“Yes, I am Batman.” – Donald J. Trump, August 15, 2015
They were the unmistakable faces of right-wing populism in America. He was a billionaire with the common touch, whose rough-hewn vocabulary was rich in slang and invective. The fact that he was one of the richest men in America didn’t prevent him from becoming the voice of the ordinary person. He liked steak and potatoes rather than fancy French fare, and was more at ease with roughnecks than high-society types. He’d gone bankrupt more than once, but that just reinforced his reputation as a fighter, a tough guy who could handle himself in a world of sharks and killers. A big, bulky mesomorph, this billionaire was also a he-man who didn’t have time for the genteel euphemisms of politicians and bureaucrats. His slogan was “America first”—which meant a muscular, unilateral foreign policy that included torturing and killing the enemies of the United States. His greatest worry was that the vigorous strength that made America great was waning.
She was among his closest allies: a spunky gal who shared his faith in old-fashioned American values. She fought against officious bureaucrats, corrupt union bosses, and pointy-headed intellectuals. She loved guns, grit, and hard-working ordinary Americans; she celebrated truckers and small-business people. Her distinctive trait was her stream-of-consciousness monologues, peppered with the phrase, “you betcha.” She attached herself time and again to wealthy, powerful older men, including the billionaire, who acted as her mentor.
The people I’m describing are not Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, but rather two comic-strip precursors: “Daddy” Warbucks and Little Orphan Annie. They were created by the cartoonist Harold Gray in 1924, in the “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip, which he continued to work on till his death in 1968. Gray’s illustrated feature was an iconic part of American popular culture, and inspired a musical that is still produced in countless schools throughout America every year. But Gray’s comic strip had a political impact as well as a cultural one. Gray was a rock-ribbed Republican who hated the New Deal and the Great Society. He used “Little Orphan Annie” as a vehicle for developing a form of right-wing populism that both prefigured and influenced tropes and arguments adopted by actual politicians. At the height of its popularity, “Little Orphan Annie” appeared in hundreds of newspapers and was read by prominent Republicans like Clare Boothe Luce, Jesse Helms, and Ronald Reagan.
At the heart of Gray’s comic strip is a parable about the alliance between the poor and the rich against the welfare state and parasitical political elite—an alliance that prefigures the phenomenon of Trumpism in American politics. Annie is a poor orphan who wants to improve her lot in life by hard work, but is constantly harassed by evil social workers trying to hold her back with child labor laws. Annie is rescued from the machinations of the nanny state (and other evils, like gangsters) by the pugilistic billionaire Daddy Warbucks, who is, as his name indicates, a wealthy arms dealer.
One of the recurring themes of “Little Orphan Annie” is that men like Warbucks are the bedrock of society. “This country made him great,” a character says about Warbucks in a 1944 strip. “But his kind made this country great!”
Many of the words Palin used in her January endorsement of Trump sound like Orphan Annie exalting Daddy Warbucks. “And he has, he’s spent his life with the workin’ man and he tells us, Joe Six-Pack,” Palin enthused. “He said, ‘You know, I’ve worked very, very hard and I’ve succeeded. Hugely, I’ve succeeded,’ he says. And he says, ‘I want you to succeed, too.’ And that is refreshing, because, he, as he builds things, he builds big things, things that touch the sky. Big infrastructure that puts other people to work. He has spent his life looking up and respecting the hard hats and the steel-toed boots and the work ethic that you all have within you.”
With the rise of both Trump and Bernie Sanders, populism has taken on a new salience in American politics. What needs more attention is how populism is so often intimately linked with popular culture. It’s no accident that Trump first made his name in mass culture, as the writer of a pop business book (The Art of the Deal, in case you hadn’t heard him brag about it) who branched off into appearing on professional wrestling shows and reality TV. Nor is it entirely irrelevant that Sanders recorded an album of folk songs, even though he himself admits it’s the worst album of all time.
It’s impossible to understand Trump in particular without understanding that his public persona was formed in the matrix of professional wrestling and reality television—both serialized narrative forms that, like adventure comic strips, depend on hooking the audience to follow along. Perhaps because of his experience in these forms, Trump has been a master at not just getting attention but also reeling viewers in to follow the ups and downs of his career. If Trump is able to excite voters who ordinary politicians can’t access, it’s because he learned to reach a mass audience through popular entertainment. To understand Trump, we need to understand the pop-cultural mythos that created him and which he so cagily exploits.
While campaigning in Iowa last year, Trump took some children up in a helicopter ride. A young boy asked him if he was Batman. “Yes, I am Batman,” the real-estate mogul responded. This might seem like a typical Trumpian boast, but the moment was revealing. Trump’s political appeal is based in no small part on the way he fulfills a certain ideal of heroic masculinity that was created in popular culture. Trump is indeed a type of Batman: To his fans, he, like Bruce Wayne, is a brash, two-fisted billionaire playboy who uses his wealth to fight against a corrupt system.
But if Trump follows the pattern of Bruce Wayne, there’s an even earlier precursor, Daddy Warbucks. As a billionaire benefactor supposedly serving the common good and rescuing the heroine, Warbucks was the precursor to superheroes like Bruce Wayne, the Green Hornet, the Green Arrow and Iron Man: all heroic plutocrats and, in the case of Iron Man, also an arms-dealing nationalist. “We need toughness and we need intelligence and we need tough,” Trump said in a debate last December, sounding like a superhero preparing himself for battle.
By looking at the comic-strip precursors of Trump, we can figure out some of the more puzzling features of his appeal. Most puzzling of all: He’s a billionaire who claims to the tribune of the common man. How is that possible? The historian John Lukacs argued in his 2005 book Democracy and Populism that “despite their dislike of capitalists, populists in every country respected and supported millionaires of their own kind. (Nationalist, not internationalist, capitalist of course).”
Starting in the mid-1930s and continuing till the end of Gray’s life in 1968, Warbucks’s wealth was defended along the nationalist line suggested by Lukacs: Because Warbucks used his factories to fight the enemies of the United States (primarily communists), his great wealth was morally justified.
In striking confirmation of Lukacs’s argument, Orphan Annie
made this same distinction between nationalist versus internationalist
capitalism while arguing with a very naïve (albeit well-meaning) college
professor named Dr. Toggle in late 1945. In this conversation, they are
comparing Dr. Warbucks with Mr. Tidnab, an evil “mystery man of international
business” who wants to sell the secret of the atomic bomb to revanchist Germans
and Japanese militarists who want to launch another war against the United
States. The argument went like this:
Dr. Toggle: “Oh, I suppose in big business one must be hard and ruthless…”
Annie: “Yeah? Well Daddy Warbucks never had to be cruel or heartless to get along plenty O.K. in big business! But then Daddy is old-fashioned and patriotic. While Mr. Tinbab says he is internationally minded and th’ Dickens with any one country. Maybe that makes the difference.”
In the imagination of right-wing populism, nationalism is a bridge that crosses the chasm of class. Warbucks might be richer than us, but he protects us from foreign foes. In the comic strip, Warbucks even had his own private army of assassins, who happily tortured and killed whoever menaced Annie. With his promise of brass-knuckle tactics against the Chinese, a wall against Mexicans, and a ban on Muslims entering the United States, Donald Trump is the Daddy Warbucks of our time, ready to save Little Orphan America from the crafty foes of other nations.
Because Warbucks’s wealth is justified on nationalist grounds, he can be a populist hero. By a similiar logic, all of Trump’s boastings about his wealth aren’t seen as offensive by his financially strained followers, even those who might be evangelical Christians taught to distrust greed. Trump’s wealth is praiseworthy because it is used in the service of the nation, for a higher good. By being rich, he has helped make America great already, and he can do even more in the White House.
Donald Trump is a perfect superhero. The only problem is he’s real, and life is not a comic strip.