“Wait a minute, how did this happen? We’re smarter than this.”
- Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
“You have to do yourself a favor when you are out in the countryside and you see a chicken. Try to look a chicken in the eye with great intensity, and the intensity of stupidity that is looking back at you is just amazing.”
- Werner Herzog, on chickens
Almost entirely in spite of themselves, the Star Wars prequels have become the defining cultural artifact of our great national derangement. As much as anything else, they’re a prescient – if unintentional – portrait of just how stupid the slide into outright autocracy can be. Indeed, life has imitated art these past few months with President Trump’s intensely moronic and increasingly desperate attempts to nullify the results of the November 3 presidential election. For all their myriad flaws, the prequels exhibit remarkable verisimilitude in one important way: the fundamental absurdity and frequent idiocy that often lubricate the demise of democracy.
Though George Lucas clearly envisioned the prequels as an epic tragedy, he utterly failed to realize this ambition. But the accidental farce that resulted eerily mirrors our own experience over the past four years. When the Washington Post adopted the motto “democracy dies in darkness” after the 2016 election, for instance, Padme Amidala’s bathetic line that liberty dies “with thunderous applause” went from premium meme material to subversive punchline. No matter how grave our situation may actually be, it’s hard to take a newspaper’s pretentious slogan too seriously when it unconsciously echoes a pseudo-profound monologue on the collapse of freedom from Revenge of the Sith.
Indeed, the unintentional absurdity at the heart of the prequels can help us better appreciate the unremitting parade of folly we see in our own politics and society today. In that respect, at least, the plot and characters of the prequels are far more realistic than generally understood. Democracy doesn’t die in darkness, nor liberty amidst thunderous applause: they expire amidst a suffocating miasma of stupidity. We’ve mocked and laughed at the prequels for their glaring dramatic shortcomings, failing all the while to realize that we’re no better inoculated against the sort of idiocy on display. When we jeer at the Star Wars prequels, we ridicule ourselves.
The purpose here isn’t to rehash often-legitimate criticisms of the prequels, or point out their occasional silver linings. Rather, it’s to call attention to how the absurdity of the trilogy’s core narrative uncannily illuminates our own political predicament. That starts from the opening crawl of The Phantom Menace, when sweeping space opera and epic struggle between good and evil begins… with a trade dispute? From the very start, the ultimate dramatic tragedy of the prequels is readily apparent. What could have been a compelling tale involving the moral decay of the Jedi Order becomes an absurd if all-too-prescient farce on the decline of democracy.
Enamored with his own narrative and with no one willing to tell him otherwise, George Lucas literally loses the plot of his own films and misses their thematic potential. He aims to present the fall of the Galactic Republic as the inevitable result of brilliant, byzantine machinations orchestrated by a devious evil mastermind: Chancellor-cum-Emperor Sheev Palpatine, also known as the dark lord of the Sith Darth Sidious. But the narrative we see in the films themselves shows that an ineffectual, morally decrepit Jedi Order bears as much – if not more – of the blame for the Republic’s collapse.
Even after they learn that the Sith have returned to menace the galaxy at the close of The Phantom Menace, for example, the well-meaning but ineffectual Jedi Order displays a remarkable lack of urgency and curiosity toward this mortal threat. A decade passes between the events of that movie and its sequel, Attack of the Clones, and the Jedi appear to have done next to nothing to investigate the reappearance of their ancient enemy. Individual Jedi may be intelligent and honorable, but the Jedi Order we see in the prequels suffers from terminal institutional stupidity. Democracy dies in the Star Wars universe less because the villain’s an evil genius and more because the Republic and those sworn to defend it remain oblivious and complacent to the last.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the general narrative arc or many specific plot points of the prequel trilogy, however. Lucas simply executes them so poorly that they lose all dramatic weight, leading the prequels to blunder regularly into inadvertent farce. It’s not just Natalie Portman’s risibly mawkish delivery of what’s meant to be a chilling observation about the willingness of the masses to give up their freedom. The fact that it’s the buffoonish and half-witted Jar-Jar Binks who sets the Republic on a course for tyranny by moving to grant Palpatine emergency powers in Attack of the Clones pretty much sums up the essential folly at the heart of the Star Wars prequels. That’s an absurdity not too far removed from the bizarre reality of American politics and society in the waning weeks and months of 2020.
Indeed, President Trump’s ongoing and increasingly surreal attempts to nullify his decisive electoral defeat all seem far too stupid to actually succeed. Amidst far more pressing priorities like the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting economic carnage, most of us seem instinctively incredulous that so obviously idiotic and outlandish an effort could even take place – much less succeed given the infinitesimal odds against it. This disbelief leads to outright denial or minimization of the threat to democracy and danger to America’s social fabric posed by Trump’s bid to throw out the results of the 2020 presidential election. We resemble the complacent and institutionally inept Jedi Order of the prequel trilogy more than many of us would like to admit, placing inordinate and unjustified faith in a broken system of politics and governance that will somehow save us from impending catastrophe.
Since the November 3 election, we’ve been treated to a cavalcade of stupidity unparalleled even in the Trump era. This descent into full-scale national absurdity began with a bizarre press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia, and the pace has only accelerated since. Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor turned Trump personal lawyer, almost literally melted down as he unspooled conspiracy theories during another unhinged press conference a week and a half later. The Trump campaign’s own lawyers have admitted in court that they have zero evidence for charges of voter fraud, losing almost sixty cases challenging the results – often laughed out of the courts by Trump’s own judicial appointees in the process. In one exceptionally ludicrous episode, the Trump campaign’s star witness in Michigan appeared inebriated as she gave formal testimony in support of the campaign’s crackpot claims.
It’s only grown even more ridiculous from there. Though roundly rejected by the Supreme Court, the Texas attorney general’s move to throw out the votes of four other states garnered the backing of seventeen other state attorneys general and 126 Republican members of Congress. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican from Texas, even offered to plead Trump’s preposterous case before the Supreme Court. Following the abject failure of this effort and the Electoral College’s formal acknowledgement of former Vice President Joe Biden as the nation’s next president, Trump convened a conclave of dunces consisting of “a pardoned felon, adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, a White House trade adviser and a Russian agent’s former lover” to ponder how he might remain president in spite of everything – including the possible use of the U.S. military to cling to power.
The utter absurdity and almost certain futility of these maneuvers should not blind us to the dangers involved or lull us into a false sense of security about the robustness of our political system. We’ve seen one of our two major national political parties shed any vestigial commitment to democracy at its most basic in order to indulge the childish fantasies of an authoritarian con-man. These tendencies date back to the early 1990s if not earlier, and they’ve slowly crept forward over time. As the Republican Party has become more ideologically conservative, it’s come to see any political opposition as by definition illegitimate.
It’s no exaggeration, moreover, to say that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has earned the sobriquet “gravedigger of democracy” in the United States. In pursuit of his own ends, he’s enabled Trump just about every step of the way. Thanks in large part to his seeming tactical genius for obstruction, American domestic politics has become increasingly driven by the dictates of pure power politics. As a result, political leaders and movements on the right and, increasingly, the left will do whatever they think they can get away with if they believe it will serve some tactical objective. That’s a recipe for disaster, given that power politics are antithetical to the spirit of give-and-take necessary for democracy to function at even a minimal level.
But it’s not the inherent absurdity of Trump’s attempt to remain in power or the stolid robustness of America’s political institutions that will arrest our slide into further folly – it’s the seven million-plus national vote margin of Biden’s victory. The election simply wasn’t close enough to let stupidity prevail. Had the election come down to razor-thin margins in one or two states, it’s not hard to imagine that the Trump campaign’s farcical legal efforts might have paid off and secured him a second term. Even as it is, America will not be out of the woods until President-elect Biden takes the oath of office at noon on January 20.
Or even after that. Four years of President Trump – and especially the bizarre two-and-a-half month interregnum between his election defeat and his successor’s inauguration – have left the political and social norms that make democracy work bruised, battered, and broken. Nor do our laws – against, say, blatant corruption and self-dealing – enforce themselves in the absence of these unwritten rules of acceptable political conduct. Shorn of these norms, politics simply becomes an all-out contest for power – a vulgar brawl that does little to address the real problems facing the nation and its citizens. So there’s absolutely no reason for complacency or self-congratulation about the strength of our institutions.
No matter how stupid, a failed campaign to smother democracy causes damage. The level of institutional support the Republican Party granted to Trump’s absurd attempt to nullify and overturn his election loss speaks for itself, regardless of what Republican office-holders say off the record or behind closed doors. Again, it’s not hard to imagine such a preposterous effort succeeding had the margin of Trump’s defeat been thinner than it actually was. If anything, the events of the last few months show that the Star Wars prequels underestimated the political and organizational stupidity involved in the erosion and eventual collapse of democracy.
But if there’s any one lesson to be gleaned from the last several months, it’s that we should never underestimate the power of the idiotic or the absurd. That’s something the French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus noted in his novel The Plague:
When a war breaks out, people say: It’s too stupid; it can’t last long. But though a war may well be ‘too stupid,’ that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.
We’d do well to remember that admonition ourselves. The failure to appreciate the stupidity involved in our current political moment can only accelerate our own collective death spiral.
For all they do wrong and the ambitions they fail to achieve, the Star Wars prequels do inadvertently grasp this fundamental truth of human existence – and propagate it widely. Without even trying, they plumb the depths of folly in ways that only our own present political circumstances can rival. Even after the past four years of the Trump administration, the intensity of stupidity involved in President Trump’s attempt to cling to power after losing an election remains quite shocking. Indeed, it far exceeds the prequels – and indeed Camus, the great philosopher of absurdity himself – in its idiocy.
We’ll need to remain vigilant against the absurd for the foreseeable future. The madness may abate when Trump leaves office, but the miasma of stupidity left behind in his wake will persist.