For the past four years, liberals have struggled to understand Donald J. Trump’s consistently strong appeal to (if polls are accurate) about a third of Americans. The actions President Trump takes that seem most despicable and dangerous to many on the “cultured Left” — the lies, the insults, the violations of both law and decorum — not only fail to evoke condemnation from his conservative supporters, but often evoke cheers. How does a veritable cliché of supervillainy to some read as superheroic to others?
Superheroes have always served as something of a cultural barometer; the Batman of the 1950s upheld the rule of law and punished those who bucked the establishment, just as the X-Men of the 1960s offered cautionary tales about intolerance and prejudice. The post 9/11 divide between those two ideologies played out in Marvel’s Civil War crossover in the mid 2000s.
Still, some things about superheroes seem to have remained constant: they serve as power fantasies, larger than life figures who, unlike the rest of us, need not be victims to that which makes us feel helpless or terrified. They have the strength, the speed, and the dashing good looks to overcome the most ruthless of foes. They are Nietzschean supermen, yet they use their power not to rule us but help us. For all their power, superheroes, ironically, are our servants.
Except slowly but surely, that equation has been flipping, at least in some stories, and in that growing reversal lies a window of insight into Trump’s appeal. In the mid 1980s, Alan Moore’s Watchmen gave us a picture of superheroes either as tools of an oppressive state, or worse, skipping that step entirely and ruling us from the shadows. The series’ catchphrase, “Who watches the watchmen?” served to caution those who would place their faith in the protection of a powerful elite.
One of these elite, Doctor Manhattan, is literally so godlike that he has lost the ability to empathize with, or even understand, human beings; he is as much an object of fear as reverence. His priorities are no longer ours. He doesn’t even look like us anymore.
By the conclusion of its story, Watchmen forced its reader into an uncomfortable catch-22: the villain Ozymandias’ belief in his own superiority is justified when he defuses a…