This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on March 10, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
How could we as a nation have ever elected Lex Luthor to the office of President?
I’m going to paraphrase our friend, the very talented comics critic, J.A. Micheline to start this answer:
This was supposed to be a comics blog, but I suppose blogging about comics is blogging about life.
Now let me tell you a story. There once was a young boy born to great privilege; he was a young, white man raised in America. Not only was he given the considerable advantages bestowed upon him by his birth, but he was also someone of great talents. This young man was very smart and incredibly charismatic. In fact, the only problem he really seemed to face were problems with his hair. Given those origins, it’s no surprise that he became as successful as he did.
This man wasn’t just talented or lucky, he was also incredibly driven. Taking his skills he set his eyes on one of the greatest cities in America and decided to make his fortune there. There’s no debating that he did in fact make a fortune either. While his luck would change often, shifting him from a respected mogul to a bankrupt dealmaker, he always seemed to find a way to come back. Not all of his schemes were successful and some could be described as cartoonish, but in the end he always come out on top.
That’s how he earned a reputation as a businessman, one with his name proudly displayed on towers and emblazoned on all sorts of labels. Yet his success as a businessman and billions of dollars were not enough. For you see, he wasn’t just driven by ambition, this man was also driven by one of the seven deadly sins: vanity.
And so the businessman also sought fame and power beyond his own business empire. He entered American households through popular media like television and movies, and began to seek alternative outlets to boost his national standing. The man challenged national heroes, accusing one of America’s greatest citizens of being a phony on the grounds of his nationality. He spat in the face of decency and respect in order to promote himself over those trying to help others. In his mind no man could be greater than himself and so he took the success of others as an insult and insulted those who might be more admired in return.
Eventually, this sense of self-aggrandizement and disdain for his fellow man led him to seek the Presidency. No office holds more real or symbolic power and this man could imagine no one better suited to the task than himself. In spite of years of criminal charges, xenophobia, and hate-mongering, he was able to launch a serious bid for the White House too.
Now I’d like to ask you a question. Who do you think this story is about?
Because this is the story of Lex Luthor, a comic book supervillain and Superman’s arch-nemesis. It’s the story of a talented, but narcissistic parasite who became President of the United States of America in the “President Lex” storyline spread through Action Comics, Superman: Man of Steel, and various other DC comics. It’s a fiction composed in a fantastical universe chock full of ridiculous powers and unbelievable scenarios.
But we all know that it’s not just Lex Luthor and DC Comic’s story anymore. It’s now becoming the story of Donald Trump and America.
I understand why it’s funny to make a comparison between Lex Luthor and Donald Trump. Conflating Trump’s cartoonish antics to those of a literal cartoon makes for a shockingly apt comparison with lots of amusing similarities (just imagine if Lex wore a rug). But I don’t want to dig into that joke here because laughing at it distracts from the utter insanity that the next President of the United States of America may be a dumbed down version of President Luthor. That’s not funny at all. It’s terrifying.
In DC Comics villains can be counted upon to aid in their own undoing and there are actual superheroes to save the world. We don’t have the benefits of these genre elements though. If someone truly horrific is put in charge of a world power, we just have to live with the results. When egomaniacal mad men like Adolf Hitler or Mao Zedong have risen in the past, very real people paid the price.
President Luthor ultimately pumped himself full of drugs (Venom and synthetic Kryptonite), put on a battlesuit, and tried to fight Superman on the front lawn of the White House. I doubt we’ll get nearly as lucky with President Trump. Instead we’ll most likely wind up with four years marked by racist, sexist, Islamophobic policies and spiraling international relations with both our allies and rivals. The damage President Trump is capable of would be far worse than a few Superman-sized holes in front of the White House. It would also be far more difficult to repair.
You didn’t ask about what would happen if elected President Luthor to office though, you asked how we could do it. I’m going to set a precedent on “Leading Questions” with my response to that specific question. The only honest answer I have for that question is “I don’t know.”
How do you convince a majority of voters to elect a man who is so obviously filled with hatred and driven purely by self-aggrandizement? I don’t know.
It’s the sort of fanciful narrative that belongs in a world filled with flying alien men and immortal Amazonian women. There’s no way that people could be so blind to the dangers of someone like President Luthor, especially after a career filled with his boorish personality and many, many failings (both public and private) that they would trust him to hold the office of President. It’s an excuse for some yarns, ranging from mediocre to good, that provide a new power dynamic and interesting scenarios, but ultimately it’s a fantasy.
Yet it looks increasingly likely that someone very similar to Luthor could be elected President. It’s not just Trump’s narrative either. In many ways Ted Cruz mirrors Reverend William Stryker, a religious zealot prepared to destroy the world in devotion to his own beliefs. These men bare a greater resemblance of personality and values to supervillains than they do to revered figures in their own party like President Ronald Reagan.
I don’t know how that happens. I studied economics in college and pay close attention to the news, and even if I can understand how we reached this point from a logical or historical point of view, I cannot grasp it on a human level. There’s too much hatred and ugliness being presented as salvation and hope, and then succeeding in doing so, for it to make sense. That doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless though.
Lex Luthor became President because the story demanded it. Superman was there to save the day because that’s the way superhero stories work. When a bad guy looks to be winning, a hero saves the day. We don’t have a literal Superman to save us. No matter how much you may love someone like Sanders, no one person is capable of overcoming all of the ills of the world. That doesn’t mean we don’t have the benefit of Superman though.
I’ve always said that Superman’s greatest power is his ability to inspire others. He is the golden example from which all other superheroes are derived and that has given millions of readers an aspirational hero for almost a century. Superman is the person who always helps others, who always stands up to injustice, and who never surrenders. While he may not be real, the example he sets certainly is.
The time is quickly approaching when we’ll have to learn whether there really is a logical explanation for why Americans would elect someone like Lex Luthor to be President. That’s not a pre-determined conclusion though. While we may be stuck with real-life Lex Luthors with worse hair and less intelligence, we’re also all capable of trying to be better. Voting for the better choice in November might be a small act, but it’s an aspirational one. It’s the sort of action that will help ensure President Luthor remains an unexplainable flight of fancy rather than a mirror of a country capable of so much better.