Seventy-five million Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and remain fiercely loyal to him, this despite, or rather because of, his bad boy behavior. Trump’s appeal lies not in his grasp of difficult policy issues nor his ability to think clearly; to the contrary, his clumsy buffoonery, inarticulate speech, simpleminded view of the world, and expressions of disdain and anger at the institutions of government match that of his most ardent fans. Donald Trump is America’s political anti-hero, giving his finger to the system, his opponents and the international community, all to the glee and entertainment of his MAGA cult.
Trump’s rise matches the rise of the anti-heroes in books and movies, characters that defy convention with a willingness to do whatever it takes to accomplish their ends. The anti-hero is portrayed as a man of action, taking risks and stretching the legal envelope to fulfill his own sense of right and wrong in his own way. Many Americans love the image of the anti-hero and identify with it, although unwilling to behave that way themselves.
Anti-heroes in film and TV include Charles Bronson as a vigilante in Death Wish, Clint Eastwood as ruthless detective Dirty Harry, lethal Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator, and Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in Justified. An audience roots for the anti-hero specifically because he flouts conventional behavior and ethics in pursuit of his goal, and Trump has garnered the loyalty of his fans precisely for the same reasons. Sexual aggression, breaking the law, spewing conspiracy theories, avoiding taxes, and accumulating a mountain of deceit just enhance his image as the world’s baddest bad boy. For this reason, Trump gravitates to political bad boy anti-heroes like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un.
Conflating fictional narrative with political reality makes for compelling media coverage, and accordingly, “sells a lot of soap.” Mixing news with entertainment is now a full-fledged industry; the recent legal punishment of FOX news was based upon the way actors like Shawn Hannity and Tucker Carlson blend news and opinion. Doing the same, Bad Boy Trump has been able to perfectly play the anti-hero role for today’s ratings-obsessed media, from television to Twitter. The downside, predicted by Paddy Chayefsky in his film Network, is a confused public unable to sort out fact from fiction.
Hating government has a long and favored place in America’s political songbook, and the Republican Party is playing that tune perfectly. Republican Grover Norquist famously called for starving the federal government of money until it could be “drowned in a bathtub.” Present day Republican congress members are intent upon gutting the Internal Revenue Service, and portraying the federal government overall as evil, including the FBI. These are the bad boy ideas that resonate with the MAGA crowd, and acting the anti-hero appears to have been the motivation behind the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and other insurrectionists on January 6, 2021.
It’s hard to imagine how to put the anti-hero genie back in the lamp; the image and its effects are too effective and profitable. From DeSantis to RFK Jr., a new crop of bad boy anti-heroes are mounting the electoral stage with dreams of stardom. We’re neck deep in the waters of hackneyed political drama, broadcast on cell phones and TV screens as if scripted by Hollywood writers, fueled by billions in advertising and supported by media platforms more interested in eyeballs than truth.