Superman was born on Krypton, space-mailed as an infant to Smallville, USA where he grew up as Clark Kent, adored adopted son of John and Martha Kent. Would his extra-planetary birthplace have made him ineligible to run for president?
It’s a crazy question, because in the 1940s and 50s, when Superman was at his most superior, everyone knew a comic book hero, the summation of all the virtues – courage, integrity, brains, looks – was not a real person. Great as Superman was, no one was thinking about making him America’s president.
Ronald Reagan was not Superman, nor any comic strip character. The first actor to be elected American president won because of what voters saw of him in reality, not for any TV or movie role he had played.
The 80s seem so far away. To consumers of today’s mass media, the once-universally-recognized line that separates fantasy from reality seems to have been erased.
Today, characters are created for TV, YouTube and social media that voters apparently take for real, as they take seriously the character’s comic book pronouncements on all the problems of the world.
In 2015, voters in Guatemala, desperate for something different after decades of presidents both brutal and corrupt, elected Jimmy Morales, star of a television comedy series called “Morals.” The sweetness and light of the TV show was mirrored in Morales’ campaign. He defined himself as “not corrupt, nor a thief.” Period.
But political reality in Guatemala has been sour and dark, with both Morales’ brother and son under criminal investigation, and the so-called anti-corruption president shutting down the international commission that had been successfully prosecuting political criminals.
In 2016, voters in the United States elected Donald Trump, a four-time bankrupt, notorious among business people and vendors for his cheating and chiseling ways, poison to every bank in the world but one, Deutsche Bank, which is now under criminal investigation. Voters bought the image Trump presented on TV as a hard as nails, whip smart chief executive. We see how the fictional character matches up to reality as president.
In 2019, more than 30% of voters in Ukraine, twice as many as went for the second-place finisher, incumbent Petro Poroshenko, backed for president a man whose chief credential is that he plays the President of Ukraine on a television sit-com.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s TV character is a school teacher whose classroom denunciation of corruption is recorded by a student, goes viral and makes him the people’s choice for president. During his real presidential campaign, voters have seen much more of Zelensky in character than off-screen, not that it seems to matter.
After he’d been declared the top vote-getter in the first round of presidential voting, Zelensky promised, “A new life begins. A life without corruption and without bribes. A life in a nation of dreams come true.”
ALEXANDER J. MOTYL is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark, as well as a writer and painter. He served as associate director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University from 1992 to 1998. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of Pidsumky imperii; Puti imperii; Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires; Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities; Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism; Sovietology, Rationality, Nationality: Coming to Grips with Nationalism in the USSR; Will the Non‑Russians Rebel? State, Ethnicity, and Stability in the USSR; The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929; and the editor of more than ten volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism. Motyl’s novels include Whiskey Priest; Who Killed Andrei Warhol; Flippancy; The Jew Who Was Ukrainian; and a work in progress, My Orchidia. His poems have appeared in Counterexample Poetics, Istanbul Literary Review, and New York Quarterly(forthcoming). He has done performances of his fiction at the Cornelia Street Café, the Bowery Poetry Club, and the Ukrainian Museum in New York. Motyl’s artwork has been shown in solo and group shows in New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto; his art is represented by The Tori Collection.