The Internet exploded this past week over the release of a new Captain America comic that reveals him to be an undercover villain with Hydra. For readers who don’t keep up with all things Marvel, Hydra is a black ops Nazi off-shoot infiltrating high places in the U. S. government. So for Captain America, historic foe of the Nazis, to be Hydra…well, this counts as a Really Big Deal in Marvel world. Now, happily for those of us who ignore the comics and just enjoy the Captain America and Avengers movies, Disney most likely knows its demographic better than to follow suit. And given that Cap’s character arc in the Cinematic Universe was planned long before this comic hit the market, it seems safe to say that the Steve Rogers we know and love will remain unsullied.
But for the foreseeable future, Comic Book Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, is bad. What’s more, the writers have gone out of their way to assure readers that this is “not a clone, not an imposter, not mind control, not someone else acting through Steve. This really is Steve Rogers, Captain America himself.” Still, some have made a plausible case (language warning) that given the nature of comic books, even the newly villainous Cap won’t be sullied forever. What with Galactic Infinity Gems And Stuff floating around, even I could make up some day-saving nonsense involving a parallel reality. Who knows? It’s a stupid comic book, and the only rule of stupid comic books is that quite literally anything can happen.
So, why am I wasting time writing about a stupid comic book? Why should you waste your time reading what I have to write about a stupid comic book? Why does this matter?
Part of the reason why it matters is revealed in another plate of the new comic. Captain America’s former Hydra nemesis, Red Skull, is giving a recruiting speech to a group of blue-collar Americans. In Marvel world, Nazism fills the role that was actually filled by Communism in real history, becoming a global movement with pockets of followers embedded everywhere.
Obviously, the image of a Nazi riling up blue-collar Americans is meant to hit uncomfortably close to home, especially now as Donald Trump has just become the presumptive Republican nominee. With the likes of David Duke proudly pledging their support, we’re entering a darker chapter in our country’s history than we’ve ever seen before. No longer can we say that Republican fascism is purely a leftist fiction. The presidential candidate who ostensibly represents “the right” is actually embracing fascism and winning votes for it. Yet, somehow, Trump’s followers think they are doing their country proud by voting for him.
But the comic authors’ agenda goes beyond taking a jab at Donald Trump. Read on, and you’ll realize that Red Skull’s pep talk is much more than just another rant about illegal immigration. It explicitly borrows social conservative language to lament the erosion of traditional values in society and culture. Because unlike Donald Trump, Red Skull is not just a con artist. He’s a zealot, a true believer. This quote could have been lifted straight out of a Ted Cruz stump speech: “Your entire culture is under siege. The principles your country was founded upon lost in the name of ‘tolerance.’ Your religion, your beliefs, your sense of community — all tossed aside like trash. And you cannot even speak out against it, lest you be called a bigot!”
Now, anyone who’s read anything I’ve written about this election season knows that I would never lump Trump together with Cruz. But that’s exactly what’s so pernicious about this plate. It’s a deliberate blend of neo-Nazi rabble-rousing and perfectly sound conservative talk, all gathered together in a great big huge pile of Evil Super-Villainy. These are the kind of people who would say Cruz is worse than Trump, because he actually means what he says, and the truth disgusts them. They look at the old-fashioned, simple values Captain America stood for, and those values disgust them. In short, they hate the America conservatives love and remember. In their eyes, Captain America was evil all along, because America was evil all along.
And this is exactly why the nomination of Donald Trump has been such a great tragedy for our nation and for the conservative movement. Because Trump embodies and celebrates every single loathsome stereotype of conservatism, he is lending an undeserved legitimacy to leftist media and pop culture. His cult following gives them an excuse, an out, something they can point to and say “See? We’re not making all this up.” Meanwhile, they will go right on demonizing and silencing every stripe of social conservative, even the ones who, like the real Captain America, would never vote Donald Trump in a million years. They will continue to create their own morality, their own hierarchy of sin: Greed is wrong, but so is any kind of capitalism. Racism is wrong, but so is any attempt to approach racial crimes even-handedly. Xenophobia is wrong, but so is patriotism.
Why does the corruption of Captain America matter? It matters, because by calling evil what is good, it tells us something about the corruption of America. It matters, not because it speaks from some high ground of virtue and insight, but because it doesn’t.
But to those so-called “conservatives” who provide fuel for its fire by rallying to Donald Trump’s empty, fascist chest-pounding: You are just as guilty. If anything, your betrayal runs even deeper. It’s one thing to hate America. It’s another thing to drag it through the mud while pretending to love it. If Steve Rogers were a real person who could vote, I have no doubt that he would take one look at Donald Trump and say, politely but firmly, “That’s not my style.”