There is perhaps no narrative referenced more in today’s pop culture than that of Batman. It makes sense: Batman is omnipresent. He first appeared in 1939, and has subsequently been in eight live action films, two live action television shows, countless animated films and television series, and thousands of comic books. The ninth and tenth live action films to feature Batman (and, of course, Bruce Wayne) are both to be released in 2016.
Metaphors are how we talk about things in America. We seek something we already know from history or literature or film and we apply it to what we see today. At the moment, we have a political candidate whose ego and campaign results in comparisons ranging from homegrown Americans like Andrew Jackson and George Wallace to contemporary European buffoons like Silvio Berlusconi. And, of course, Adolf Hitler.
When a narrative has become as firmly cemented in American experience as Batman, it’s no surprise that it’s a common and convenient place to turn when seeking metaphors for our current political atmosphere. Parallels have been drawn repeatedly between candidate Donald Trump and the cast of rogues and anti-heroes in Batman’s Gotham City. In August of 2015, Trump proclaimed himself Batman. A month earlier, The Economist had described Trump as resembling Heath Ledger’s the Joker in The Dark Knight, a metaphor found in various places and explored further on this blog. Recently, comparisons have bubbled up across the internet comparing Trump to The Penguin, often accompanied by the hashtag #MakeGothamGreatAgain.
Interested in reading fiction by D. F. Lovett, the author of this blog post? Check out his debut sci-fi novel here.
But who is Donald Trump? Does he resemble his fellow billionaire Bruce Wayne, or one of Batman’s malevolent foes? Is he one of the few heroes or the many villains that populate the fictional Gotham City? Is he the hero we deserve? The one we need?
Or is he our reckoning?
Let’s investigate, beginning with one of the most common comparisons I’ve seen since the beginning of Trump’s campaign: The Penguin.
“The liberation of Gotham has begun!” – The Penguin in Batman Returns (1992)
Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot first appeared in issue #58 of Detective Comics, in which he hid a shotgun in his umbrella and pulled off a number of heists, initially unsuspected because of his bizarre appearance. Since then, he’s been portrayed by the cackling Burgess Meredith in the campy television series and film of the 1960s, by Danny DeVito in Tim Burton’s bizarre Batman Returns, and by Robin Lord Taylor in today’s Gotham television show.
Each interpretation of the Penguin is slightly different, but some key elements are universal throughout his depictions.
The Penguin and Trump are both conventionally unattractive, with their appearance being a source for easy jokes.
The unpleasant appearances of Oswald Cobblepot and Donald Trump simultaneously inspire disgust and sympathy. They are vain men with repulsive physical appearances. The Penguin has deformed hands in many depictions, a small incapable body, and a twisted, ugly face.
The Donald has bizarre hair, an oafish leering face, and infamously small hands. He also boasts of his manhood in the manner of only the most insecure and ashamed.
This appearance results in two things: cheap japes from their opponents, and a drive that propels them forward.
Both run for office with dangerous rhetoric, inspiring violence in their fans
The Penguin has run for campaign twice in his character’s lifetime: first in an episode of the 1960s television show, and again in the 1992 Burton film.
Trump’s candidacy bears a striking similarity to these two Cobblepot campaigns, like a fever dream hybrid between the two.
As pointed out by Eric Kleefeld in The National Memo, Trump’s campaign disturbingly resembles that of the 1960s Penguin, during which the Penguin exclaims “Can I help it if I have enthusiastic fans,” referring to violent acts committed by his henchmen. As Kleefeld says (and this blog agrees), this comment by the Penguin bears “stark resemblance to what Trump said this past August, after two men were arrested in Boston for allegedly beating a homeless Hispanic man.” The violence in the Trump camp has only escalated since Kleefeld wrote his brilliant dissection of the similarities between Trump and Cobblepot and the violence they inspire without disavowing.
The similarities don’t end there: evolving lies and cartoonish antics. Trump’s campaign is a circus, while DeVito’s the Penguin in Batman Returns is a mayoral candidates whose entourage is a literal circus.
An obsession with money
“’tis better to have loved and lost, and made a small profit, than never to have loved at all!” – The Penguin, Batman: The Animated Series (1993)
“I like money. I’m very greedy. I’m a greedy person. I shouldn’t tell you that, I’m a greedy – I’ve always been greedy. I love money, right?” – Donald Trump, January 2016
It’s rare to hear a public figure openly admit how much they love money. Of all Batman’s foes, there may be none more obsessed with cash than the Penguin.
And of all the public figures to have make an effort to live in the White House, no one can compare to the open greediness of Trump.
How does Trump differ from the Penguin?
“Despite the monetary wherewithal to indulge one’s palate – your epicurean tastes run to the mundane. While I, on the other hand, intend to fill my gullet – until I have feted my ravenous appetite!” – The Penguin, Haunted Knight (1995)
As evidenced in the quote above, the Penguin’s vocabulary and speaking patterns tend to remind one more of Cruz than of Trump. Other differences abound:
- The Penguin often refers to himself as “a gentleman of crime.” Aside from his portrayal by DeVito, he is rarely lewd or inappropriate. Trump speaks with the intellect of a third grader, but he rarely uses words you would want your own third grader to use.
- While both may be insecure about their physical stature, as stated above, the Penguin acknowledges it. Trump does not.
- The Penguin is a bullied child who eventually became a criminal. Trump resembles one of the Penguin’s childhood bullies, afraid of his own shortcomings and repeatedly mocking the appearances of others.
- Finally, their personal brands are very different. Trump inaccurately refers to himself as self-made. The Penguin is a riches-to-rags story, longing for when his family had aristocratic status: “I am from noble blood! The Cobblepots were once the toast of society! I am a Cobblepot!”
Trump Resemblance Rating: 5 out of 10
The best comparison to Trump is probably the two incarnations who run for political office, one in the ’60s and one in the ’90s.
But, as evidenced above, the similarities are limited. And there are other Batman characters to whom Trump bears a more striking resemblance, who will be discussed in future articles exploring this question.
Finally: Trump certainly does not see himself as the Penguin in this narrative. He thinks that role belongs to Mitt Romney:
“Number one, when you walk into a state you cannot walk like a penguin. He walked like a penguin. I said this is a problem,” Trump said. “Somebody tell him take some steps. Romney turned out to be a disaster.”
The investigation continues with Which Batman Character Does Trump Most Resemble? Part 2: The Scarecrow