In just a few days, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, ushering in a turbulent era of nationwide dissent, dissatisfaction, and discourse. For many, Hillary Clinton's shocking defeat disrupted and discontinued the propulsive efforts of President Obama. For others, Trump's victory meant a reinvigoration of a tired system. While a compelling argument can absolutely be made for both sides, one thing remains certain: This is not the America we want, even if it is what we think we want. A reality television star preps and primps himself for the presidency, and left-leaners and right-wingers have never been more divided.
In times as tough and uncertain as these, it's important to look in unlikely places for comfort and inspiration. #Superheroes, for example, often stand as symbols of hope, strength, and resilience, qualities that can and should act as beacons, not bonfires. Contextually, Captain America makes the most sense here.
The Rise Of America's Greatest Superhero
Even before the 1964 issue of The Avengers introduced him to droves of hungry new readers, Steve Rogers was an American patriot's wet dream. A super soldier engineered to combat the rising threat of Adolf Hitler and the Axis Powers, Rogers symbolized the strength of the American spirit and encouraged the United States to lend their military might to the war effort.
A year before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, writer/editor Joe Simon and artist Jacob Kurtzberg (later known as Jack Kirby) published Captain America #1, a single-issue comic book that would acquaint readers with Rogers and support the idea that American loyalty should be pursued and preserved-with stipulations.
These stipulations separate him from nationalism and instead edge him closer to patriotism. Rogers really only stands for the best, purest, most progressive version of America. If he feels that this spirit or attitude is compromised, he turns. Late last year, Fox News huffed and puffed about Captain America's views and how they threatened American values. In response, Amanda Marcotte of Salon wrote:
“The Steve Rogers from the movies is unmistakably liberal: Anti-racist, a lover of independent women, and a man who believes that the best patriot is one who questions his government instead of blindly following orders. This characterization is consistent with the canonical Steve Rogers of the comic books, who has long been an icon of progressive patriotism, a believer that fighting for America should only be done if America defends its own liberal values.”
The crux of Marcotte's argument is that #CaptainAmerica originated as a personification of core American values and continues to uphold the beliefs that Kirby and Simon instilled in him. The disruptive nature of Captain America's stances scares many right-leaning groups, especially ones that preach and practice nationalism, and especially ones that preach hate.
Patriotism Vs. Nationalism
As many of Captain America's stories demonstrate, becoming a nationalist is easy. Becoming a patriot, on the other hand, is not. Both, however, come from love. Patriots love their country critically while nationalists love it blindly. Nationalists don't waver in their support and loyalty toward their country while patriots waver if they see that the status quo doesn't align with the foundational principles upon which their land was built. Neither is wrong, but one is certainly more conducive than the other.
After all, the bedrock of American society is patriotism; we come from European dissidents who fought a war for the belief that something better, something greater, could emerge from the ashes. Galvanized into action, these revolutionaries beat back the forces that had oppressed them and created a political system that reflected their ideals and beliefs. Of course, it would be foolish to glorify the colonists and their sometimes appalling actions because racism, genocide, and war also played their parts in the game. But those aren't principles, those are actions dictated by the zeitgeist of the time, actions that weren't acceptable then and certainly aren't acceptable now.
Now, decades after he first punched the mustache off Hitler's smug face, Cap is still a patriot's wet dream. His allegiance to America has always been malleable. Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's 2007 event comic Civil War functions as a both an illustration and an expansion of this.
Following a legislative move that he feels will undermine and undo the good work of The Avengers, Captain America, with a small team of stalwarts, turns against Tony Stark, Maria Hill, and the US government in an effort to preserve what he feels is right. Stark, a proponent of the legislation, gathers a team of his own and hunts Rogers and his renegade Avengers down.
In late 2015, Marvel writer Nick Spencer penned an issue of Captain America that sent shockwaves throughout the comics community. Steve Rogers, a longtime believer in a more responsible and respectable America, declared his allegiance to HYDRA, a crooked organization that was birthed from Nazism.
Initially thought to be a cruel marketing ploy, the decision to turn Rogers into a villain angered and confused the character's fans. They didn't catch on to the brilliance of it. Those who thought that such a twist compromised Cap's values obviously weren't paying attention. Trump's campaign had been gaining some serious traction, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton remain engaged in a fierce battle for the Democratic nomination, and the whole world waited with bated breath as the United States searched for its new leader. It was a trying time, a time that still stretches before us and presents a number of new obstacles, new challenges.
The big Rogers reveal symbolizes the distancing of modern America from the progressive ideals upon which this country was built and grown. Because our country was straying too far from what America was intended to stand for, Spencer and his creative team conveyed their displeasure through Rogers's dramatic betrayal. Simultaneously, Captain America's allegiance to progressive patriotism didn't waver. Sam Wilson, formerly a friend and sidekick to Rogers, took up the shield and became a Captain America fitted for a new generation. The comic introduced the bold idea that while Steve Rogers could flip-flop, Captain America couldn't. Cap didn't compromise his values; Steve Rogers did.
Many of Trump's supporters are indeed nationalists, but it doesn't make them wrong. They feel a strong love for the ground upon which they stand, because that ground is home. They want to protect what they know, even if that means expressing their contempt for diverse groups and spewing hate. Hate isn't the opposite of love; it is love. Granted, that love can be short-sighted and vicious, but it's still love.
It's important now, perhaps more than ever, to look at what makes powerful figures (even the fictional ones) so relevant and so needed in a society on the brink of total and uncompromising collapse. Captain America has become the definition of modern machismo — few still remember why he exists. They just like watching him fight muscly baddies and triumph against intimidating odds. They forget that he is an ideal America; he is something to work toward. Some see him as a hero fitted for the modern era. I see him as a hero fitted for the modern era and every era that will follow.
Captain America has always made his love for America clear yet critical, honest yet unwavering, and kind yet vigilant. It's time we did the same.
What do you think Captain America stands for?