Pundits have struggled for months to come up with the right comparison for the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. Some mention George Wallace or Pat Buchanan, neither of whom, of course, came nearly as close as Trump stands now to the presidency. Others have sought historical examples from farther afield, such as Mussolini—whom Trump has quoted in a memorable re-tweet—or even Hitler. But after listening to Trump’s dystopian and terrifying acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, I was struck by what seems to me the most appropriate comparison of all.
Emperor Palpatine has just been nominated for the presidency of the United States.
Palpatine, as many know, is the evil figure at the heart of the first six Star Wars films and the extensive literature surrounding those films. Over the course of the movies and various novels, we see him maneuver his way from being Senator Palpatine to becoming President (elected, of course), then Supreme Chancellor, and finally Emperor.
“He is, in short, the ultimate law and order candidate, short on policy specifics but brilliant at capitalizing on fear and demonizing the other.”
How does a man like Palpatine manage to get elected president of the Republic? As described by George Lucas and Alan Dean Foster in the novel version of Star Wars: A New Hope, “He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic.”
He is, in short, the ultimate law and order candidate, short on policy specifics but brilliant at capitalizing on fear and demonizing the other (and Star Wars is nothing if not filled with “others” to demonize).
And what happens when Palpatine is elected?
Once secure in office he declared himself Emperor, shutting himself away from the populace. Soon he was controlled by the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed to high office, and the cries of the people for justice did not reach his ears.
What might be most Trump-like about Palpatine is the absence of any actual core beliefs underlying the quest for power. The brilliant actor Ian McDiarmid, who portrayed Palpatine in the films, described how he understood and inhabited the role:
He can, as it were, turn it on. And I suppose for him, it’s also a bit of a turn-on — the pure exercise of power is what he’s all about. That’s the only thing he’s interested in and the only thing that can satisfy him — which makes him completely fascinating.
“Everything he does,” McDiarmid continued, “is an act of pure hypocrisy.”
The Star Wars universe, while not always subtle or sophisticated, has held power over the popular imagination because it manages to tap into and re-create in accessible terms some of the myths and impulses that seem always to have held sway over the human imagination. We want deeply to believe in The Force. We cower before the ominous threat Darth Vader. We yearn for the transcendent goodness of the Jedi Knights. And we so desperately want to be safe from the scary things that lurk in the dark that we are willing to sacrifice almost anything—even our freedom and our empathy for others—in that quest for safety.
Dictators are not an aberration. They are the natural outgrowth of the human desire to be protected. The fact that the choice of such figures as leaders never ends well—it never ends well—doesn’t stop that choice from being made again and again. This in itself should tell us something about the immense, deep-seated power of fear. We are so desperate to be safe that we are willing, again and again, to ignore the lessons of history and hope that this time, for the first time, the one who claims to have the unique ability to keep us totally secure and totally free will be successful and uncorrupted by enormous power.
Trump: “My sole and exclusive mission is to go to work for our country – to go to work for all of you. It’s time to deliver a victory for the American people. But to do that, we must break free from the petty politics of the past.”
Palpatine: “It is with great reluctance that I have agreed to this calling. I love democracy. I love the Republic. Once this crisis has abated, I will lay down the powers you have given me!”
May the Force be with us.