Toward the finale of the 2016 election, Mike Huckabee took to Fox News to give a defense of Donald Trump that I’ve been mulling over in my head ever since.
I see Trump as Capt Quint (Robert Shaw) on the boat, Orca, in the movie “Jaws.” He’s salty, drunk and says incorrect things. He spits in your face. BUT… He’s gonna save your rear. You may not like what he says but, in the end, you and your family survive.
“Vote for the fishing boat captain,” Huckabee said. “Not the shark.”
While ineloquent and muddled, Huckabee’s defense gave a great insight into why people were lining up behind Donald Trump. They saw him as a vulgar presence, but he was their vulgar presence against the greater dangers.
If Huckabee were more versed in film, literature, or television, he would have realized that there are a thousand better metaphors for who Donald Trump is: he is, in the eyes of his followers, the anti-hero of the True America.
A different defense of Trump comes to mind, one that his followers would surely cite, had they seen the first season of True Detective:
Marty: Do you wonder ever if you’re a bad man?
Rust: No, I don’t wonder, Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.
The world needs bad men. It seems like a missed opportunity that Trump’s campaign didn’t snap that up as their slogan. One can imagine Rust and Marty’s conversation rolling over footage of Donald Trump mocking Serge Kovaleski, or Rust’s defense of bad men and musings on man’s inability to love intercut with I moved on her like a bitch and you can do anything.
This is not a specific argument I’ve seen much of, unsurprisingly. It’s easy to assume that True Detective didn’t have a major following among Trump voters, particularly when one compares one recent study on regional television viewership demographics with the breakdown of voter demographics in the 2016 election.
However, Huckabee isn’t the only pundit to notice that Trump’s appeal is not being a traditional hero, but being the scoundrel on your side.
You can take a look at some of the headlines to see that this has been thoroughly explored, including a) Trump and the rise of the anti-hero from CNN b) President Trump: America chooses an anti-hero from Yahoo c) The Anti-Hero Candidacy of Donald Trump from Huffington Post d) The Donald Rises: Why Republicans Want an Anti-Hero in 2016 from The Week ad e) Trump’s success as an antihero relies on the power of reality TV and drama over reality from The LA Times
At this point, I have to point out that there is nothing unique in saying that Trump is an anti-hero and our obsession with anti-heroes in our media and film is what got Trump elected. As evidenced by the articles I just listed, this has been exhaustively explored.
What I do have is another layer to add to this: the rise of the anti-hero in our media came from the America that emerged during the presidency of George W. Bush.
During the Bush era, America found itself in the role of the anti-hero. This is what propelled the flawed and gritty protagonist into our film and television. This is what prompted the wave of dark and gritty reboots that are still grinding today.
Art imitates life imitates art. Politics causes pop culture causes politics. Bush was our cowboy hero who became tainted, tattered, and gritty as our wars became unwinnable and our morals murky. Obama was our shining hero, our knight in shining armor, our warrior who could not be everything he wanted to be.
And now there is Trump: the gritty anti-hero, the protagonist who rapes, the populist king. He is the danger.
But, before I move forward with this argument, it’s important to pause and discuss what we talk about when we talk about anti-heroes.
What is an anti-hero?
“Anti-hero” is defined by the The American Heritage College Dictionary (1993 edition) as “a main character in a dramatic or narrative work who lacks tradition heroic qualities, such as idealism or courage.” According to Dictionary.com, an anti-hero is “a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit, a life or attitude marked by action or purpose, and the like.”
And now, let’s pause to define “protagonist.”
In Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner defines a protagonist as
Literally, protagonist = the chief character in a drama. By extension, it means “a champion of a cause.” It should not be used loosely in reference to any character in a drama or any supporter of a cause–only to the chief one.
Thus, we have two rules for what an anti-hero is. First, they are the protagonist. Second, they lack heroic qualities. It is essential that an anti-hero be the protagonist. Otherwise, they are just a supporting character, a deuteragonist, an antagonist, or a genuine villain.
Examples of anti-heroes include Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, Don Draper in Mad Men, Walter White in Breaking Bad, and Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.
Who doesn’t qualify as an anti-hero?
- Ned Stark in Game of Thrones (too noble, too good; a classic hero)
- Draco Malfoy (not the protagonist)
- Harvey Dent (a tragic hero, rather than anti-hero; also, not the protagonist of The Dark Knight)
- Captain America, Spiderman, Superman, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, Ellen Ripley, Rey in The Force Awakens, and any other heroic protagonist who upholds what we expects from our heroes, often in the mode of Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With a Thousand Faces.
- The Joker, Voldemort, Hannibal Lecter, and any other villain who serves the role of antagonist rather than protagonist.
- Any character who is not the protagonist
It’s worth noting that, within this definition, Huckabee’s example does not quality as a true anti-hero, as Quint is the third male lead in Jaws. Mayor Brody is the protagonist, making Quint inelgible to be considered as the anti-hero by conventional definitions. Of course, this also says something about how Huckabee views himself: Huckabee views himself as the hero and Donald Trump as the bad man he is reluctantly aligned with.
The Anti-Hero Rises: How the Bush Era Turned America Into a Global Anti-Hero
We were the good guys at the beginning of the 21st century, at least in our own eyes. Sure, George W. Bush slouched into office without the popular vote or the ability to express himself in words. He had read few books, dabbled in drunk driving, and was generally portrayed by the media as an American fool.
But, while self-advertising as a moralizing Christian and conservative, it’s important to remember that Bush did not run on a warmongering platform in 2000. Before the attacks of September 11th, 2001, “the Bush Doctrine” referred not to America’s war on terror but to Bush’s general approach to foreign policy, including Bush’s disinterest in ratifying and adopting the Kyoto Protocol. (See Charles Krauthammer’s 2008 article in The Washington Post for more on this.)
And then: The September 11th attacks, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War. Bush had “changed course,” and the country with him.
Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. – George W. Bush, September 21st, 2001
There were no anti-heroes in this scenario. You could be a good guy or you could be the bad guy. It was your choice, but you had only two options.
And then what happened?
The trouble was simple: once you enter war that cannot be won, the clear lines between good and evil begin to fade. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in 2003 and strutted about in a flight suit. The “Mission Accomplished” moment is universally considered a mistake by Bush’s allies, Bush’s critics, and Bush himself.
From the terror attacks of 9/11 to the end of Bush’s second term, we saw an evolution from the Good Guys to the Guys Who Are At Least Less Bad. Drone strikes, dead civilians, thousands of Americans dying for an increasingly unclear cause.
Bush had been Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Now, he was becoming something else. Something more troubled, unclear. Something that was soon reflected in the films of his second term.
A new Bush, a new Batman, a new Bond
Bush may have been re-elected in 2004, but his popularity began to slump and wane shortly into his second term. It seemed that things were catching up with him, including NSA surveillance, his mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, and his general missions unaccomplished. And in the midst of all of it, a major issue began to permeate: torture.
It was something you couldn’t avoid wherever you looked. America had begun torturing its enemies and perceived enemies.
And soon, someone else was torturing their enemies: the protagonists on the screen. “Enhanced interrogation” had once been something that happened to heroes at the hands of villains.
Torture was what Kevin Spacey did to his victims in Se7en, what happened to James Bond on his various adventures, what Mel Gibson suffered through in everything.
Now Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer used torture as a go-to tactic in 24. Here was one of America’s action stars, coming to your television sets on a weekly basis to commit the kind of acts that were once reserved for only villains.
And he wasn’t alone. Bush’s second term saw the re-imagining of two of the most compelling and recognized characters in Western popular culture: James Bond and Batman.
Bush’s Second Term and the Beginning of the Dark and Gritty Reboot
The new Batman arrived in 2005, heralding the beginning of what is now known as the dark ‘n’ gritty reboot. Bond was quick on Bruce Wayne’s heels. As described in GQ,
The decision to reboot the franchise was a kind of preemptive strike—a recognition that that Jack Bauers and Jason Bournes of the world were starting to make James Bond look a little creaky. Today, the idea of a dark and gritty reboot has correctly become a much-derided cliche, but after surfing down a glacier and fencing against Madonna, Bond was desperately in need of a dark and gritty reboot.
But let’s consider this on a scale larger than just that of the cinema. It wasn’t just that our films had changed. Our world had changed. Sure, the US and the UK could still reassure themselves that they were the good guys. But with torture and surveillance and illegal extradition in the headlines, we could no longer claim that everything we did was pure and righteous.
And so our heroes evolved to change alongside it. Look at who our action heroes and superheroes were in 2000 and the early Bush years:
- Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000) as the heroic, betrayed, ultimately-martyred General Maximus Decimus Meridius, avenging the death of his family and waging a battle against the incestuous, creepy, cleft-lipped and patricidal Emperor Commodus.
- Tobey Maguire as the wise-cracking, completely innocent good guy Spiderman (2002).
- The softest incarnation of Wolverine in history, alongside a bunch of other good mutants fighting bad mutants in the first several films of the X-Men franchise.
- Tom Cruise as a heroic, albeit smug, good ol’ boy hero in the Mission Impossible films.
And then let’s look at what began to occur in Bush’s second term and beyond:
- Batman Begins in 2005 and The Dark Knight in 2008, both of which are considered explicit metaphors for the Bush administration.
- A general assembly of criminals and crooks in Sin City (2005), all fighting slightly worse criminals and crooks.
- A knife-twirling burn victim semi-terrorist in V for Vendetta (2005)
- A collection of cops and criminals, all flawed and violent and dishonest, in The Departed (2006)
- The vicious oilman Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007) and the hero-free No Country for Old Men (2007).
- Finally, there are the Jason Bourne films, which become increasingly darker and more troubling in their questions about America’s foreign policies, in installments in 2002, 2004, 2007, 2012, and 2016.
- A host of other dark-n-gritty reboots, both good and bad.
Of course, many of these are original works rather than dark-n-gritty reboots, but they indicate the evolving zeitgeist of America coming to terms with its changing role.
We are still the protagonists and we are still the greater good, these films seem to say, even when we do terrible things. Because we are not as bad as the bad guys.
The Anti-Hero Comes to Television
Ah, but what of television? While the evolution is easier to see in our action and superhero films, the anti-hero did come to television sooner, in two groundbreaking incarnations: Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw.
While critically-acclaimed masterpieces, there is a distinct difference in the reach between the HBO of the ’90s and early oughts and the Batman and Bond reboots. Sure, 12 million people watched the finale of The Sopranos, but The Dark Knight made over one billion dollars at the box office.
That, and both The Sopranos and Sex and the City were not trends but outliers, in their quality, their longform narrative, and their protagonists. They were also the beginning. Where they were groundbreaking and unusual, the anti-hero became the norm in premiere television by the end of Bush’s second term, including:
- Jimmy McNulty in The Wire (premiered in 2004)
- Dexter Morgan in Dexter (premiered in 2006)
- Don Draper in Mad Men (premiered in 2007)
- Walter White in Breaking Bad (premiered in 2008)
- Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy (premiered in 2008)
Finally, it’s notable that all these narratives–and many more “prestige dramas” with ensemble casts–were fleshed out by violent, immoral, or crude supporting characters much like “the fishing boat captain” described by Huckabee. And that these supporting characters are ultimately good guys. The immoral anti-heroes are supported by worlds and characters of the equally immoral.
We should also consider characters like Jack Bauer on 24, Dan Humphrey on Gossip Girl, and various other characters went from being traditional heroes to unconventional anti-heroes as their shows progressed.
Why the Anti-Hero Remained Compelling During the Obama Era
One might assume: based on this evidence, the anti-hero’s appeal resulted from the reckoning of the Bush years. Did the wave break with the end of Bush’s second term and his rock bottom approval rating?
Did the election of Obama end the allure of the anti-hero? Did the wave break? Did the reboots no longer remain dark and gritty?
As we already know, the answer is simple: of course not. The darker, realer reboot arrived in the Bush era but made no effort to ride into the sunset during the Obama years. The anti-heroes were here to stay.
“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
Fitzgerald once wrote the words above, and it’s not hard to think of a thousand examples of heroic protagonists with tragic ends. John F. Kennedy, Prince Hamlet, Han Solo, Oedipus, Fitzgerald’s own Gatsby.
This is the appeal of the anti-hero. It’s far easier for an anti-hero to succeed, to avoid tragedy, because they do not have the moral constraints or the golden expectations of the hero. Clint Eastwood can paint the town red and kill whomever he wants in High Plains Drifter because we expect nothing more of him. Walter White can succeed through calculated violence and murder. Beatrix Kiddo can leave a blind woman in a trailer with a poisonous snake. These are not things that traditional heroes can do without losing a piece of their heroism.
Senator Barack Obama became President Barack Obama not by leaning into the violence and negativity, but by offering hope, change, and idealism. He appealed to our higher selves. The people we wished to be. He was a conventional hero, with hardly the shred of the anti-heroes who had consumed our televisions.
It was because of this that he disappointed his allies and enraged his detractors. He promised to end the torture, to stop the wars, to change things. Those promises were enough to frighten the fuming masses, who organized themselves into raging Tea Parties. The lack of promise fulfillment was what cast him as another hero like the one Fitzgerald wrote of.
Obama’s America and the Enormous Green Rage Monster
When they are first introduced in the 2012 film The Avengers, Marvel’s Tony Stark compliments Bruce Banner by telling him
“I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster”
Both of these men are flawed in their own way. Tony Stark is a narcissistic billionaire playboy who has turned his antics as Iron Man into a form of celebrity; Bruce Banner is a good, troubled scientist who cannot control the rage inside him that turns him into The Hulk.
Banner is apologetic for the monster that takes hold of him. Tony Stark celebrates his monsters. One man’s demon is another man’s swagger.
With a conventional hero in the White House, the distinction between heroes and anti-heroes only became more noticeable. Obama might be a hero, but America’s status during his era remained that of global anti-hero. Disturbed, broken, torn in two, a country of violence and rage. And as Obama disappointed–both from what he did and what he could not do–the country’s admiration for anti-heroes only deepened.
- The Obama error saw increasingly darker narratives for Don Draper, Walter White, Dexter Morgan, Jax Teller, Jack Bauer, Bruce Wayne, James Bond, and all the other anti-heroes introduced or re-introduced during the Bush Era.
- The Fast and Furious films evolved from fun movies about illegal street racing to heist-centric action films about a crew of charming outlaws.
- New anti-heroes appeared on television, including Selina Meyer on Veep, the House of Cards duo, Kerry Washington in Scandal, William H. Macy in Shameless, and Kenny Powers in Eastbound and Down, and Carrie Mathison in Homeland.
- Charlie Sheen’s Charlie Harper on Two and a Half Men; another playboy bachelor whose antics became increasingly disturbing until he was murdered by another character. (And, of course, Charlie Sheen himself, an anti-hero that fascinates America)
- Wolverine leaning into his rage.
- Lisabeth Salander, John Luther, Nucky Thompson, and all the other anti-heroes in pop literature or premier cable.
- Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, transforming from an idealist, clean-shirted sheriff to one of the most prominent anti-heroes on television.
- Every central character in Game of Thrones, a narrative in which the protagonist was beheaded and every remaining character is flawed and increasingly violent.
There may be no better example than Magneto in the X-Men films. Where Magneto was once a villain and antagonist to the heroes in the original X-Men trilogy, he now serves as an anti-hero in the latest X-Men films, portrayed by Michael Fassbender.
Batman Kills People Now
As Obama’s second term came to its end, we saw how an obsession with ever darker and ever grittier results in weaker narratives and redundant concepts. There may be no better manifestation of this than the Batman portrayed by Ben Affleck in Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
While Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is arguably the high water mark of superhero films, the latest incarnation of Batman has gone several shades darker. Where Bruce Wayne once dedicated himself to never killing, not even the Joker, the latest Batman casually uses guns and leaves bodies in his wake.
This is not to say that the Batfleck is disappointing or a let-down. His character is regarded by many as the highlight of the latest DC films. But one has to wonder, why go even darker? Why did this Batman need to be more haunted than the one who spent months with a broken back in a hole in the desert? Why did you need to top the one inspired by Howard Hughes?
The Anti-Hero of Reality Rises
And now, we must consider what else began to manifest itself during the Obama era. It was not just in our films and scripted television shows that the anti-hero took the reins. He was somewhere else: in our reality television and in our news coverage.
Consider the anti-heroes who began to appear in our nations’s “news”:
- As mentioned above, Charlie Sheen and his mental illness in the nation’s spotlight
- Lance Armstrong, a villain to some and an anti-hero to many.
- Adrian Peterson, Ben Roethlisberger, Ray Lewis, and all the other arrogant, troubled, law-breaking athletes, seemingly more in the news every day.
- Kanye West and his wife and in-laws
- Glenn Beck and his fellow Tea Partiers.
- And finally, Donald Trump. The imaginary business tycoon. The leering, oafish, scheming creep whose greatest skills may be playing a caricature of himself and filing for bankruptcy.
When our fictions are so crowded with anti-heroes, how can it be a surprise that our news channels became crowded with the same sort? With our fictions celebrating the violent Rick Grimes and the vicious Heisenberg, who can be surprised that our non-fictions skewed in the same direction?
The White House Needs Bad Men
Barack Obama wanted to be a hero. He tried and tried to be a hero. And his way of doing so was simple: he sought to appeal to higher natures. He believed in optimism, courage, and hope.
Already his legacies are being dismantled, his throne tarnished, his efforts met with scorn from the voters who removed his party from power and replaced them with a man famous for his temper and vile nature.
America tried to be good. America tried to be noble and brave. Now it’s calloused, vulgar, filthy. Deplorable is an adjective embraced by the Trumpists. Like the vampires who “came out of the coffin” in True Blood, the racists of America have come out of their white hoods. White nationalists, KKK members, and Neo Nazis call themselves the “alt-right” and have gone from the fringes to the District of Columbia.
“Keeps the bad men from the door…”
This is Rust Cohle’s defense of the bad man. He protects you and yours. He is not good but he is for the greater good.
Consider the defense of any of these characters. Walter White, Don Draper, Tony Stark: all bad men whose enemies are worse. This is the argument for Donald Trump. This is the narrative that was implanted in the minds of his voters. This is what Huckabee wanted, what Paul Ryan accepted, what Alex Jones and the others advocated. Donald Trump is the monster, but he is their monster.
But there is a question in Trump’s America: who are the bad men? Who is the enemy of this anti-hero?
It’s certainly not Russia. Is it terror? The political establishment? The traditional GOP? Liberalism? Women? Mexico? Muslims? Wall Street?
We know that America’s Anti-Hero-in-Chief considers himself to have enemies, as he recently tweeted:
Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do.
The answer, as of now, seems to be simple: the enemy is anyone he wants it to be. Anyone who opposes him. We have returned to what Bush once said:
Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.
But with Trump, this message gets a dark and gritty reboot. It’s no longer about us. When Bush spoke of us, he spoke of America. Trump’s philosophy could be better summed up as this:
Every person, in every room, now has a decision to make. Either you are with me, or you are with my enemies.
Like the anti-heroes in our films and fictions, our current president is a haunted, troubled man. We cannot know everything in his mind, but it’s clear to all that he’s kept up at night by demons of all sorts. While politicians used to have skeletons in their closets, Donald Trump’s past indiscretions and open secrets are corpses in the living room.
The End of the Dark and Gritty Reboot?
At this point, it’s worth acknowledging that no hands are clean in this mess. America, as a whole, loved the realistic reboot.
President Obama isn’t even an exception; his favorite character in The Wire is Omar Little and he would spend his vacations watching advance episodes of Game of Thrones and True Detective.
This blog celebrated the dark and gritty reboot. I once advocated for rebooting The Fast and the Furious as a Faulkner-themed The Sound and the Furious and suggested someone make a disturbing, violent reimagining of The Waterboy.
Sure, that was tongue-in-cheek, but I did prefer the “gritty realism” of the films that arose in the Bush era. I have continuously praised Game of Thrones for its nuanced depictions of morality and criticized The Hunger Games for being too traditional in its depictions of good and evil. I even suggested that The Departed isn’t morally ambiguous enough. My favorite character in Game of Thrones is Jaime Lannister.
But the wave seems to be breaking, both for my own tastes and in general. Consider that Ghostbusters and Jurassic Park and Star Wars and Independence Day were all given 2015 or 2016 installments that did not take the franchise into some new, grittier place. Consider that some of the greatest failures recently have been attempts to go darker and grittier, including Pan and Suicide Squad.
Consider how tired House of Cards has become, continually worse with its season. Consider the optimism of Stranger Things, the heroism of Westworld‘s Bernard and Dolores and Maeve, the lack of cynicism in the heroes of Fargo.
Sure, the anti-hero might rule television at the moment, but it’s reasonable to think this trend could fade soon.
Show Me an Anti-Hero
At this point, it’s worth considering where the dark-and-gritty reboot can take us at this point. What lessons are left to be squeezed from the tales of anti-heroes? Because those lessons are still there and, based on the recent election, it’s possible that we may embrace the anti-hero but we haven’t fully pondered his lesson yet.
In an earlier article that compared Donald Trump with a Vonnegut character, I asked the question:
Will Donald Trump, like Malachi Constant and Eliot Rosewater before him, have some kind of epiphany, becoming a good-hearted and generous benefactor who apologies for his previous faults?
What is the endgame for an anti-hero? It depends on the narrative, of course, but it’s worth considering that it often doesn’t work out. An anti-hero commonly reaches a tragic end. The appeal of an anti-hero, to both storyteller and audience, is that you don’t have to give them a happy ending. They don’t deserve one. The fishing captain lauded by Mike Huckabee is the final victim of the shark in Jaws.
With Donald Trump, it’s hard to imagine an ending that satisfies. Even when his delusional followers are willingly-deceived by his multitude of lies, it’s difficult to see how this could sustain him for eight years. Like so many anti-heroes before him, a reckoning appears to lie before Donald Trump, whether through an impeachment, a crushing mid-term election, or a failed re-election campaign.
I also have the suspicion that, like Sarah Palin or Jesse Ventura before him, he may realize this isn’t quite what he wanted. He may resign as Palin did or, like Ventura, choose not to seek re-election as an effort to save face.
Like so many anti-heroes before him, it seems likely that Trump’s narrative will be a series of escalations and conflicts. The concern is how much American carnage will be let in this anti-hero’s wake.
A Hero Can Be Anyone
As a final thought, let’s consider the other danger in this: the act of admiring fictional characters and strangers.
Donald Trump was elected president because he played a cruel business guy on television. Soon, we learned he was even cruder and uglier behind the screen than on it, and some only admired him even more for it. Now the people who voted for him are showing their ugliest sides, celebrating the end of “PC culture.” The worst thing may have already happened. It’s now acceptable to be a deplorable in America.
But, as shown by the tremendous displays of feminism, patriotism, and courage, we aren’t going to take it. As The Economist put it, Trump may unwittingly be a revitalising force for American feminism. This is a chance for anyone to step up and be a hero. To lace up our shoes.
The Batman portrayed in The Dark Knight Rises may have had some anti-hero qualities, but it’s worth remembering what he told Commissioner Jim Gordon at the end of the film:
Jim Gordon: I never cared who you were…Batman: And you were right.Jim Gordon: …but shouldn’t the people know the hero who saved them?Batman: A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.
Anyone can become an anti-hero, if willing to let that happen to yourself. But a hero can be anyone. We are all the protagonists in our own lives. The tragedy of Trump’s election need not be the ending of a good America. It’s only another time when the villain took control, inspiring courage and valor in the true heroes.
Trump is our ugly reflection, the zeitgeist’s vulgar monster. This is our chance to be resist his line of thinking. This is our chance to be heroes.