“Citizen Trump”: exploring election rhetoric through comics

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The long and absurd adventure that has been the 2016 US presidential election will end this week, with Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th “leader of the free world” on Friday 20th January.

Among the smog of rhetoric that was blasted into the atmosphere during this campaign, there is one term that stands out for its deep irony and denial of public sensibility. “Generation Snowflake” is a reductionist umbrella for “hypersensitive” millennials (an already reductionist term for a generation spanning about 30 years) who have apparently been taught to believe they are “special”.

A stupid criticism for many reasons, the term has become a meme, broadly used to condemn groups as disparate as hipsters, students of the humanities, the mentally ill, and, shockingly, people who stand up to Trump’s nationalist rhetoric.

Putting aside the fact that those who taught the younger generations to think as individuals – through government mandated syllabi and the creation of pop culture that rewards protagonists for breaking free of the status quo – are the very same that now reprimand them for expressing their political opinion, the label itself is a dangerous one.

Sam Humphries and Tommy Patterson explore just how dangerous in Citizen Jack, their satirical series about an immature and irredeemable man with little political achievement who sells his soul and runs for president of the United States. Getting ahead through flagrant demagoguery, Jack abuses the patriotism of his country to oppose the “political elite” and bring it back into the hands of “real Americans.”

Making America great again

Although the first issue was released in November 2015, Humphries has said that it was ready to ship in March of that year, pre-dating Donald Trump’s acceptance of the Republican candidacy by four months.

More a parody of the political system than any one person within it, Jack is not really like Trump in background or character, despite several freak accidents of similarity in their campaigns. A failing businessman in a pink dressing gown, a full head of luscious hair framing his fairly generic features, the character is a symbol of something bigger and scarier than Trump alone could hope to be.

The unplanned achievement of the book’s horrific premise is the eerie prescience that the creators show throughout a first volume that was planned and penned before the rabbit hole unfolded into the events of 2016. From the moment the world is introduced to Jack Northworthy as a presidential candidate via a sardonic analogue of Fox News, the book perfectly encapsulates a political climate that appeals to public emotion rather than rational thought.

Standing naked in the Minnesotan snow after voluntarily diving into a frozen lake, Jack declares to the camera that he is better suited to lead America than a “Washington insider” because he has the “stones” for such reckless and unnecessary behaviour. He ends his triumphant entrance into the public eye with the useless slogan, “It’s time for America to get Jacked!”

It’s never clear whether this banal rhetoric is intended to insult America or pump it up somehow, which is part of Humphries’ brilliance as a writer. The meaningless phrases he puts into Jack’s mouth show that this reprehensible man will say anything to stir people up. Jack isn’t clever – he has his campaign manager and the powers of a scary-ass demon to do the real graft for the election – but he knows what to say to get a reaction out of people.

And this is the hypocrisy of the special snowflake dig. The full quarter of the US and UK populations that fall into the millennial age group(s) are purported to be a bunch of emotional cry-babies by people who have had their hearts stolen by nonsense phrases coined to win elections. Individualism dismissed as infantile, the “mature” society must surely rely on tribes. Tribalism, also known as “we-thinking”, divides the population, whether local, global or national, into groups of “us” and “them”.

Us and them

In Marjane Satrapi’s (literally millennial) graphic memoir Persepolis, published in 2000, the creator bears witness to the nature of tribalism as she recounts her experience of national identity as a child growing up in wartime Iran.

Satrapi begins her story as a rebellious and precocious child trying to understand the new restrictions enforced on her public self at the start of the Islamic Revolution in 1980. As the daughter of radical Marxists and a direct descendant of Iran’s last emperor, she struggles to find a balance between the freedom to learn, question and discover that her parents make for her at home, and the strict regulations that she faces at school.

As revolution leads to war, language, both personal and political, becomes more important to Satrapi. With her French school closed and a veil enforced upon her and her female friends and relatives, she realises early on that there is dissonance between her understanding of religious faith and the interpretations being used for control. Whereas Citizen Jack’s titular character takes control of a nation through speech, Satrapi’s childhood is defined by her position on the receiving end of such power plays.

Rhetoric’s place in religion is well-established and young “Marji’s” emotional arc, complete in a way that is difficult to achieve in memoir, rests on her understanding that for many people, Muslim, Iranian or otherwise, must portray a different face in public than they do when they’re alone. Unlike the abstract danger of divisive language in Citizen Jack, the clashing interpretations of God’s word by religious extremists and Marxist socialism is often fatal in Satrapi’s world.

The book details many tragedies, which alone challenge the nationalist narratives of countries that have brought destruction upon innocent people in the attempt to rake in power and money, but this clearly isn’t the purpose of Persepolis. In detailing her flight from Iran to Austria and back again, our narrator tells the story of a nation that has been buried beneath the rhetoric of higher powers. The place and culture that created her comes to life in her description of its pleasures and pain, and shows what can be lost when we narrow our view to “us vs them”.

Perhaps behaviour as petty as name-calling shouldn’t be enough to trigger national division in countries where at least 14 years of education is mandatory. But when patriotism – pride in one’s country – becomes clouded by persuasive tribalism that promises to “make America great again”, urges Britain to “take back control”, or labels bilingual schools in Iran as “capitalist” and “decadent”, the gulf of cultural variation is widened.

“Generation snowflake” is essentially a meaningless term, but the emotion behind it is clear. The people throwing it about are really saying that whatever liberal views are offending them this week don’t matter because the Left lost the election. Unsportsmanlike indeed, the words that put a wall up along the Mexican border, or those that had an entire country regret that they voted to leave the European Union, create an animosity towards any kind of diversity, setting us all back decades of progress.

Images courtesy of Tommy Patterson, Sam Humphries and Image Comics.

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