One universal in America has been an affinity for the hero. From historical figures and fictional characters to everyday public servants, Americans have appreciated and admired those who sacrifice, persevere, risk their lives, or defy the odds. The story of America is filled with tales of underdogs who fought against the evils of tyranny, fascism, and discrimination. Our art is replete with characters who embody the bravery and selflessness we collectively cherish. The word “hero” and all of its connotations is a central part of American culture and mythology.
The descriptor itself has gradations, applying to the exceptional and average alike. There are Superheroes—larger-than-life, Godlike characters—who offer us a chance to fantasize about having superhuman abilities. The numerous comic book and film figures are our equivalents to the Gods of Mount Olympus. But always lurking beneath their imaginative adventures is a pointed exploration of good and evil and the balance of power. Stan Lee warned us that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Superman wisely said that “there is a right and a wrong in this universe, and that distinction is not hard to make.” The stories may have been fantastical, but they were almost always philosophical, making plain the differences between the just and unjust.
Next to Superheroes there are the action stars who live at the margins of our suspensions of disbelief, raising themselves up just enough to save the day. Figures like John McClane, Rambo, Indiana Jones, Magnum P.I., NEO, Casey Ryback, Jason Bourne, John Wick, Columbo, the Lone Ranger, and countless others are threads in the fabric of America’s hero culture, using bravery, brains, or brawn to vanquish villains.
These are more than simply lovable fictions; the exploits of these characters are often allegorical, mirroring some contemporary or historical conflict (1). Luke Skywalker battled an empire of Storm Troopers modeled after the Third Reich. At the height of the Cold War, Rocky Balboa defeated Ivan Drago—the brutal cyborg-esque Russian. As Ronald Reagan navigated his way through the Iran-Iraq war, Hulk Hogan dramatically triumphed over the Iron Sheik. In 80s films “Invasion, USA” and “Red Dawn,” Chuck Norris and Patrick Swayze respectively battled armies of communists bent on taking over America. Heroic art in America often imitates life.
These characters share traits and taught similar lessons, but most importantly they united their audiences. Those of us watching instinctively knew for whom we should be rooting and whom we should despise. They didn’t obscure the lines between right and wrong; they carved them out in granite. There’s a reason most people still get chills when a bloodied Balboa addresses the crowd at the end of “Rocky IV.” There’s a reason I can still recall the joy of seeing Hulk Hogan putting his hand to his ear as the speakers blared “When it comes crashing down and it hurts inside, you gotta take a stand…I am a real American…” These myths showed us that there is good and evil in the world, and they gave us hope that the good can win. And perhaps most importantly they showed us that our American heroes were on the right side of that divide.
Then there are the everyday heroes we rightly lionize because they work in a field where death is a distinct possibility. Soldiers, police officers, and firefighters disregard the strongest impulse of self-preservation and run toward danger and mayhem. These men and women may lose their lives doing a job they chose to do. If the word hero applies anywhere, it applies to them.
It does take a special person to be that kind of hero, but there are others who dedicate their lives in the service of others in less dangerous—but still impactful—ways. They could be someone in the medical field, education, social work, civil rights advocacy, non-profits, charitable organizations, or elsewhere(2). They spend their careers trying to help people, often for meager salaries. Obviously they may not be literally risking their lives, but they are certainly making a commitment to improving the lives of others. I recognize that using “hero” to describe a grade school teacher or pediatrician may seem like a surefire way to degrade the term, but you don’t have to go far to find someone whose life was changed for the better by these seemingly mundane professions. As David Grohl memorably sang, “There goes my hero. He’s ordinary.” In a society where one can easily make more money in self-interested, financial pursuits, it is admirable to choose these “ordinary” jobs which can produce extraordinary consequences.
There is a continuum of heroic behavior, but from nurse to navy seal there is an underlying ethos captured perfectly by Joseph Campbell, eminent expert on all things heroism: “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” That could be one’s country or simply their fellow human being. America for all its flaws has always had a universal understanding of what is good and what is right, and the people who fight for those things, in whatever way they can, are heroes.
This brings me to Donald Trump—CEO, billionaire, 45th President of the United States, and man I abhor with an intensity that would be difficult to overstate. People often wonder why it is that he is able to inspire such animus among his detractors. Is it because of the (R) next to his name? Is it anger that Hillary lost? Is it simply “Trump Derangement Syndrome?” No, no, and no. I hate Donald Trump not only because he does not exhibit any of the traits I’ve discussed, but because he is the walking antithesis of them. In a world that desperately needs more heroes, Donald Trump is an unrepentant, unabashed, and, frankly, unAmerican villain.
His origin story is not of the started-from-the-bottom-now-we’re-here variety. Born to an affluent family, he was given millions in real-life monopoly money to invest without the fear of failure. I don’t begrudge people for being born wealthy, but Trump’s uninspiring, riches-to-riches story reveals an empire built through dubious and unethical business practices—such as fraudulent tax schemes and failing to pay workers. His decades long career cemented a reputation as a ruthless and unscrupulous businessman who would use things like eminent domain and endless litigation to bulldoze—literally and figuratively—anyone in his path.
He’s certainly not a hero in a literal sense. He notoriously dodged the draft for the Vietnam War using a bone spurs prognosis which was likely fabricated. Now it’s certainly not requisite for a President to have been deployed, but Donald Trump not only lacks bravery, he has repeatedly insulted those who have actually served. His history here is well-documented: he’s insulted decorated war heroes like Senator John McCain and Admiral William McRaven, disparaged a Gold Star family, skipped out on the ceremony commemorating the 100th year anniversary of the end of World War I, lied about donations made to the military, intimated that PTSD sufferers are weak, and disallowed transgender people and non-citizens to serve their country—something he himself was unwilling to do. Trump praises soldiers when politically convenient, but will often admonish them, particularly if they don’t fall in with his supporters. Historically, Presidents—even those with no military experience—respected the troops and never allowed petty political squabbles to undermine that respect.
He also bears no similarity with the everyday heroes who help others. Trump’s sole motivation has been the accumulation of wealth and power. His charity—the Trump Foundation—was dissolved for “functioning as little more than a checkbook to serve [his] business and political interests,” according to the New York Attorney General. The foundation, which showed “a shocking pattern of illegality,” used funds to pay his legal fees. In perhaps the most metaphorically significant turn of events, it also spent $10,000 to purchase a giant portrait of Trump himself at an auction. Needless to say, all of these activities, done for the benefits of tax write-offs, are fraudulent. There was also the infamous Trump University, which was ostensibly supposed to help people learn real estate skills from the mogul. Instead, the bogus organization ripped people off for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Rather than apologize for this grievous scheme, Trump countersued the people whom he had defrauded. Trump is a self-proclaimed billionaire who has no interest in philanthropy and will squeeze every dime out of everyone he can, by any means necessary.
Unlike the aforementioned heroes, Trump also has difficulty discerning between the good guys and the bad guys. He has embarrassed the country on the international stage several times—shoving the Prime Minister of Montenegro, walking in front of Queen Elizabeth. He’s pulled the U.S out of a slew of international agreements. He’s feuded openly with Teresa May, Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron—some of our most important allies. He has praised Kim Jong Un, Bashar Al-Assad, Recep Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte—some of the world’s worst despots. And despite Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Trump continues to praise, or at least not criticize, the autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin. Under Trump, America—once a reliable defender of democratic principles—has embraced vicious authoritarians.
His supporters argue that he is acting in America’s best interests, albeit in a politically incorrect way. But Trump is far from some antihero. He is not simply taking unorthodox actions to achieve some altruistic result. Classic antihero characters like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Michael Corleone, The Punisher, Jack Sparrow, Dexter, and others may break the law and commit acts which are unconscionable, but in their respective worlds they still possess a code of ethics which differentiates them from the truly evil. It’s why we often find ourselves pulling for them in the end. There is no hidden virtue assignable to Trump’s antics.
By any metric, Donald Trump is the bad guy in this chapter of the American story. Where our heroes have been selfless, generous, brave, and honest, he’s been a selfish, greedy, craven liar, a misogynistic philanderer, a bully, a cheat, a power hungry sociopath. In the nearly four years since he came onto the political scene we have become desensitized by the daily onslaught of reprehensible behavior—the tweets, the comments, the rash policy decisions, the lies, the inability to accept responsibility for absolutely anything. He has been a champion for the haves and a relentless attacker of the have-nots. He has vilified people in need while equivocating disgustingly about hate groups. He has made a concerted effort to undermine our democracy. He even has a golden apartment in a lair atop a giant black tower with his name on it. Donald Trump is a villain of comic book proportions. He is cut from the cloth of Joffrey, of Lex Luthor, of Kingpin. He is Ted Dibiase. He’s a live action Mr. Burns or Scrooge McDuck. His depravity is not illustrated in colorful boxes or found on the screen, but is regularly staining headlines in the papers and scrolling shamefully on the evening news.
Trump’s villainy is one reason why the Mueller Report was so disappointing. In the face of such naked corruption, we were waiting for someone to swoop in and catch America as we plummeted into a MAGA-induced, immoral abyss. Bob Mueller seemed like the perfect hero to end the nightmare. He was in every way Trump’s opposite—a war hero, a distinguished civil servant, a quiet, principled, respected man of the law. But in the end Mueller—like Batman—couldn’t pull the trigger, so to speak. He meticulously catalogued Trump’s unethical and corrupt behavior—the dubious interactions between Trump’s henchmen and Russians, the quasi-mob boss’ myriad attempts to obstruct justice—but stopped just short, hamstrung by a high burden of proof and convoluted regulations about indicting a sitting president. The damning 448 pages was not the silver bullet we had hoped for. There would be no ignominious perp-walk across the White House lawn. Trump, William Barr, Don Jr., Roger Stone, Jared Kushner, Stephen Miller, Sarah Huckabee Sanders—this dramatis personae of venality and vice—had won. Unlike all of the hero stories from my childhood, the bad guys had indeed gotten away with it.
At least for now. Because this horror story has landed with tidal force among voters in this country, who know now that there is no deus ex machina coming to rid the U.S. of Donald Trump. Congress will likely err on the side of caution and not sign articles of impeachment. Farmed out investigations will probably not take action against him until he leaves office. We are living through the Empire Strikes Back. Thanos has the Infinity Stones. But there is a moment coming where things turn around, where Hulk gets up at two and half, where Rocky lands the haymaker, where the good guys win.
But it starts with us. We have to save ourselves. Because like the late great David Bowie said, “We can be heroes…just for one day.”
And that day is November 3, 2020.
(1) - There were even off-screen heroes who competed against our international enemies as the prospect of war loomed. In 1936, Olympian Jesse Owens sprinted past the “Superior Race” of Aryans in front of an apoplectic Adolf Hitler. Bobby Fischer dethroned Russian Boris Spassky to become World Chess Champion in 1972. A rag-tag group of U.S. amateurs defeated the juggernaut Russian hockey team in the 1980 Olympics.
(2) I am a teacher and certainly don’t consider myself a hero. I include education here, not as a roundabout way to bestow such a title on myself, but because I have seen the power of great educators in action. I aspire to be like the ones who have had an impact on myself and others.