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Twilight of the American antihero

Donald Trump trails a long line of antiheroes, in fiction.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In the spring of 2017, I reviewed the fifth season of Netflix’s House of Cards, the last to feature Kevin Spacey (who was removed from the show after many accusations of sexual assault were brought against him) and the first to air in the Trump presidency.

The show would end with its sixth season in 2018, without Spacey and without a clear sense of how to tell stories amid the chaos of the Trump era. But House of Cards season five remains a useful artifact thanks to a rare Venn diagram intersection: The Trump presidency coinciding with a TV show that almost seemed to foreshadow his rise to power.

In that 2017 review, I wrote:

What I want, more than anything, is some acknowledgment from House of Cards that the shit Claire and Frank are doing matters, that people out there are living and dying lives that are going to be affected by their dumb power grabs. Pretending that none of this has any import, that fighting about this stuff is stupid, is a mug’s game. The idea that it’s cool not to care is precisely the sort of idea put into place by those who benefit from the status quo, who really do care about keeping that status quo in place.

The biggest difference between Frank Underwood and Donald Trump isn’t that Frank is more competent — it’s that on some level, Trump seems to want to use the presidency to do stuff and help people, even if those people all have the last name “Trump.” Frank just wants to be president to be president. ... In season five, the show can’t seem to imagine a politics driven by anything other than crude hero worship and awed reverence for those who would callously shed blood and call it beautiful.

I have spent the last four years wrestling with these ideas. I do not believe that art creates reality, but rather that it offers us a window into our collective subconscious, giving us a view of our preoccupations, anxieties, and desires. Yet at the same time, it has been difficult to escape just how thoroughly Trump and the racist, white nationalist movements he inspired feel like the natural culmination of two distinct but dovetailing pop culture trends: “politically incorrect” humor and the proliferation of antihero protagonists.

Even after four years, I’m still not sure how to think about the divide between art and reality. A world where stories exclusively depicted people doing the right thing would be dreadfully boring. Such a world would reduce the movies and TV to infantilizing media that treated adult viewers like children in need of Sunday school lessons. But it’s simultaneously hard to see Trump as anything other than the ultimate antihero — the guy who says and does whatever he wants and inspires slavering devotion from his fans. Donald Trump was a unique figure in 21st-century American politics, but hardly a unique one in American pop culture.

The stories that presaged Trump’s rise were too often boiled down to their most base-level appeal

Donald Trump appears in the most recent season finale of The Celebrity Apprentice. (NBC)
Donald Trump hosted The Celebrity Apprentice.

The fandom that Donald Trump has inspired seems built atop a paradox. On the one hand, his fans insist, you can’t trust anything you see in the mainstream media — broadly defined as everything to the left of Fox News — because it’s been constructed to fool you and prop up elites. Everybody else is fake news.

On the other hand, they know Donald Trump is incredibly smart because until very recently they regularly saw him on TV, in that same mainstream media, showing how smart he was.

A little skepticism of official media narratives is healthy, and we should all practice it. But what starts out as healthy skepticism frequently expands into a knee-jerk suspicion of all narratives not presented by a handful of loud, contrarian voices. Trump, the loudest and most contrarian voice of all, couldn’t help but garner a reputation as a bold truth-teller, particularly after the 2004 debut of The Apprentice, a show that was carefully crafted to make him seem like the smartest guy in the room, the only one who knew what was really going on.

Yet I think characterizing Trump as a creation of right-wing media and reality TV, which I’ve done plenty of times, is too limiting — it casts him as a specific kind of monster who can now be banished back from whence he came. But The Apprentice didn’t come out of nowhere. It stands on the shoulders of Survivor, and the first season of Survivor was won by Richard Hatch, one of the great TV antiheroes of the early 2000s. It arrived at a time when the antihero drama was highly in demand and when shows like The Sopranos and The Shield became massive hits.

It also arrived in the midst of a turn toward comedy that purportedly said what we were all thinking. Casting Trump as the ruthless, candid leader of The Apprentice who made wild proclamations for amusement’s sake was in line with shows like South Park and Family Guy, which thrived on a devil-may-care attitude toward hurting people’s feelings. As long as a joke was funny, what did it matter if some people found it offensive? Anything entertaining was fair game.

To be clear: None of the shows I’ve just mentioned were actually “about” their most immediately marketable qualities. South Park, for example, was at least nominally interested in the contradiction between not caring about anything but also caring deeply about oneself (best exemplified in the character of Eric Cartman).

But there was often a divide between a series’ quality and the way it was consistently discussed in terms of its most obvious, base-level appeal. This divide was even more pronounced when it came to prestige dramas. A substantial portion of The Sopranos’ audience watched just to see who “got whacked” and groused when the show was more meditative. But the show was meditative, and deeply thoughtful in the way it tackled big questions about life, death, and morality. There’s a reason the show has become a hit with kids who weren’t alive when it premiered. It’s great art, and it’s great art that seemingly foresaw an era of American decline, even though it debuted in 1999, at the height of America’s unquestioned power.

Still, it bears repeating: There was a substantial portion of The Sopranos’ audience who watched just to see who “got whacked” and groused when the show was more meditative.

“I met many different flavors of Sopranos fans in my travels, from people who loved the family drama to ones who were into the abstract dream imagery,” says Rolling Stone’s chief TV critic Alan Sepinwall, who covered the show for the New Jersey-based Star-Ledger newspaper during its run and later wrote the book The Sopranos Sessions. “But by far the most vocal portion of the fanbase — or, at least, the most annoyingly vocal — were the ones who were just tuning in to see who got whacked, and who would get annoyed if an episode, or especially if a finale, didn’t feature a high body count or a significant death.”

That portion of The Sopranos’ viewership didn’t care to think about the ways in which Tony’s actions were slowly eroding every piece of him that could be called human, or how his childhood in an abusive, toxic home followed him into adulthood. Instead, those viewers often saw Tony as an avatar of grievance, a guy who would punish anybody who stood in his way and triumph at the end of the day.

Does that sound like anyone you know?

On the moral qualities of the antihero drama

House of Cards
House of Cards offered a glimpse inside the White House that suggested something more entertaining than reality.

Later in 2017, a few months after reviewing House of Cards season five, I wrote that the best antihero dramas aren’t just thrill rides but also function as morality plays in reverse:

Just about every network has, at one time or another since The Sopranos launched in 1999, come up with a bad antihero drama of its own. But why is it so difficult to make a great antihero drama? ... The simple answer is that great antihero dramas aren’t just about the bad choices their characters make — they’re about the good choices the characters don’t make, too. We want to see Tony Soprano kill his enemies and do whatever he wants, because we want to live vicariously through him. But on some level, we also don’t want him to do the bad thing, because we know it will only damn him further.

I’m no longer convinced my point is 100 percent accurate, at least when it comes to what audiences want. Plenty of empty antihero shows (including House of Cards) have become popular and even lauded in the streaming era because they offer an endless assault of empty calories that feel meaningful. Generations of critically acclaimed movies, novels, and TV shows about bad men who do worse things have conditioned us to believe that “bad men who do worse things” is the foundation of good storytelling.

If “bad men who do worse things” is the goal, it becomes easy to create a character like Frank Underwood — a shallow figure defined only by his lust for power — and then insist that his shallowness somehow says something new and interesting about Washington. If you’re going to be a cutthroat politician — or a mob boss or a crudely animated foul-mouthed child — you might as well entertain while you’re at it. And when Donald Trump launched his campaign in 2015, he knew how to draw from that playbook to create entertaining TV. That was a bigger advantage than a lot of people gave him credit for at the time.

Both the antihero drama and politically incorrect comedy are rooted in similar ideas: There are people who think about what’s right and carefully consider a course of action, and there are people who just do the thing that needs doing (or say the thing that needs saying), consequences be damned. They are outgrowths of an attitude that has always been present in the American imagination but has overtaken it in the last half-century: What matters is not actually what would benefit your community, but what would benefit you.

American antihero stories and politically incorrect comedies are also inextricably linked to our nation’s structural racism, sexism, and other prejudices. The characters who front both types of stories have typically been men, have almost always been white, and have definitely always been cisgender and heterosexual, which subtly creates an idea of who is allowed to behave badly and who gets to be a protagonist, whether on TV or in politics.

The best antihero stories obliquely comment on this aspect of American society — Breaking Bad, for instance, frequently nodded to how much more easily Walter White could get away with literal murder than, say, the several Latino characters he met. But many more mediocre stories don’t seem to have thought about this question at all, to say nothing of, say, cop dramas that treat bad behavior as straightforwardly heroic.

Merely pointing that out will create the expectation that what I want is a more diverse slate of antiheroes, because we too often think of diversity and representation in popular entertainment as an Instagram filter — add BIPOC or queer people to your story and go. (It’s also worth noting that when Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were making some of the films that would prove seminal within the antihero canon, they were chronicling a time when Italians were an oppressed ethnic minority within the US.)

It’s not as simple as saying, “More diverse antiheroes!” What I am saying is that we need to broaden the types of stories we tell and the types of complicated characters who are at the center of them. Many of the best stories of recent years have been about communities facing crisis together. Yet we are not entirely free of the antihero’s influence, as can easily be seen by the man who for four years occupied a White House that moved with the horrifying logic of a bad prestige drama desperate to keep the audience tuning in.

I don’t want to live in a world without The Sopranos or Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre or Blazing Saddles or any number of novels about middle-aged men who sink their ennui into blowing up their lives. But I’m also not sure I need any more of these stories, at least not right now. The outer trappings of stories about people whose lack of care for their fellow humans becomes an asset have been hollowed out into a costume that too many other stories wear as a cheap nod toward meaning.

The best antihero dramas (and the small handful of genuinely great politically incorrect comedies) understand the tension between “what I personally want” and “what the world would benefit from.” They understand that we all have selfish impulses, and they understand that those selfish impulses can make for terrific and even meaningful storytelling when the storyteller is keenly aware of their argument’s moral dimensions. A world of morally simplistic art that always lets you know the lesson you’re meant to be learning would be a poorer world indeed.

But it is easy to look at American pop culture from the last 50 years and see within it an increasing desire for a bold, brash hero who tells it like it is and acts before he considers the consequences. Even our less ambiguously heroic figures — think of nearly every superhero imaginable — increasingly fit that description.

Much was made in the 1980s of the way that Ronald Reagan styled himself as a cowboy or a war hero, borrowing the tropes of American movies. So when Donald Trump, a man who seems to intuitively understand television and the way it latches onto certain stories, set out to style himself as a modern American hero, where do you think he was going to turn? American pop culture didn’t create Trump, but he certainly caught a very particular wave and rode it right into the White House. Where the story goes next is up to us.


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