In different ways, some of Marvel’s superheroes like Captain America and the Punisher, and Lucasfilm’s infamous Galactic Empire, have all been in the news as of late for reasons that have little to do with the stories we’re used to seeing them in. Instead, they’ve become part of the odd and often irresponsible way that we as a public have tried to make sense of our tumultuous reality.
Just days into the new year, the already chaotic American news cycle was plunged into an even deeper state of disarray, with the January 6 attack on the Capitol Building by a horde of Donald Trump’s insurrectionist supporters that ultimately left five people dead.
It’s instinctive for the press to cover situations like this in a way that straddles the gap between informing audiences about what’s happening and holding that same audience’s attention, the latter often being challenging given how complicated and fast-moving the larger story is. It’s moments like this that lead to coverage like the Washington Post’s recent attempt at humor masquerading as an opinion piece about a Star Wars Stormtrooper tendering their resignation from the famous Death Star. In the piece, the fictitious Stormtrooper explains how he can no longer deny that the weaponized ship is about to be blown up, and it’s easy to see the basic, and notably uninspired, joke being made at the GOP’s expense.
As photos, videos, and first-person accounts of what happened in the Capitol began to come out, it apparently became untenable for some to remain within Trump’s orbit. Within days, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Matthews, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and White House Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger were just some of Trump’s officials who resigned in hollow, symbolic moves that only highlighted their years of complicity in Trump’s assault on democracy.
Pieces like the one in the Washington Post reaffirm our understanding of politics as battles between good and evil, something that has become especially easy and understandable to do as Trump and the vast majority of the Republican Party has made clear that white racial animus, police brutality, and the January 6 attack are all things they both abide by and encourage in broad daylight.
In addition to bringing hundreds of guns into the nation’s capital and planting bombs at the offices of the Democratic and Republican National Committees, the rioters counted nobody QAnon conspiracy theorists, off-duty police officers and firefighters, an Olympic gold medalist, and more among their ranks. The insurrectionists flew the Confederate flag inside the Capitol and erected a gallows before the seat of our government to send clear, explicit messages of destruction and white supremacy. While our immediate collective focus was trained on the domestic terrorist attack itself and the lives of those who were put in danger, we’ve since begun to dissect the event. To date, a few dozen arrests have been made, but thousands of those sympathetic to the rioters have attempted to regroup on platforms like Parler, before it was taken down, with plans for subsequent in-person attacks across the country.
Much as elected conservatives attempted to blame the Capitol attack on “antifa” and the Black Lives Matter movement, what was always clear about January 6 is that this attack, in particular, was—at least in part—driven by the Trump White House’s months-long attempt to invalidate the 2020 election results. This brand of homegrown terrorism masquerading as “economic anxiety” and legitimate grievance with the government is not new. In the past, people with this kind of mindset of “taking the law into their own hands” have willingly identified themselves in ways like proudly wearing the Punisher logo, as was the case with some of the insurrectionists. The Punisher, a Marvel vigilante known for shooting people to death with impunity in ways that his peers do not, has become a popular figure within real world law enforcement and military communities where he’s held up as the embodiment of how they see themselves.
The Punisher is a mass murderer who was created specifically to comment on the failings of the criminal justice system, but the cooption of the character has made it so that wearing his logo sends a very distinct set of messages. What happened on January 6 is the reason that it’s troubling to see police officers openly sporting the Punisher logo on their cruisers, or why one has to wonder what would drive the members of the Disney Parks security staff to carry unofficial Punisher challenge coins while on duty.
Recognizing that many of the cops and members of the military who’ve embraced the Punisher logo are being quite literal with the implied message that they’ll shoot up a place will likely play a part of identifying people like the insurrectionists in the future. It’s important to understand, though, that calling out people who like to play dress up as fictional mass shooters is not the same thing as making fun of craven politicians by comparing them to over-the-top movie villains, even though Trump, a textbook grift troll, has done it himself.
Pieces like the Post’s, and jokes in the same vein that many of us have made, have a way of smoothing over the ugly realities that everyone needs to be engaging with right now because not focusing on them is how “we” got here in the first place. It’s very nice and easy to think of the suddenly conscience-stricken Republicans as people like the Stormtroopers of Lucasfilm’s Star Wars franchise who are about to have their asses summarily handed to them on a global stage as their symbol of fascism, war, and mass death explodes. But likening fictional space Nazis with real politicians who’ve been party to real-world Nazism by supporting the Trump administration erases important realities about the state of America as a country and, because people can’t go a day thinking about it, Star Wars as a text.
One can’t be certain what will become of the countless career politicians who willingly hitched their wagon to Trump’s at the beginning of his presidency. But it’s more than safe to assume that few of them will face any real repercussions as the GOP begins to try and deceive the public into somehow believing the Trump administration—which ends today—was an anomaly and not something it actively helped create. We know this, because it is already happening.
While Star Wars’ villains go down in literal epic flames as orchestral arrangements swell in the background, people like Senator Josh Hawley, who helped lead the Republican push to challenge the election and saluted the insurrectionist rioters, face a modicum of short-lived backlash and “lose” their book deals. But in Hawley’s case, Simon & Schuster’s decision to drop his upcoming book was, in actuality, more of a shuffle, as Regnery Publishing—the publisher now putting out Hawley’s upcoming book—is a distribution client of Simon & Schuster. Part of what’s been lost in the coverage of Hawley’s ersatz cancellation is the fact that what people were initially taking issue with was a sitting senator cheering on a bust-the-door-down-and-murder-people-in-the-Capitol coup. That is literally what Josh Hawley did on camera. We all saw it. That is what every Republican entertaining the Trump administration’s lawsuits contesting the election results were doing, too.
We have known that those willing to pledge public loyalty to Trump have better, though not necessarily guaranteed, chances at skirting consequences for standing by his side because that’s how tyrants think. We knew that there would be all sorts of ridiculous, last-minute pardons for people like Steve Bannon, Elliott Broidy, and, Lil Wayne, because they all communicated to Trump that they believed in him, even if only for their own personal gain. Now, they’re skirting jail time for committing crimes that would leave virtually anyone else who wasn’t an extravagantly wealthy, craven sycophant behind bars for years.
When any Star Wars credits begin rolling, we understand that the Dark Side is always going to come back in some way, shape or form, and the forces of good will rise up to meet them as part of how the Force’s balance shapes reality. That is not how our reality functions in the least, and while this does not always feel like something that should need repeating, at this moment (which extends far beyond January 6), there is nothing more important than having a solid grasp of what is actually going on and not trying to simplify things with badly-timed jokes.
The Post’s piece stood out both because it was published by a legacy newspaper of (questionable) repute, and because of how it embodied the Star Wars fandom’s abiding love of its villains despite their real-world connotations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with people liking villains and understanding them as complex, fictional people who go through dramatic arcs that illustrate their internal growth. But there’s little to be gained from conflating real-world bad actors with Stormtroopers, Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, or any of the other famous fictional villains occupying space in people’s minds, especially when those conflations come at the expense of perspective.
This weird, rhetorical trap also manifests and functions in similar ways, but to different ends, in moments like the hours after the 2021 Georgia runoff election that culminated in the state flipping blue, with both Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff winning their respective races for the Senate. What happened in Georgia was not the miraculous result of some singular superheroic effort that can easily fit into celebratory social media posts comparing Stacey Abrams to name brand superheroes.
The reality is that Abrams in particular poured monumental amounts of energy into organizing, bringing attention to the Georgia runoffs, and conveying to the public why their participation in the democratic process is vital to our society. All of this came in the wake of Abrams losing her 2018 bid for Georgia’s governor’s seat to Republican incumbent Brian Kemp, but refusing to concede because of the many well-documented instances of voter suppression throughout Georgia during the election that disproportionately affected Black, Democratic voters.
Again, it’s nice to think of the systematic disenfranchisement situation in Georgia as a battle that’s been fought and won like in the comics. But just last week, Alice O’Lenick, the chairwoman of the Gwinnett County GOP elections board expressed her plan to place more restrictions on voting meant to “change the major parts of [the rules] so that [Republicans] at least have a shot at winning.” The fight to protect voting rights is neither new, nor over, and it’s going to be key for everyone to keep those truths in mind as we move into the future.
What’s lost in likening Abrams, Warnock, and Ossoff to superheroes is the important work that’s being done to enfranchise tens of thousands of voters who’ve historically been shut out of politics so much so that people believe Southern states like Georgia to be places where change isn’t possible. That kind of change is possible, though, and we’ve seen it. Replicating that change and working towards a more truly representative democracy is an achievable goal that won’t simply come by putting the blind faith of superhero fandom into any one elected official. It’ll come as a result of people understanding what strategies work to boost voter turnout, what systemic roadblocks to the ballot box need to be demolished, and impressing upon the public how all of this is a group effort.
There’s a time and a place for us to get lost in the simplicity of fantasy as an escape from the real world and its material facts. But right now, we owe it to ourselves to be smarter about how we let our love of fiction shape our perceptions and feelings about the world we live in.
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