For Americans on both sides of the political aisle, Wednesday’s announcement that Donald J. Trump would be the nation’s 45th president was shocking. In the days leading up to the election, all polls seemed to indicate that the honor would fall to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who ― even as the FBI leapt at the chance to rub very stupid salt in some very questionable wounds ― maintained a healthy lead. Her “firewall” of swing states was secure, pundits suggested. Hell, on the morning of the election, even Trump’s own campaign seemed to think it would take a veritable act of God to launch their candidate to victory. But by 10 p.m. that night, Americans were reminded that there’s nothing God can do that some good old-fashioned white bitterness can’t.
Needless to say, the ensuing days have been overflowing with confusion, fear, and agony for many, across the country and worldwide. The prospect of a Trump presidency backed by a conservative Congress and enabled by a Conservative judiciary is rightly terrifying, and ― if the president-elect’s campaign rhetoric is to be taken at face value ― threatens to undo decades of social progress for millions of Americans. In the desperate scramble to cope with an outcome that now seems both shockingly perverse and woefully inevitable, the country has turned to a number of sources, all possible ways to make sense of what just days before seemed like a dark joke.
Some have referenced history, noting the ways that media normalization of Trump’s behavior mimics similar language surrounding fascist leaders, such as Adolf Hitler, in their early days in power. Others have turned to the legal and legislative structures of the nation, beginning to conceive of the ways in which the worst possible actions of this looming administration might be preemptively neutered. Still many more have turned to art, the very essence of which one might argue is the making sense of calamities like this one, finding redemption in whatever meager package in which it might arrive.
In many ways, this might not be surprising. The generation for which JK Rowling’s Potter phenomenon was most immediate is now in their mid-to-late twenties, and even those who started reading the books around the publication of the final tome ― 2007’s The Deathly Hallows ― would be of voting age. With the added span of the accompanying films (the latest of which will premiere this coming Friday), Rowling’s epic fantasy universe is still a vital and potent kernel of pop culture. It’s hard to find someone who is not familiar with at least the basics of Potter lore, from its elevation of the generic “chosen one” cliche, to its spotty attempts to discuss corruption and the dangers of organized bigotry. Think of any recent global event, and you are likely to find a healthy swarm of fans and internet commentators positing a Harry Potter analogy.
“Voldemort is going after predominantly white straight boys. Trump is not.”
It is also impossible to overstate how stupid and how offensive attempts to use Harry Potter as a way to discuss the fallout of this election are, how inane and condescending they have been every day since Donald Trump declared his candidacy. While there are perhaps objectively worse pop culture comparisons to make, there is perhaps none more harmful than the Potter one, both to those who will be most profoundly threatened by a Trump administration, and―to a lesser extent―to those who buy into its laughable relevance.
The most obvious reason, which other writers have already addressed, is pretty simple: the threats of a Trump presidency are very very real; the threats of a bloodline-obsessed, snake-charming, death-cult leader laying siege to a school of British kids practicing magic are far less so. The only benefit of the shallow childish comparison one might make between Donald J. Trump and JK Rowling’s Lord Voldemort are that they are both shitty demagogues who have weaponized the bigotry of a privileged group in a way that threatens the less privileged. If you’re calling Voldemort “Tom Riddle,” I guess you could also point out that both have kind of stupid names; but that’s where it stops.
What benefit is there to stating a very obvious fact, and then saying that it also has basis in literature? Are the people making these comparisons saying that JK Rowling predicted racism? Are they suggesting we go on the hunt for a trio of preteens who can eventually come to blows with our Trump in the White House cafeteria? Have they just not read any other books?
The fundamental issue here is that this comparison does nothing to provoke what is now most needed: action. No one who reads an article comparing the guy from The English Patient sans nose with our actual real president-to-be is any more spurred to put together some form of resistance, and if they are they’re going to be pretty shocked to find that there are very few enchanted items fit to stunt historically sustained systemic bigotry. They’re encouraged to go speak with the victims of some hate crimes, and inquire about a “boy who lived.”
Ultimately, this comparison exists mainly to instill a sense of moral superiority in those who make it, to make them feel like they are up against some great timeless evil, the bravest of brave British kids, telling the Dark Lord where to stick it. In Rowling’s books, despite his popularity, Voldemort is unequivocally bad, and those who oppose him are unequivocally good. By virtue of this, opposing Voldemort’s real-life surrogate places you not only on the right side of history, but among the pantheon of culture’s most recognizable heroes.
There is perhaps no better example of this than a study published in July, which stated “Harry Potter Readers More Likely to Dislike Donald Trump.” Sweet Jesus, where to begin? The gist of the study is pretty simple: “if you happen to be a fan of this thing, you are more likely to not like bad people.” Put more bluntly: fans of Harry Potter are kinda just better than everyone else. Which is a useless goddamn conclusion. It does nothing for the people who stand to lose the most in the wake of Trump taking office, and it does little to encourage a change of heart in Trump supporters. Like the basic comparison between Donald Trump and Snake Hitler, it has a single purpose: to make you feel better about yourself; to equate your taste with your moral fiber; and to―as you walk to the ballot box in November of 2020―give you the sense that it will be you, oh Chosen One, who stands up against, not just a political candidate, but the greatest force of evil this world has ever known.
The second problem with this drive to compare Rowling’s work with our current political reality is one that has―to my knowledge―not been as widely discussed. Perhaps this is because it isn’t quite as obvious to many of the writers who have taken overzealous and self-righteous Potter fans to task at publications like Slate and Esquire. As opposed to my first concern, this is an issue of empathy rather than ego, and it cuts at one of the most profound failures of Rowling’s work as a means of discussing nearly any piece of American political history.
Voldemort is not a threat to the people to whom Trump is a threat.
No, I don’t mean because one is real and one is fake.
I mean, because Voldemort is going after predominantly white straight boys. Trump is not.
Much of the cause for Trump’s rise is an American inability and refusal to empathize with minorities. For those who are outright misogynist, racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist this amounts to a simple hatred for these groups, a shameless denial of the sort of basic compassion that makes bigotry impossible. More insidious, however, is the situation of those millions of Trump voters who now rage against being lumped in with David Duke and the KKK, the neo-Nazis, and the sexual predators. These men and women either try to erase the bigoted roots of much of Trump’s agenda, or they half-heartedly acknowledge it with the condition that it is not what drew them to the campaign. They have economic concerns or are passionate about Second Amendment rights. They don’t want anyone to be discriminated against.
And perhaps, deep in their hearts, they mean this. For the sake of argument, we can allow them that because it ultimately makes no difference. They have signed off on a program of systemic racism and hatred that was loudly advertised by both its salesmen and its critics. In the past year, these men and women heard the pleas of minority communities, and they either tuned them out, or deemed them unimportant in comparison to their own need to hold onto an AR-15 or to work in a dying industry determined to take the planet with it. They held their comfort up to someone else’s survival, and they could not see why choosing the former over the latter might be seen as, at best, enabling and, at worst, endorsing. This is as boldfaced a failure of empathy as is imaginable.
Which is to say that the way to combat the ravages of Trump’s ideology short-term, and to prevent its ability to reappear long-term, is to turn our focus to these men and women who are stunted in their ability to empathize with people of color, LGBTQ Americans, the disabled, immigrants, women, and those of other faiths. While we fight to defend those whose lives are directly jeopardized by this administration, we must also fight to show those who have bought into America’s historically devastating program to minimize the value of its minorities that the choices they make will have real effects on real Americans, whose safety and dignity they might not have even developed the capacity to truly feel the heft of.
So, if this is our greatest challenge, conceiving of the bigotry we face through a lens that victimizes predominantly straight white men is foolish, and insulting. It sends the message to those already suffering in America and poised to suffer more that we can only see their pain as worthy of compassion when we transpose it onto bodies and experiences that resemble our own. It sends the message that bigotry is most despicable when it is directed at white boys chasing love with white girls in a fantastical Europe. It sends the message that―in the struggle to understand, diagram, and destroy American racism―the stories of men and women of color who have suffered these realities are less relevant and interesting to us than the stories of men and women who suffer a pantomime of these evils in a universe that doesn’t even exist (Even Rowling, who sort of tried to denounce the comparison, still found herself rating Trump’s potential for harm on “The Voldemort Scale of Shittiness.”). It insults those looking at what appears to be an oil-black horizon and says: “We wish to honor your story, but we don’t want you to tell it. We want to fight for you, but please don’t take the lead.”
To decide that Harry Potter is in any way comparable to the horror of Donald Trump and the America he has galvanized is to perpetuate the violence of ejecting minorities from their own stories, and to―once more―place white people center stage. It is to refuse any authentic narrative that does not allow us to be either hero or victim, to refuse to conceive of a world in which our story is not either pivotal or at least parallel and pronounced. It is to doom minorities in America to years if not decades if not centuries more of a country that either hates them or will not pay the minor expenses to love them, all for the chance to make some cute tweet about how Chris Christie getting in bed with Trump is like Malfoy and Voldemort hugging, or some similarly stupid shit. If you’re feeling cheeky, calling it “magic-washing.” If you’re feeling honest, call it selfish and shameless erasure.
“It’s an infantile and selfish comparison that does away with all of the nuance and specificity necessary to understanding the horrible outcome of November 8.”
For those of you who are going to say that Dean Thomas or Lee Jordan were black, that Pavarti Patel was Indian, that Hermione was a woman, or that Dumbledore was queer, I please ask you to stay quiet, less for the sake of my argument than for that of your self-respect. Harry Potter sidelined minority characters, and utilized its female prodigy as a workhorse. Furthermore, JK Rowling claiming Dumbledore was gay was a tasteless and shameless attempt to capitalize on the growing popularity of LGBTQ rights. If it was subtext it was so deeply inlaid that it provided no added depth to the character, and Rowling only chose to reveal it once her property was such a whirlwind hit that the new information (which was so absent from the text as to provide zero identification for struggling queer youth) wouldn’t do damage to the brand. Harry Potter is a literary fantasy for young readers who want to be wizards, and a political fantasy for white adults who want to position themselves as heroes overcoming the forces of prejudice in a world that offers only a couple narratives in which they are denied absolute dominance.
So, please don’t compare this election to Harry Potter. It’s foolish and it’s gross. It’s an infantile and selfish comparison that does away with all of the nuance and specificity necessary to understanding the horrible outcome of November 8 and preventing its repetition ― and it replaces all of that particularly and dangerously American context with a banal and archetypal stance against bigotry, because bigotry is a bad thing, like making a child fight a giant snake beneath his school or murdering seven people so you can neatly stash your soul.
In the days preceding Election Day, it was a cloying if stress-relieving premise for jokes (in which even I once participated). In the days following, it is an irresponsible and demeaning exercise in establishing easy moral dichotomies that do more to masturbate our sense of ethical exceptionalism than provide a meaningful plan to dismantle the threats we claim to oppose.
We’ve most likely got four years of Donald Trump on the horizon. You don’t have some elder wand to ward that off; plenty don’t have the luxury of an invisibility cloak; and there will be many feeling the absence of anything resembling a resurrection stone.
This is not the time for empty platitudes about the magic of love. This is the time for some difficult acknowledgements about the messy and painful labors of compassion.