Saturday, December 12, 2015

Pop Culture in the 2016 Presidential Election

At the risk of getting too political, the 2016 Republican primary process has been a low point for civil debate, but a high point for pop culture references in social media. After Republican candidate Donald Trump announced a controversial plan to ban all Muslims from traveling the United States, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling tweeted:


Facebook and Twitter soon exploded with comparisons between Trump and Voldemort, such as this one:


As well as photos blending Trump and Voldemort's images:


In some ways, Harry Potter is a natural vehicle for opponents of Trump's plan to express their frustration. Harry Potter has become popular enough that Potter references have almost become a lingua franca online. We all know what Rowling means when she refers to Voldemort. 

Furthermore, Harry Potter is especially concerned with issues of tolerance and diversity. Voldemort's main goal is to eradicate muggles, i.e. those magicians with non-magical blood. In Harry Potter and the Millennial, political scientist Anthony Gierzynski claims that reading the Harry Potter books correlated with greater levels of acceptance for minorities and higher political tolerance (see Slate for a summary of the book's main findings).

As the controversy rages on, other internet users have started to incorporate references from other pop culture villains, including the Sith from Star Wars and the xenomorph from Alien:


Even Lovecraft gets some love:


Most of these references use pop culture to highlight the perceived bizarreness of our political discourse. It's as if many people feel Trump's proposal so contrary to our values that only comparisons to comic book villains can express the scale of his immorality.

Even Trump seemed to blend reality and fiction in a recent interview with The New York Times when talking about Harrison Ford's movies:
My favorite was Harrison Ford on the plane [referring to Air Force One]. I love Harrison Ford -- and not just because he rents my properties. He stood up for America.
In response, Ford noted, "It's a movie, Donald. It was a movie. It's not like this in real life. But how would you know?" 

Ford has a point. As funny as I find these memes, I'm starting to worry if they're doing more harm than good. Pop culture isn't reality; it presents an exaggerated or fantastical world that reflects some aspects of reality, but we should never conflate the two. Trump isn't as evil Voldemort and American presidents don't get into fistfights with terrorists. If pop culture in fact encourages us to view reality through a distorted lens, then it could serve to polarize Americans to even greater extremes. 

Perhaps it takes somebody like Ford, who has played several pop culture icons and experienced movies from the soundstage, to remind us that "it's not like this in real life."

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