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OPINION | Culture Club

What Liberals Don’t Get About Trump Supporters and Pop Culture

The seemingly bizarre pop culture takes emanating from MAGA world are just reflections of its core philosophy.

An illustration of the "Death Star" from "Star Wars" wearing a red "Make America Great Again" ballcap.

When President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, triumphantly invoked the “Star Wars” universe to liken the president’s reelection effort to the “Death Star,” all but ready to “start pressing FIRE,” it was both a standard display of MAGA braggadocio and a brief respite from the unrelenting, bleak coronavirus discourse.

Well-meaning liberals instantly took the bait and flooded Parscale’s replies to let him know he had, supposedly, missed the point — “Didn’t make it till the end of Star Wars, huh?” tweeted the Daily Beast’s Molly Jong-Fast. NBC legal analyst Barb McQuade plaintively (and quite reasonably) asked, “Who chooses to portray themselves as the Death Star?” (Spoiler alert, for the uninitiated: The Death Star belongs to the bad guys. The bad guys lose.)

It was the latest in a pattern of baffling-at-first-glance pop culture references from Trumpworld. The president has favorably likened himself to the vile Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty. He earnestly approved a scene from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” that otherwise mocks the MAGA phenomenon as a brotherhood of aggro white dudes. An official Trump campaign Twitter account posted a video with the president’s head bizarrely photoshopped onto Thanos, the genocidal alien despot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Each instance elicited the same response from a certain set of liberals: Don’t they get it? Don’t they understand they have it all wrong?

Implicit to those questions is the assertion that either the Trump campaign and its supporters are so oblivious to “Star Wars,” the most ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon of the past 50 years, that they don’t know how it ends, or so incomprehensibly illiterate as cultural consumers that they don’t understand George Lucas’ fictional Empire is meant to be the baddies.

The real explanation is much simpler and more believable: When Parscale and his ilk approvingly identify themselves with pre-redemption Darth Vader, or Thanos, or even Dr. Evil, they surely understand those characters’ morality perfectly well. It’s not so much that Trump, et. al actively identify as “villains,” but that the behavior that makes one a “villain” in fiction—deceit, wanton rule-breaking, a willful disregard for collateral damage—is, in real life, more likely to get one branded a “winner,” provided one plays their cards right. Enron executives? Elizabeth Holmes? The steroid-juicing baseball heroes of the 1990s? Winners all—at least until they got caught.

Through that lens, everything from the Justice Department dropping charges against Michael Flynn post-guilty plea, to the president’s continued enrichment from his various hotels and business entities (to much worse) is as justifiable as the destruction of Alderaan. Rule-bound critics across the ideological spectrum can cry and moan as much as they want; the Trump administration has the power, is #winning and will do as it pleases, until they’re similarly caught red-handed. (To the extent that remains a possibility—the insulation from accountability provided by such magnificent power as the presidency is, of course, one of its most enjoyable perks.)

Of course, Trump’s opponents have a different idea of how power should be used. The defining ideological conflict of the Trump era isn’t between conservatives and liberals. It’s between those who embrace Trump’s gleefully anarchic, ends-justify-the-means bashing of “the establishment” and those who would protest, to quote another Larry David creation, that “we’re living in a society.” By reversing the polarity of a simple morality play like “Star Wars,” the MAGA camp isn’t missing the point at all. On the contrary, they’re killing two birds with one stone: expressing their philosophy with a wink and a nod while getting in some good, old-fashioned trolling.

And as Trump’s attention shifted over the past decade from his business and entertainment empire to a nationwide ideological project, his pet cultural signifiers have scaled up to match. “Star Wars,” or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or “Rocky,” are useful first and foremost in their ubiquity; to invoke them is to amplify what would otherwise be ho-hum partisan mudslinging.

Almost uniformly, this is to the chagrin of the creators of those stories invoked with a smirk by Parscale and company. In December, when the Trump campaign sent the Thanos tweet, the character’s creator (and Marvel Comics legend) Jim Starlin compared the experience to “being violated.” George Lucas himself, a dyed-in-the-wool 1960s radical who envisioned the original “Star Wars” as a pro-Viet Cong parable, consulted on an anti-Trump ad from former Senator Bill Bradley’s Super PAC before the 2016 election.

But it’s hard to imagine the average Trump supporter — and certainly not the man himself — caring about such a thing. Through the MAGA lens, the creative impulse behind those characters isn’t something to be respected piously, or parsed earnestly for sociopolitical relevance. In fact, Trumpworld’s relationship with something like “Star Wars” might ultimately be slightly more reasonable than that of your humble author: as nothing more than a trivial entertainment that might occasionally serve as a shared reference point or shallow reflecting pool.

Recall Trump’s advice to Charles Foster Kane, the protagonist of “Citizen Kane,” a favorite film of his. When the documentarian Errol Morris asked the future president in 2002 if he would give any advice to the fictional Kane, a man torn apart by hubris and his obsession over his own work and legacy, Trump’s response was simple: “Get yourself a different woman.” Trump couldn’t have been less interested in psychoanalyzing Kane as a proxy for Orson Welles, or a metaphor for unchecked power and ambition. Kane merely served as a lens through which Trump could implicitly present himself as the savvier, ideal version of the fictional tycoon. (After all, he’s followed his own prescription for Kane twice now.)

The best example of the Trumpian ethos in pop culture, and how the president’s fans bear it with pride, is one that mostly passed without remark. As the Democratic-controlled House prepared for its impeachment inquiry last September, Parscale warned that he would “laugh this much when everyone figures out how much @realDonaldTrump played @SpeakerPelosi,” followed by a frequently used GIF of Leonardo DiCaprio’s exaggerated laughter as the penny-stock scoundrel and convicted fraudster Jordan Belfort in 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

The GIF is taken from the film’s climactic scene, in which Belfort’s foil, a mostly glum, by-the-book FBI agent played by “Friday Night Lights” star Kyle Chandler, boards Belfort’s palatial yacht to question him as part of a securities fraud investigation. Chandler’s agent gets Belfort cold on tape attempting a bribe. The laugh that Parscale appropriated comes right after Belfort is threatened with the seizure of his treasured yacht, and immediately before he launches into a panicked, self-aggrandizing tirade — “Good luck on that subway ride home to your miserable, ugly fucking wives… you guys want to take some lobsters for your ride home? Fucking miserable pricks, I know you can’t afford them!” He finishes up by tossing $100 bills, or “fun coupons,” at Chandler and his partner as they walk away, defiant in the self-justifying nature of Belfort’s excess.

The philosophy on display in Parscale’s “Wolf of Wall Street” tweet is very simple, and it’s the same one that’s revealed in the Trump team’s gleeful, impish identification with far more fantastical villains like Darth Vader. Victory is defined by the extent to which one is enjoying the spoils. Following the rules is for suckers and schoolmarms.

Belfort, on the other hand, is a real person who ultimately served real prison time for securities fraud and money laundering (and is now, as Martin Scorcese’s film points out in its mordant conclusion, a successful motivational speaker). He’s also a Trump supporter.

If Trump’s camp is trolling the world with its Machiavellian embrace of fictional villainy, it might reflect even another level of self-awareness — a hard-won acknowledgment that occasionally, despite everything, the rule-followers eke out a win.