“Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power,” Steve Bannon said soon after the 2016 Presidential election. “It only helps us when they [liberals] get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
If Bannon weren’t the apparent architect of Trump’s run at the title of the worst president in U.S. history, that line would probably be funny. Well, it’s still kinda funny, just in a “oh haha we’re all going to die, aren’t we” sort of way.
What’s particularly fascinating about that quote, to me, is that he didn’t pick, say, some antihero character who has to do some terrible things for the greater good. Like Dirty Harry, who uses extreme methods in pursuit of justice. Or Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) from “Death Wish,” who goes vigilante in his quest for revenge. Or Daenerys from “Game of Thrones,” who does a lot of brutal stuff in Slaver’s Bay but it’s all in attempt to clean up the region.
You know, protagonists. Or at least, people who operate outside the spectrum of what is normally considered morally good but are ultimately trying to achieve an overall positive result. As opposed to Darth Vader, who is simply a bad person who does bad things in service of evil. Darth Vader isn’t some misunderstood character about whom conventional wisdom is incorrect. Claiming him as your ideal flies in the face of every fundamental aspect of our collective cultural ideals. You shouldn’t want to be like Darth Vader for the same reasons you shouldn’t want to be a Nazi.
That we even have to talk about this in regards to people who are leading the country is amusing to me because of my movie-related way of calibrating my own moral compass whenever I have moments of doubt. I imagine what a movie about whatever is going on would be like — you know, your sorta bog standard Hollywood “based on true events” drama. And I ask myself: if I were a character in that movie, would I be a protagonist or a villain?
The movie villain test is exactly as simple as it sounds. I know I’m probably not going to be the main hero or villain, but it’s not about whether I’m the Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader of this story. It’s more like whether I’m an Imperial stormtrooper or a Rebel pilot. Or in a more immediately and obviously relevant comparison we can look at “Selma.” Am I one of those white people who marched with Dr. King in “Selma,” or am I one of those who beat up his supporters. Or am I part of the third group in that conflict: white people who just stood by and watched without taking any action?
Right now we live in extraordinary times. Times that are either gonna kill us all or act as a crucible that will eventually make the world a better place. If it’s the latter, there are gonna be a whole lot of movies about what happened in 2017.
And it’s pretty clear who the big bads in those movies will be: Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and anyone else who helped them get to where they are.
Good guys don’t become president and then fire the acting-Attorney General for doing her job. Good guys don’t enact overtly racist executive orders. Good guys don’t promote fear and stoke hatred. Really, good guys don’t do any of the stuff Trump and Bannon do. Sure, movie good guys may be more ideal than realistic — but Trump’s ideals are far more similar to that of a movie villain.
You might try to argue otherwise now if you’re a Trump supporter, but you’d just be extremely wrong — just as wrong as all those Nazis back in the 1930s who thought Hitler was some kind of German Savior rather than the imminent Most Horrible Person Ever. The bad guys don’t usually think they’re the bad guys, in movies or real life. But they’re still the bad guys.
Of course, some bad guys do know they’re villains. Steve Bannon definitely knows he’s evil.
That comment about Darth Vader and Satan definitely reveals a guy who has applied the movie villain test to himself, realized very clearly that he falls on exactly the wrong end of it, and just rolled with it. He’s a terrible person, and he doesn’t care.
For whatever reason, much of the Trump-voting horde doesn’t seem to care either, but I doubt they’ve put as much thought into it as Bannon has. Bannon has spent years preparing for the chance to ruin the American government and go down in the history books as an appalling piece of garbage. I won’t pretend to really know what’s going on in his head — whether he and henchman Stephen Miller are acting out of some deeply held evil convictions or if they’re just being trolls. The distinction is ultimately immaterial.
Most of the people who voted for Trump, on the other hand, probably didn’t cast their sinister votes with the aim of becoming historical villains — they’re just lucky, I guess, that they’ll have the dubious honor of being included in such a group.
If humanity isn’t snuffed out by climate change before the movies and books about all this are put together, it’ll be interesting to see if future generations learn anything from them. Although, judging from everything going on right now, it’s hard to hold out much hope that we, collectively, will learn anything.
Not that what future people learn from this matters today. I’m not actually in this fight so that I’ll be written sympathetically in a movie someday. The movie villain test is a metaphor, which I use to help keep myself on the straight and narrow. Now, more than at any other point in my life, that really matters.
Because, as characters in movies are fond of saying: this isn’t a movie, it’s real life. And everything matters.