In December 2015, with primary season about to begin, all eyes were on Donald Trump’s rise. That same month, Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters worldwide, the first of four new Star Wars-related films in a span of three years. A month after Trump’s win, Rogue One was released, which debuted the prophetic line, “rebellions are built on hope.” The end of Trump’s first year will welcome the release of The Last Jedi, and the end of the second by the 2018 release of the yet-untitled Han Solo film. Future historians will be able to trace a timeline between these new Star Wars movies and the state of the Trump administration.
But to understand Trump, to really understand Trump, we must return to the prequels from the preceding decade: Phantom Menace, Clone Wars, and Revenge of the Sith. Like Trump, these prequels are hard to watch, but contain the clues for how to understand our contemporary culture. As the touchstones we once turned to fade from relevance, what guides can we turn to, to get us through these strange times? Here is my running list of things whose level relevance has changed drastically in recent months:
Newly Irrelevant: Pundits of any persuasion.
Newly Relevant: At the end of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Jedi master Yoda mournfully says: “begun, the clone war has.” But in fact, it is the Jedis who have started the clone wars, they are the ones who built the clone army; it is the so-called good guys who are to blame for escalating tensions.
Irrelevant: The use of phrases, especially in article titles, such as “Watch This to Understand,” “[insert right-leaning public figure here] Just Met Their Match,” or “This is How We Will Win.”
Relevant: Before an entire online cottage industry emerged to sell Trumpism, there was another online cottage industry. When Disney bought Lucas Films, they had to pull the Star Wars prequels out of the dustbin of failed films past and re-sell them to the public. Who knows, maybe Ike Perlmutter clued Trump in on Disney’s marketing plan: create an entire legion of autonomous-remote-worker-cells to sell you the most offensive of products. For both, it worked.
Relevant: The section titled “A War Without Consequences” in Mr. Plinkett’s masterful review of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. He points out that the intergalactic clone war seems far removed from daily life on the home planet: “the effects of this war are not felt at all on Coruscant, the main setting of the film. The whole war just seems like some kind of minor inconvenience happening somewhere out in space.”
Like the residents of Coruscant, we’re more concerned with trivialities like rush-hour traffic than with the ongoing war or political crisis. The only time Afghanistan has been a topic of conversation in recent memory was when we dropped the largest conventional bomb of all time on them. Just like the computer-generated ghosts of Coruscant, we live by the maxim “keep calm and carry on.”
Irrelevant: The price tag on the Obamas’ book deal.
Relevant: The middle section of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, in which we learn about the political machinations of the Republic. The tedium of these scenes is on par with the absolute dread of watching Mitch McConnell pull from his bag of parliamentarian tricks.
Irrelevant: Cultural criticism.
Relevant: The prequels both presage the age of data and revolt against it. Notoriously, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace introduces the idea of midi-chlorians, intelligent microscopic organisms that give people the power of the force. Anakin Skywalker’s (a.k.a. Darth Vader’s) midi-chlorian count is off the charts. We no longer understand the force as an intangible thing that flows through us, or can really be with us. It is a quantifiable substance that can be studied and analyzed. Spiritual forces no longer matter when it is science that determines our lives.
It is no mistake that Trump’s win stands in sharp rebuke to the technocratic value of data over drama in politics. Nor is it a mistake that Star Wars: The Force Awakens reclaims the drama lost to science in the prequels.
Irrelevant: References to Orwell’s 1984. We are way past that.
Relevant: The Twitter conversation between New Republic writer Jeet Heer and Rian Johnson, director of the forthcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Irrelevant: Liberals who tweet at the New York Times blaming their coverage for Clinton’s loss.
Irrelevant: The Netflix series Love, or, more specifically, any social comedy where someone gets tackled by the cops in one scene and is in bed being nursed back to health with an ice pack in the next.
Relevant: The Reddit theory about Jar Jar Binks which says that Binks is a Sith lord and his bumbling persona is only a coverup of his expert and evil use of the force. For instance, Jar Jar Binks uses the power of the force to convince the galactic senate to vote for their own demise by ceding all authority to Senator Palpatine. Reddit posters (especially of the MAGA variety) also believe that their online presence has cast some kind of magic spell over America. The infamous real-life and online troll Charles C. Johnson once said, “We memed the president into existence.” In a different world Jar Jar Binks could be one of these trolls. We laugh at him for his stupid posts, but he believes that he is having the last laugh.
Irrelevant: Ethics. But who liked those anyway?
Relevant: The aliens in the senate chamber in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones are the very same ones from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. From this, we learn that everyone is complicit on the road to fascism.
Relevant: We couldn’t wait for new Star Wars movies to put the Star Wars prequels out of our minds. Though we fetishize rebellion and adventure, the prequels are a better reflection of our society, with their bad CGI and tedious political plot. Too, we can’t wait for post-Trump politics. But his is a history we will never shake.