One of the worst chapters in the history of politics took place on 6th January 2021.
A congressional session was in place to confirm Joe Biden’s victory in the recent Presidential Elections when right-wing extremists stormed the Capitol Building. They came straight from a rally being held by Trump only a short distance away. Before breaking in, they hung a noose in view of the Capitol’s front, and chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” then VP.
Inside, they were wisely led away from the congress chamber by heroic Officer Goodman. The US representatives including the Vice President and Speaker of the Senate were led off by internal security to safe, secret locations on the premises. Meanwhile, the rioters were actively looking for Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker, openly intending to take her and other representatives hostage.
President-Elect Joe Biden immediately called on President Trump to order his followers to stop the siege. However, Trump let several hours pass before fully responding. Instead, he both directly and indirectly encouraged the rioters and their supporters. Five people died in total, including an officer on duty, before National Guard troops with deployments from the FBI and US Secret Service controlled the situation. An alarming discovery was the discovery of weapons, zip ties, and explosive equipment at different locations around the Capitol. Video evidence showed several members of the Capitol Police actively helping the rioters along. The DC government announced it had been denied help from Pentagon and other sources for extra security for the day despite the pre-existing signs of such an incident happening. Watch a video of how it all happened here.
This domestic terrorism was protested in strong terms by world leaders everywhere. President Trump was banned from social media platforms the same day and subsequently impeached by Congress for the second time. Since then, arrests have been made of individual rioters, but Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who openly supported Trump’s conspiracy theory of election fraud as well as his insurrection plans, are still holding their positions in the Senate.
Like anyone else, I was unable to get over the events at the Capitol, anxiously consuming the news cycle, the videos, and the expert analyses over and over for the following weeks. I was struck by the stark similarity of the events to the anarchy in Gotham City depicted in The Dark Knight Rises by Christopher Nolan about 8 years ago. In a gruesome realization of “life imitates art,” the unfolding was scarily similar despite key superficial differences.
Without the intention of trivializing a shameful chapter in US politics, the rest of this article explores these similarities and looks to derive certain insights from the comparison for post-Trump America.
The movie’s political ramifications were no secret even back in 2012, often interpreted by critics and political commentators alike. Some thought Bane’s name was a reference to 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. Many right-wingers claimed Nolan favored conservative themes with it by revealing the violent intentions of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Arguably, however, the true political spirit of the movie was captured by this line Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle whispers in a high-society charity ball to Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne:
“You and your friends better batten down the hatches, cause when [the storm that is coming] hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us.”
And yet it wasn’t just that, as the comparison chart depicts. The people in Gotham city do not retaliate against the rich and powerful until there is an insurgent in the form of Bane inciting people to violence. In our scary real-life history, it takes the incessant inciting by Donald Trump going back more than four years, to rile up followers into malevolent action. Bane’s influence is more active; he frees the jailed inmates and manipulates the masses by revealing the truth about Harvey Dent. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has perpetuated rumors of election fraud and has consistently mouthed white supremacist propaganda in his rallies. In Gotham, the masses join Bane’s thugs and the freed criminals in looting and tearing down signs of the rich. They raid the Gotham Stock Exchange and rob Wayne Enterprises, thus depriving Gotham’s emblems of their power. Trumpers and QAnoners raided the most sanctimonious institution of the USA’s democracy and intended to take down the whole line of succession of the US presidency.
In both cases, the inciter first acquired a position of power. Bane infiltrated Gotham’s underworld; his secret leader Miranda Tate chummed up with Bruce Wayne himself. Then Bane added a significant element of coercion by planting a nuclear bomb to force people to his will. After becoming president, Trump also allegedly employed coercive tactics, using various threats and probably even blackmail towards his staff and Senate members. Not only have most of his staff supported him right to the end of his presidency, the blindly partisan support of fellow GOP representatives such as Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Mitch McConnell, and Kevin McCarthy, has played a big role in swaying the mass conservative opinion to the extreme. GOP voters in large numbers bought all the conspiracy theories against the elections, despite the fact that courts found no evidence of fraud at all. Remember that many of the rioters were former or current servicemen in police and military – these were not just members of a secretive terrorist organization.
Similarities between the film’s world and real life USA exist beyond the chain of these major events. It would be an oversight to ignore those factors. As listed in the chart, both Gotham and the USA are characterized by an extremely unequal distribution of wealth. This includes pre-existing manipulation of the masses by the rich and powerful that serves to maintain the status quo and seems pretty coercive in its own right. We cannot explain the 46.8% of the popular vote for Trump citing only propaganda and manipulation. It was the unequal distribution of wealth and the indifference to wide-ranging problems in the population at large that gave Trump room to play during his first election campaign. Given that a majority of the people, both white or non-white, have been living hand-to-mouth, struggling to pay the bills, and have barely a hundred dollars any month for medical emergencies, it was easy for Trump to ramp up the white majority’s inherent racism. To say that the narrative of immigrants and other colored people ‘stealing our jobs’ made sense only from a racist perspective, without acknowledging the economy choke, would be denying the ground reality.
Film lovers would recall Bane spewing this rhetoric, foreshadowing “Make America Great Again,” “Stop the Steal,” and “Take Back Our Country,” and other slogans of the Trump era.
“We take Gotham from the corrupt. The rich. The oppressors of generations who’ve kept you down with the myth of opportunity. And we give it to you, the people.”
Remarkably, Donald Trump paraphrased this exact quote for his inaugural address, a fact that was poked fun of back then:
“But we are transferring power from Washington D.C. and giving it back to you… the people. For too long a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have born the cost.”
In hindsight, Trump was following Bane’s blueprint. He knew this kind of rhetoric would work when the masses are already deeply hurt and suffering at the hand of society’s controlling institutions. Combined with supremacist propaganda, the rhetoric also allowed Trump to divide the country in half. Trump had already done this at a smaller scale with his birther controversy during Obama’s first term. Along with the increase in police violence against Blacks, the country remained mired in mutual conflict and a heightened feeling of unrest since then. Similarly, the Tea Party movement began in 2009 as a call for economic equality but ended up unleashing a politics of anger and devolved with time into Trumpism. Political commentators noticed these increasing extremist trends with disdain and worried where the cult of Trump will lead to next. Today we know but are still not warned enough.
In 2017 then, the stage was already set for Trump to inflame all the angry reactionism. The deed was done by gaining power, using coercion where needed, and importantly, providing the common people with means to let out their anger against the ‘symbols of oppression.’ That included uniting his followers on his malevolent propaganda using various media platforms, constantly challenging the 2020 election results, supporting QAnon, and holding an inciting rally in view of the Capitol and practically telling people “we will march with you.”
How did Nolan’s Gotham City survive Bane’s extremism? Did it really happen when Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne decided to honor the long history of Jesus-like figures sacrificing themselves to save the day? Not just.
Instead, the relatively rational and egalitarian segments of society – represented by Jim Gordon, John Blake and even Selina Kyle – converged resources towards stopping the internal terrorism. Still, their efforts might have been as short as the efforts of the more constructive or progressive flag holders of change in this country. It literally took Gotham’s pinnacle of elitism – call it the Batman or the Wayne Enterprises – removing itself from the conversation for Gotham to (presumably) return to relative normalcy and maybe even greater equality.
In our real world, while Democrats continue to protest the riots, their and the current government’s response feels weaker by the day. At least the impeachment trial now in progress leaves us some hope. The Republicans meanwhile continue with their propaganda, aiming to minimize the atrocities committed on 6th January, and trying their best to prevent Trump from suffering any real consequences. It is important to note that the consequences demanded by the Democrats would serve as a deterrent to any future insurrection-minded leader of the government. There is every reason to believe that the domestic terrorism unleashed on the Capitol is not gonna die off meekly just because Trump is no longer on Twitter. And punishing Trump could also unleash another wave of domestic terrorism.
While no one is demanding that the society’s controlling structures sacrifice themselves in favor of a grassroots democracy; unassertive talk of unity, moving forward, and bipartisanism will not cut it either. Without
i) dealing a firm hand to the insurrectionists, and
ii) sincerely instituting policies that remove the economic discrepancies,
one wonders how long will it take for the pendulum of politics to swing again to right-wing extremism? After all, insurrectionist senators Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene have no reason to shy away from continuing the Trump-inspired rhetoric.
Christopher Nolan’s prescience manifested in a different way days after the Capitol Riots when Wall Street faced major losses maneuvered by retail traders converging on reddit. But that would have to be the subject of another essay. Pop culture entertainment products may be dismissed as a pastime. But when real-life politicians use openly villainous tactics for dramatic, self-serving ends, why shy away from applying the insights?
And yet it is all rhetoric until turned into action.