Only a handful of fictional villains has achieved a level of cultural significance where they can be tied to a real world figure and everyone nods in thoughtless agreement. Comparing politicians to Hitler is easy and practically inevitable (or so says Godwin's Law). However, Darth Vader and his boss, Emperor Palpatine, are somehow more credible comparisons, due to their fictional, albeit evil, status.
In politics, it makes sense to invoke Palpatine every so often. George Lucas originally conceived Palpatine in the shadow of President Richard Nixon, and the Sith lord's machinations are characteristic of a seasoned political professional like "Tricky Dick."
Once an unassuming senator, Palpatine manufactured a galactic crisis to ascend to the role of chancellor and then concocted a war and fake coup in order to seize power as a dictator. This is someone who knew how government worked, had a vision going back years, and took methodical steps to realize that vision.
While President Trump offers praise of dictators around the world on occasion, labels the news media an enemy of the people, and bemoans our legislative process, comparisons to Palpatine are understandable but lack substance.
There is a reason comedian John Oliver refers to the Russian collusion investigation around Trump as "Stupid-Watergate." It's that there is no ideology to the Trump presidency, there is no master plan, there is no vision. There is nothing insidious, elusive, or subtle about Trump. He is quite vocal about his desire to have a system where his will can be done. That makes it all the easier to defend against. Let's face it, Trump is no phantom menace.
If you want a real life Sith lord to hang your political frustrations on, there is a man out there welcoming your analogy. His name is Roger Stone, a notorious Nixon-ite, "dirty trickster" of politics and puppeteer of much of the drama in 2016. Stone is the subject of a new documentary on Netflix, "Get Me Roger Stone." If you thought politics was a disgusting spectacle before, you won't feel any better after this look into the life and times of Stone. What started as a career in the orbit of the Nixon re-election campaign and leading the Young Republicans in 1977 led to a life on the outs with the Republican Party.
The documentary traces Stone's rise behind the curtain of Republican presidential politics and then a break from the mainstream in 1996 following a bizarre sex scandal. Stone's misadventures, however, are not what make him the perfect person to tack on the mantle of Palpatine -- Sith lord, master schemer.
The true markers of a Palpatine aren't exclusively actions, they're rooted more in your personal code and view of the world. "Stones Rules," used as chapter markers throughout the film, offer a clearer window into the Dark Side of politics than we are accustomed to seeing.
"Hate is a more powerful motivator than love." It's hard to get more Sith than dedicating yourself to hatred. Stone believes the worst in people, and he uses that to fuel his selfish pursuits. Palpatine's command of the Dark Side of the Force requires that hatred is his strength. In "Revenge of the Sith," Palpatine says to Anakin Skywalker, "I can feel your anger, it gives you focus, makes you stronger." Later on in "Return of the Jedi," Palpatine tries and succeeds in edging Luke Skywalker into violence by embracing his hate.
"Nobody ever built a statue to a committee." Stone is right here. Deliberative bodies are neither revered or as decisive as individual actors. However, embracing this idea (which suggests the superiority of singular leadership) is an alarming attribute. Democracy is aspirational and difficult. Palpatine himself "loved democracy" but he didn't much love having any components of democracy get in his way.
But wait, there's more. "Attack, attack, attack. Never defend." "Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack." "Always praise em' before you hit em'."
There's a trend here. Deception. Aggression. Domination. This is the Stone approach to politics and life.
He may not be behind the desk in the Oval Office, but he has influenced presidents and candidates for decades and still does today. Emperor Palpatine, also known as Darth Sidious, is who he is because he's insidious.
Claiming Bush, Obama and Trump are Palpatine is too easy, too quick, and focuses exclusively on how power is wielded with little attention to the why. It's a comparison born out of fear. So in the spirit of raising the bar, let's ask a bit more of ourselves when making comparisons between our presidents and the monsters of history as well as fiction.
And let's be honest. Putting Trump under the black robe for your Twitter meme is a disservice to the masterful politician, orator, and villain that is Emperor Palpatine.
Stephen Kent (@StephenofKent) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the spokesperson for Young Voices and host of Beltway Banthas, a Star Wars & politics podcast in D.C.
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