo (and who knows where else, if their situation is typical) for wanting to throw in with ANYONE who promises change? “Maybe Darth Vader won’t be as bad as everyone fears. Maybe building the Death Star will create jobs. Maybe people will suffer, but it probably won’t be ME.”
Oh yes, and there’s fear — there are assassination attempts on a popular former senator (Queen Amidala), which include a bomb going off right in downtown Coruscant, and people die. There is this group of insurgents who are building a droid army, fighting under the banner that the Senate is secretly controlled by dark forces. And you know, they’re actually right. Of course, their whole revolution was also being manipulated by those dark forces. Conspiracy theories within conspiracy theories until no one knows what’s true.
And here you are, average citizen of the Galactic Republic, and you hear there’s been this huge battle on Geonosis and that the droid foundries have been turned against us and, yeah, the government quashed that rebellion, but at a huge cost, and holy shit, this is scary. Can you blame them for wanting a Darth Vader type to impose some “law and order?”
Even Qui-gon Jin, a member of the freaking Jedi Council — i.e., supposedly a pretty wise man — is drawn to the fact that he can sense Anakin will bring about change and gets all behind him. Yoda, who’s wiser, senses that the change will be bad change…but what the hell is Yoda offering that’s different? When Naboo got invaded, where was Yoda with his better solution? During all those trade route debates, did Yoda come up with a way to break the impasse? If so, it clearly didn’t work.
The only thing Yoda winds up doing effectively is leading military strikes…and, as it turns out, playing right into Palpatine’s hands, because fighting that very battle on Geonosis is what leads our friend Jar Jar to vote in favor of Palpatine’s clone army, which provide him his power base.
Obviously there are important lessons here. Would Chancellor Velorum have created stormtroopers and death stars and TIE fighters? Likely not. Would he have been able to save the Republic from its own implosion? No way to tell, but prospects didn’t look good. If it wasn’t Palpatine, it would have been SOMEONE (maybe Grand Moff Tarkin in his Minor-Moff days?) who would have stepped in, because face it — the people were demanding it. Amidala admits that when Galactic democracy died, it died to thunderous applause.
When Trump and Johnson do their strongman act, the Padme Amidalas of the Left wonder why people are applauding, well…but they should look to Naboo. Even if things aren’t really as bad as Trump paints it (no, immigrants are not roving our streets raping and killing people, no there is no “deep state” seeking to thwart him) — hey, Palpatine was also inventing threats to help him out, ref: the droid rebellion — at the same time, there were plenty of huge problems that he had nothing to do with — he just added some extra spice to the soup, to push people over the edge.
The impeachment process makes me think the Democrats have learned nothing from Hillary’s failed strategy of pointing out all of Trump’s (many, many, many) abuses of power — because seriously, how far did Yoda get saying, “hmmm, this boy, he’s full of fear, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering”…No. One. Gave. A. Shit. They wanted change…they wanted efficiency.
In the end, Palpatine went on national (er, galactic?) TV as a wrinkly-faced picture-of-evil, standing in the ruins of the Senate, and people STILL applauded him. Trump’s supporters know he’s an asshole, and they just don’t care. Yes, there are the loonies like Darth Maul out there who probably groove on the evil, but for the vast majority of Paplatine supporters, they just want someone to “make it all work again.”
In our world, it plays right into the narratives of China and Russia and Turkey, that democracy just doesn’t work, that it permits and even rewards divisions that paralyze the country. Better to have power vested in a single person or cabal, unrestrained by limits and legality and civil rights.
Palpatine’s government gets stuff done, albeit in a hideous way. Darth Vader DOES bring balance to the force. The Empire seems pretty freaking efficient (heck, they disband the Senate and the cosmos keeps on ticking just fine under local governors). Unless you’re absolutely anyone he doesn’t like (wookies, ewoks, Jedi, bothans, and others), of course.
I fear that we’ve reached a point where Dr. Evil has been proved right, when he tells Austin Powers, “face it — freedom failed.”
Nipping Palpatine in the bud would have required some a charismatic counterpoint. Maybe if Wookie Sanders had made it past the primaries, we wouldn’t have had to endure decades of oppression and galactic war. But Wookie Sanders / Jeremy Corbyn/ Elizabeth Warren propose complex solutions to complex problems. They don’t sound-bite nearly as well as, “let’s just build a wall.”
Maybe the Democratic nominee in 2020 will stand up and say, “I get it, you’re angry and afraid, our government’s kind of a mess right now — but here’s my vision of what it could be, and why you should follow hope and not fear. Here’s how I’m going to FIX things, in very simple, catch-phrasey terms, and by the way isn’t it better to rally behind possibility and promise than just rally against all the people you hate?”
Otherwise, we get another 4 years of PalpaTrump, and it isn’t because his supporters are just a bunch of fat ugly stupid Hutts. You can’t win an election just based on the Hutts’ votes. It’s because ordinary people like Jar Jar — the everygungan — can tell things are screwed up, and there is this charismatic candidate claiming to offer them a lifeline, That the lifeline is attached to a rabid shark may be easy to forget if you’re on a sinking ship — why the hell not give it a try? Especially if you don’t (yet) feel that you’d be personally be vulnerable to mistreatment under a cruel and capricious leader.
No matter which party wins the presidency in America, our government will likely still be paralyzed by bitter divisions, and MSNBC and FOX will still present diametrically opposed visions of reality, and whatever party loses will go on hating and fuming and doing whatever they can to gum up the works. There will still be a hunger for someone to just knock all the pieces off the board and take control.
Sure, dictatorships and autocracies inevitably wear out their welcome. The Communists in the USSR, the military juntas in Chile and Argentina, Milosevic in Serbia…and yes, even the Galactic Empire…eventually make things so bad for so many people that they get overthrown, collapse from within, or both. What replaces them may be a return to pluralistic democracy, or may just a new empire. In the Star Wars universe, the First Order seems to be just that: the Resistance makes a ruckus but realize that no one’s coming to their aid. The majority of the people of the galaxy still just don’t seem to want democracy.
Next week I’ll see how Rise of the Skywalker attempts to resolve all this. Maybe it will give us a model to follow in the Western world. It’s pretty sad that we’ve reached a point where we’re dependent upon space opera for ideas to save our civilization, but hey, if Star Trek can inspire and create the face of our real-world technology, maybe there’s some hope after all.
It’s all down to you, Jar-Jar. May the Force be with us all.