It’s been oft remarked that if you had pitched the 2016 election as a novel, publishers would’ve rejected it as heavy-handed, crudely drawn, and unrealistic. Which is perhaps why the single best rendering of the campaign came in the form of a comic book.
On page 13 of Vote Loki, Marvel’s imagining of its trickster god antihero’s campaign for president (and obvious commentary on the 2016 campaign), Loki stops a terrorist attack aimed at the two bland major party candidates vying for the presidency. All cameras, naturally, turn toward him.
“Loki, which candidate are you voting for?” shouts a reporter in the crowd.
“Cute,” Loki replies. “Listen, these candidates dance around questions like they’re hot irons. They make up half-positions based on whatever people want to hear, and they clearly stand in contrast to their true history. And then once they take office, they do whatever they want anyway as quietly as possible.”
“America,” Loki continues, “if I were your president, I’d have the guts to lie right to your face. And you’d love it.”
“Couldn’t be any worse than those two,” comments a gray-suited traveler who catches Loki’s comments on an airport television.
“Ha ha ha! My man is cold,” says a teen, reading the remarks on his phone.
The comment marks the beginning of Loki’s campaign for president, and the beginning of writer Christopher Hastings’s commentary on the 2016 race. The first issue was released in June and the series wrapped in September, but I only read it last week. And it’s damn good. Better, I regret to say, than much of the serious coverage I read — or even wrote — during the campaign.
What the comic captures is the mix of political shamelessness, unerring showmanship, media dynamics, social media dynamics, and public despair that led many to prefer Trump’s postmodern cynicism to politics as usual. Loki embraces his own lies, and social media embraces him in turn. Loki is a great story, so he gets wall-to-wall coverage from a media that loathes him. He’s refreshing, transfixing, fun, fearless. He makes his flaws his strengths; he makes the establishment’s reaction against him his message.
“They think only a crazy person would support Loki,” he roars to his supporters. “I know you’re not crazy. You see the same thing I do. A system that has abandoned you. You work hard. You pay your taxes. You cast your votes. You’re left behind by those in power. And they think you’ll stand for it? That’s what’s crazy. And I’m here to make things sane again!”
Trump had the guts to lie to our face, and we loved it, or at least covered it
This is a strange article to write. A few months ago, I did not expect to be recommending a comic as the essential guide to the 2016 election. But then, these are strange times in which to live. We are watching a president-elect who really does lie to our faces, and seems to have found that we like it.
While I read these comics, Donald Trump was bragging that he’d won “a massive landslide victory.” In an official statement, his transition team called it “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history."
Trump did not win one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. He did not win an above-average Electoral College victory. He did not win an average Electoral College victory. He did not win a slightly below-average Electoral College victory.
Trump’s Electoral College haul — 306 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232 — ranks 46th out of the 58 presidential elections the United States has held. That puts him in the bottom 20 percent. The claim Trump is making is not debatable, it is not complex, it is not arguable. And the fact that he has made it repeatedly — and that his transition team has made it on official letterhead — means it is not a mistake.
This is not a lie as we have come to understand the term in American politics. Politicians evade, twist, and shade the truth all the time — but they’re careful about it, worried that they’ll get caught, and occasionally confused themselves.
Trump doesn’t bother with any of those niceties. If he doesn’t want you to notice the sky is blue, he doesn’t try to distract you from its blueness, or direct your attention to the ground, or make some complicated argument about how the human mind perceives color. He just says the sky is orange. And he says it over and over and over again.
“Donald Trump’s lies differ from those we have encountered from other national figures, even Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton during their respective impeachments,” wrote the Atlantic’s James Fallows. “The difference is that Trump seemingly does not care that evidence is immediately at hand to disprove what he says.”
The media doesn’t ignore Trump’s lies. In fact, said lies get enormous coverage because they’re easy to disprove and offend the media’s basic sense of decency. A quick Google search for “trump largest electoral landslides” turned up an Atlantic article headlined “Landslide Donald,” a PolitiFact article headlined “Donald Trump's Electoral College victory was not a 'massive landslide’,” an NPR article headlined “FACT CHECK: Trump Falsely Claims A 'Massive Landslide Victory',” and a New York Times article headlined “Trump’s Electoral College Victory Ranks 46th in 58 Elections.”
I think if you’d asked most politicians or political observers two years ago whether it would be good to have the press constantly slamming you for lying, they would’ve said it would be a disaster. But Trump has proven otherwise. Consider his Electoral College comments. Instead of discussing what it means that the president-elect lost the popular vote and probably only won the Electoral College because of interventions from Russia and the FBI, we are instead discussing the precise size of Trump’s Electoral College victory. Nicely done.
The second thing Trump understands is that part of what makes politicians sound like politicians is their care for some semblance of the truth. Cautiously picking your way through a minefield of adverse facts makes you sound hedged, calculated, even dishonest — think of any answer Hillary Clinton ever gave on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
This is related to the reaction — or non-reaction — when Trump admits he’s lying. Remember when he was promising to lock Clinton up? Then he got elected, and his tune changed. "Forget it,” he said. “That plays great before the election. Now we don’t care, right?"
This is part of Trump’s charm and his message. When other politicians lie to you, you’re the one being fooled. When Trump lies to you, he makes you — or at least his supporters — feel like they were in on the joke. The lie, he suggests, was really to the media, to the establishment, to all those people trying to keep him, and you, down.
Trump had the guts to lie to our face, and we loved it, or at least enough of us did that he’ll be moving into the White House next month.
The media thought coverage mattered. In fact, attention did.
Early in Vote Loki, the horned demigod appears on a political talk show. He makes, as you’d expect, for some great TV. And in frustration, Nisa Contreras, a reporter who has covered his past misdeeds, calls in.
Trump’s campaign will be studied for generations. But if I had to choose his singular insight, it would be this: Attention matters. Favorable coverage doesn’t.
Trump said he ran for president as a businessman. In truth, he ran as what he really was, and perhaps still is: a reality television star. While politicians are taught to believe that what matters most is favorable coverage, reality television stars have learned that what matters most is the quantity of coverage — the total share of audience attention they can command across a given season.
The winner of the early seasons of MTV’s Real World — the ur-reality show — wasn’t any of the nice, quasi-normal participants whose names you’ve forgotten. It was the jerk whose name you remember: Puck. The winner of the first season of Survivor wasn’t the cooperative, helpful contestants you might want to be trapped on an island with. It was the cynical, conniving Richard Hatch.
Trump understood this, and it let him run a truly unique presidential campaign. As I wrote shortly before the New Hampshire primary:
Trump's other gift — the one that gets less attention but is perhaps more important — is his complete lack of shame. It's easy to underestimate how important shame is in American politics. But shame is our most powerful restraint on politicians who would find success through demagoguery. Most people feel shame when they're exposed as liars, when they're seen as uninformed, when their behavior is thought cruel, when respected figures in their party condemn their actions, when experts dismiss their proposals, when they are mocked and booed and protested.
Trump doesn't. He has the reality television star's ability to operate entirely without shame, and that permits him to operate entirely without restraint. It is the single scariest facet of his personality. It is the one that allows him to go where others won't, to say what others can't, to do what others wouldn't.
Trump lives by the reality television trope that he's not here to make friends. But the reason reality television villains always say they're not there to make friends is because it sets them apart, makes them unpredictable and fun to watch. "I'm not here to make friends" is another way of saying, "I'm not bound by the social conventions of normal people." The rest of us are here to make friends, and it makes us boring, gentle, kind.
“People, you can’t keep giving him attention,” Contreras rages in Vote Loki. “I know this is a big joke, but the problem is jokes are harmless. Loki isn’t. He just wants you to think that. He’s running this exactly how he likes. He wants to be the joke until it’s too late.”
Trump was the joke until it was too late. He was such a joke that for months — months in which he was leading the polls — the Huffington Post would only cover him in its entertainment section. He was such a joke that his Republican challengers refused to believe him the frontrunner and focused their fire on one another, confident that Trump would collapse and they would pick up his supporters.
Meanwhile, the things Trump said that made him seem like a joke — the ridiculous, wrong, bizarre, cruel, scary, and transfixing comments that ranged from announcing a ban on Muslim travel to repeatedly suggesting Ted Cruz’s father was involved in JFK’s assassination — got him the lion’s share of press attention. They made sure he led the papers, the newscasts, and the homepages, and there was no space for anyone else to be heard.
The attention he got was negative, sure — but he turned that in his favor. it was Trump versus the press, Trump versus the establishment, and there were plenty of Republicans out there who wanted to see those institutions humbled.
Loki got normalized
One of the best articles I’ve read since the election is Matt Yglesias’s “The case for normalizing Trump.” Working off academic research on authoritarian populist movements in other countries, Yglesias pushes back on the idea that Trump’s critics should spend every single day of the next four years using Trump’s tweets, lies, and antics to prove him a bizarre outlier in American politics:
Populists in office thrive on a circus-like atmosphere that casts the populist leader as persecuted by media and political elites who are obsessed with his uncouth behavior while he is busy doing the people’s work. To beat Trump, progressives will need to do as much as they can to get American politics out of reality show mode.
Trump genuinely does pose threats to the integrity of American institutions and political norms. But he does so largely because his nascent administration is sustained by support from the institutional Republican Party and its standard business and interest group supporters. Alongside the wacky tweets and personal feuds, Trump is pursuing a policy agenda whose implications are overwhelmingly favorable to rich people and business owners.
His opponents need to talk about this policy agenda, and they need to develop their own alternative agenda and make the case that it will better serve the needs of average people. And to do that, they need to get out of the habit of being reflexively baited into tweet-based arguments that happen on the terrain of Trump’s choosing and serve to endlessly reinscribe the narrative of a champion of the working class surrounded by media vipers.
Months before the election, this is what the authors of Vote Loki figured out, and it’s how the series ends (and, yes, spoilers for the comic are coming here).
The climactic scene comes when Loki invites his reportorial nemesis Contreras to interview him live on television. He even promises not to lie. He turns on the cameras, and then she refuses to play his game.
Trump’s strength as a candidate wasn’t that voters thought him qualified, honest, judicious, or capable. Polls right up to Election Day showed that the majority thought him untrustworthy, unqualified for the presidency, and temperamentally unfit to carry out its duties. But tens of millions voted for him anyway.
As Yglesias writes, “Their enthusiasm for Trump doesn’t necessarily reflect a misperception that he is honest or that he will eschew greed and corruption. Rather, their view is that he is on their side and that the protestations of his opponents merely reflect the self-interested defensiveness of the establishment. ... Trump may be a sonofabitch, the thinking goes, but at least he’s our sonofabitch.”
Trump’s actual proposals were a far cry from his populist presentation and outsider promises. Trump might have run promising to turn back the special interests, but his policy papers promised a massive giveaway to Wall Street. He might have said he was going to raise taxes on people like him, but his tax proposal showed a bonanza of cuts for, well, people like him. He might have said he would make sure the government provided health insurance for everyone, but his white paper outlined a particularly cruel form of repeal-without-replace.
Trump campaigned like he was going to be the working class’s sonofabitch, but if you read his policies, he was actually promising to be his own class’s sonofabitch. And his nascent administration, which is festooned with Goldman Sachs veterans and conservative ideologues, is coming as a sharp surprise to many of his supporters.
“So far he’s not draining the swamp,” former US Rep. Joe Walsh, a Tea Party icon who backed Trump, complained on Twitter. “It’s a cabinet full of wealthy insiders.”
Trump’s actual proposals were obscured by the circus he created. The media was too busy covering his controversies to cover his policies. The Clinton campaign was too busy painting him as a monster to try to convince downscale white voters in Pennsylvania that he was actually just a rich guy who wanted to govern on behalf of other rich guys.
To turn back to Loki, this is what Contreras figures out about him, and where the con collapses:
So long as Loki was fighting with the media, and fighting with the party establishments, his supporters could project their hopes onto him. Once he was pinned down to his ideas — or lack thereof — the ways in which he was a perfectly normal disappointment became clear.
In addition to the distractions Trump, Clinton, Russia, the FBI, and the media created during the campaign, it was hard to pin down Trump on specifics because no one really believed he believed what was in his policy papers, or what he said on the stump. That’s what Sarah Kliff found when she went to a Trump-supporting county in Kentucky to ask Obamacare enrollees why they’d voted for a man who promised to repeal the law on which their insurance depended. Their answer: They didn’t believe he would actually do it.
“He says a lot of stuff,” said Kathy Oller, who signs people up for Obamacare and also voted for Trump. “I just think all politicians promise you everything and then we'll see.”
Trump’s great advantage was that he was taken neither seriously nor literally — he could say anything he wanted on Monday and contradict it on Tuesday. But the presidency is all about specifics. The presidency is where rhetoric becomes legislation, where dumb comments become international crises, where campaigning gives way to consequences.
Trump has two options now. He either has to deliver good results, in which case he will and should be reelected, or he needs to distract the public from the fact that he’s not delivering the results he’s promised.
Vote Loki ends with Loki’s loss. The candidate couldn’t survive normalization. But I’d guess the author also didn’t imagine there’d be anything left to comment on after Election Day. Some outcomes are too strange even for comic books.