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As we come to terms with what might be the most consequential presidential election in American history we can attempt to make sense of our present landscape by reflecting on previous political conundrums. Donald Trump is one of a kind, however. His Presidency can only be compared with a work of fiction — in particular, with the 1960s live action TV series Batman. In November 1966, a two-episode drama aired, in which Batman runs against the Penguin in a race for Gotham City’s mayoralty. The episodes — “Hizzoner the Penguin” (November 2, 1966) and “Dizzoner the Penguin” (November 3, 1966) — aired almost fifty years to the date of the 2016 presidential election. The two spectacles were uncannily similar. By examining the parallels between them we can begin to make sense of the Trump administration, and the political climate in which Trump was elected. Batman, we might say, created the space in the American political imaginary for a President Trump.
The most obvious similarities are between Trump and the Penguin. Both rotund, middle-aged men, they are equally brash and insensitive. They squawk and plot nefarious maneuvers to gain control of their respective cities.
In terms of politics, the similarities run deeper still. Penguin, like Trump, was an unlikely candidate. Born Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, he came from wealth, which was reflected in his attire: he wore a top hat, monocle, and tuxedo with tails. Rejected by his high-society family for his abnormal appearance — a beak-like nose, webbed hands and feet– the Penguin turned to crime. He first appeared in the Batman franchise as a fine-art thief, stealing paintings from museums. With his quick wit, the Penguin became a criminal mastermind, backed by the vilest criminals of Gotham City. Running for public office was one of his most audacious schemes. His candidacy surprised even Batman and Robin. “It’s a free country,” Batman told an agitated Robin when they learned of the Penguin’s mayoral campaign. “It won’t be if he’s elected,” Robin replied. “I don’t think there’s any danger of the Penguin being elected, Robin,” Batman consoled his sidekick. “The people of Gotham City are not as simple-minded as he might think.” Donald Trump’s political promise was just as unlikely; political analysts similarly could not imagine his political viability early in 2016.
The Penguin’s campaign, like Trump’s, was strategically apolitical. It emphasized showmanship and was built on opposition to his opponents rather than serious political issues. Like the Penguin, Trump avoided in-depth explication of his stance on political issues. He and the Penguin assumed that the American electorate would respond to “plain honest talk.” This was part of Trump’s appeal. He marketed himself not as a technocrat, ensconced in a political establishment, to which he callously referred as a “swamp”; instead, he presented himself as a businessman who could employ efficient public administrators to carry out his plans for the country.
“Double the assessments! Triple the size of the posters! Quadruple the number of campaign buttons!” the Penguin commanded his staff, wielding his iconic cigarette in one hand and an umbrella in another. “We’ll give the voters of this city the kind of campaign that they want: Plenty of girls and bands and slogans, and lots of hoopla! But remember: No politics. Issues confuse people. See a big smile, a hardy handshake, a very catchy campaign song. That’s the way to win an election!”
Paul Revere and the Raiders, a real-life garage rock band, appeared on the show, stoking enthusiastic supporters at a Penguin Party event, while belly dancers and cheerleaders mingled with the crowds. “Champagne for everybody!” the Penguin shouted, filling glasses for three venerable women. “It is a pleasure to hear plain honest talk from a candidate,” one of them exclaims excitedly, “instead of the usual political mumbo-jumbo.” Such spectacle at Trump rallies outweighed substantive discussion of political issues. Freedom Girls, three prepubescent girls wearing high skirts and halter-tops, danced for Trump supporters at a rally in Pensacola, Florida on January 13, 2016. The audience clapped along excitedly, echoing the performers, “President Donald Trump knows how to make America great, deal from strength or get crushed every time!”
According to ABC News/Washington Post polls, forty-six percent of voters considered Trump more “honest” than Hillary Clinton on the eve of the election. Clinton’s honesty levels, according to that same poll, wavered throughout her campaign. The perception of Trump’s honesty was a galvanizing force. Like Trump, the Penguin appeared less secretive than his masked opponent. Straight talk, for both the Penguin and Trump, was vital rhetorical weapon.
In contrast to the Penguin Party’s roaring festivities, Batman and Robin contemplated strategy and tackled issues explicitly. Batman was convinced that “all voters are interested in issues, not window dressing.” The American electorate, he explained to Robin, “is too mature to be taken in by cheap vaudeville trickery. After all, if our national leaders were elected on the basis of tricky slogans, brass bands, and pretty girls, our country would be in a terrible mess, wouldn’t it?”
Yet poll numbers favored the Penguin throughout the election. Trump’s appeal is much like Penguin’s in that the American electorate in this presidential election, and Penguins supporters, desired change — both candidates were disengaged from the American political establishment and told their demographics what they wanted to hear. “I can’t help it if I have enthusiastic fans,” Penguin boasted at his debate with the caped crusader, “[T]he voters won’t be bored to death by Batman’s babble.” The Penguin represented a deviation from the normal course of municipal politics. He excited supporters, despite his lack of experience, explicitly because he was like no other mayoral candidate in Gotham.
In the first half of the mayoral race the fictitious polling firm Gallus, Rooper and Trendek announced their projections. A nervous incumbent Mayor John Linseed (a stand-in for NYC mayor John Lindsay) asserted, “They’re never wrong.” The Penguin had 60% of the support from Gothamites, over Linseed’s 30%, while the Harry Goldwinner, the “monarchist candidate” (a reference to the 1964 Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater) had 2% from “two old ladies.” Given this bleak forecast, Mayor Linseed and Commissioner Gordon pleaded with a reluctant Batman to enter the race. He entered, of course, and won despite the initial polls. “There have been other candidates who trusted too much in the polls,” Batman tells Mayor Linseed, “and they found that it’s the votes that count. Smart politicians trust the voters, not the polls. After all, if you can’t trust the voters whom can you trust?” Batman, in this instance, rehearsed a valuable lesson in electioneering: the fallacy of political polls. The sociopolitical climate of the electorate and deep-seated attitudes of a populous, Batman reminds us, is as important, if not more so, than numbers.
Batman promptly resigned so that Linseed could reoccupy the Mayor’s office. Yet this did not stop calls from both major parties asking Batman to run for President of the United States in 1968. Humbled, Batman graciously declined, “I’m afraid my Gotham City duties take precedence.” A different law-and-order candidate would take his place. What would it have meant if Batman had run for President? As an independently financed anti-crime force, the Dynamic Duo represents the privatization of municipal services. They represent a conflation of private corporate interests and state authority. They served to supplement Gotham’s inept police and fire departments, and even ran — and won — an election. Batman would have been a Presidential candidate with the financial support of his own corporation (Wayne Enterprises Inc.), privatizing America’s highest public office. He would have been an outsider candidate, bent on saving the American political process from itself at all costs. In this light, Batman as President might not be so different than a President Trump.
Looking back to the late 1960s, the Batman TV series may have created the possibility of a Trump campaign and presidency in the minds of many Americans, even subconsciously. The show targeted white middle-class suburban boys from six to twelve. Fifty years later this same population, now fifty-six to sixty-two years old, was a key demographic for Trump’s campaign, and Ronald Reagan’s before him (another unlikely candidate). Batman was a phenomenal spectacle for hundreds of thousands of suburban children during the late 1960s. Predating educational shows like Schoolhouse Rock (1973-2009), and Sesame Street (1969-present), Batman was a lens through which children understood politics, parsed good and evil, and developed a moral compass. A president Trump was as unlikely as a President Batman or a Mayor Penguin. One question remains, however: who will save us from our demise?