Apotheosis of an Antihero
“History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.” —Ian Fleming
The Mug Shot
Last Thursday Donald Trump was booked at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta on felony charges, marking his fourth indictment of the year. A former president facing criminal charges is already unprecedented, but taking that former president’s mug shot qualifies as something more… ‘historic,’ perhaps? ‘Historic’ is a little threadbare in post-Hopenchange America, but it is the only word to describe these uncharted waters we find ourselves in.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of his enemies, Donald Trump has transcended parties, polls, and politics and now moves freely again in the world of symbols. He was a cultural icon long before the 2016 presidential election, and his transformation from nouveau riche hotshot-turned-reality TV star into King of the Deplorables was foreordained. Even with his own government in full revolt and half of the country convinced of Russian Collusion, Trump remained tethered to the political establishment. He was still fighting inside the ring, and his cultural power would be limited to electoral politics. But that connection is now severed, and the mug shot was the final notice.
Trump is undergoing yet another evolution as a cultural icon, but this time he embodies defiance, dissent, and disobedience on the periphery. No doubt Trump’s enemies know this and hope their lawfare campaign will derail Trump’s campaign, as well as frighten and further stigmatize his followers. And to their credit, Trump is old and visibly tired, his warchest is dwindling, and he is alienated from his own party’s powerbrokers. But none of this will tarnish Trump as a dissident symbol. If anything, the more Trump struggles against impossible odds, the more potent he becomes. And unlike counterfeits of the past—Obama comes to mind—Trump’s influence over the culture will only grow from here, whether or not he goes to prison. For Trump has become the antihero of this drama, and the more that Americans recoil at Washington and see a dystopian future ahead, the more they will identify with Trump and that mug shot.
Americans admire a hero, but they love an antihero.
Rick Blaine, Ethan Edwards, Michael Corleone, Benjamin Willard: the antihero has been a staple of American cinema for decades now. The archetype is much older, of course, and we find it in the pages of our best books, sometimes floating down the Mississippi River, standing in the ruins of a plantation and cursing the sky, or communing with the ghost of a dead father. But as the world spins faster and faster and simple moral narratives prove unstable, the antihero of the silver screen dominates. We see him in Patrick Bateman, Max Rockatansky, and Arthur Fleck. He makes us wince, and we debate his integrity, but the forces arrayed against him only invite our disgust.
The antihero often lives on the edge of civilization, just outside the dream, or in the shadow of a city on a hill. He can be selfish, vengeful, rebellious, and foolhardy, but his collision with a greater evil redeems him. And sometimes, through boldness and cunning, the antihero unearths some forsaken truth, almost always by accident. We cannot help but respect that.
We have entered a foreign political landscape, where the illusion of an impartial justice system has been shattered and virtually all major public and private institutions are hostile to, if not weaponized against, a populist uprising. In this strange new world where dissent has no legitimate expression but is harshly punished, symbols of defiance and disobedience that transcend politics will have great power and likely embolden a counterculture.
Americans admire a hero, but they love an antihero, and last week we witnessed the apotheosis of an American antihero. Time will tell what this symbol transforms into next, but make no mistake, it finds itself firmly planted in rich soil.