A long-forgotten specter from the past returns with a vengeance: A man of purportedly superior stature, hell-bent on challenge the existing order. Few can stand in his path. He vanquishes younger foes, and puts the future of the existing order in doubt. Those resisting search desperately for some way to stop him.
Not a bad description of the 2016 Republican primary, no? Donald Trump has fashioned himself as the vengeance of the white-working class upon a political establishment that seems to have left it in the past. He has proven a talented politician, threatening the existing political order, and has defeated foes considered surefire 2016 contenders before his entry. Now (some) conservatives seek to stop him.
The same paragraph just as well describes the 1982 film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” which the Republican presidential primary now eerily resembles. Indeed, examining the primary in light of this film reveals who Trump is, how he works, and how he might be stopped.
Obviously, Donald Trump Is Khan
Trump, in this analogy, is Khan Noonien Singh, the film’s antagonist. Much as Khan, a genetically engineered superman, claims to be intellectually and physically superior to his foes, Trump claims to be intellectually (“my IQ is one of the highest!”) and physically (a statement produced by his doctor claimed that Trump, if elected, would be “…the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” and we all know about the size of his, er… “hands”) superior.
Yet could you really see Trump breaking out into some impromptu “Moby Dick” paraphrasing, as Khan did? And would a perfect physical specimen get a heel spur that allowed him to avoid Vietnam service? Thus, this may all be bluster in service of his image.
If so, however, it would be more evidence that Trump has shown undeniably Khan-like superiority in at least one area: maintaining his brand, especially by dominating media and television. Almost everything he has done or said since starting his campaign has contributed to his image as a tough truth-teller who will get the best deals. He has dominated media with that message, receiving more news coverage than any other presidential candidate (it amounts to a $2 billion in-kind contribution). Even if he doesn’t have Khan’s “superior intellect” in all things, he is preternaturally gifted at maintaining his brand in a media-saturated age.
Like Khan, Trump represents a vengeful return of the past. Khan, exiled on Ceti Alpha V by Captain James T. Kirk decades earlier (as told in the Star Trek episode “Space Seed”), blames Kirk and the Federation for the hardships he endured after the planet became inhospitable, including the death of Khan’s wife.
For purposes of this analogy, take a charitable view of Trump supporters: they are the white working-class, neglected for decades by pro-globalization trade and immigration policies that they think benefit only an elite that no longer even represents their social values or concerns. Trump has become the tribune of a group the Republican elite would like to leave in the past, a group that considers itself as devastated by a changing economy in the face of globalization as Khan and his followers were by the deterioration of Ceti Alpha V. Khan and Trump are both the ghosts of the past, returned to haunt the present.
Taking Advantage of Lowered Shields
Both Khan and Trump have, moreover, taken advantage of their opponents’ weaknesses, wreaking havoc thanks to a false sense of security. Khan used the U.S.S. Reliant, a Federation ship, to attack the U.S.S. Enterprise by catching it off-guard. Thinking it was being approached by a friendly, the Enterprise did not even have its full shields up when first attacked.
Likewise, Trump, who has no history with the Republican Party (having toyed with running through Ross Perot’s Reform Party, and having been a Democratic donor as recently as 2010), or the conservative movement (except inasmuch as he used some of its institutions, such as Fox News and CPAC, to cultivate a reputation as a legitimate voice in conservative politics), nonetheless used the Republican Party in his bid to destroy it and remake it in his image. He caught it off guard and completely by surprise.
The institutional “shields” of the party (such as they are) did not go up, at first because they did not take him seriously, and now because they either think that it is too late to do anything about it, that Trump would ‘need’ them, or that he is at least preferable to Cruz. Trump has also taken advantage of division among his opponents, benefiting from their failure to unite against him. Khan and Trump sensed weakness in their opponents, and struck at opportune times.
They have been devastating, threatening the future of their foes in the process. Khan’s attacks on the Enterprise killed dozens of the young, mostly training crew aboard the ship, Scotty’s nephew chief among them. He even manages to pilfer the United Federation of Planet’s Genesis Device, a powerful machine capable of creating (and destroying) entire worlds.
Likewise, some of the opponents Trump crowded out or outright vanquished were thought to be some of the Republican Party’s best hopes for the future, such as Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, and most recently, Marco Rubio (probably the most apt as “Scotty’s nephew” in this analogy). Trump now wields a Genesis Device of his own: his personality, by which he could forge an entirely new Republican Party, destroying the old one in the process, much as Genesis works. Khan and Trump both put the future of their targets into considerable doubt.
They both also attract followers, mostly by dint of their strength, energy, and renown—but by other means as necessary. Khan’s initial followers were his chief lieutenants on Earth during the brief period he ruled much of it (having fled into space exile upon a rebellion against him), and are dedicated to him to the end. He so entranced Lieutenant Marla McGivers in “Space Seed” by reminding her of the great men of Earth’s past she admired that she became his wife. Those who resist him but whose service he still requires become his servants with the help of the parasitic Ceti eel, which allows him to control their minds.
Likewise, Trump’s initial supporters see themselves as the beneficiaries of his promised destruction of a status quo they think militates against them. He has seduced others with his power and his popularity. By the way, some of his foes-turned-surrogates act (think of Chris Christie’s blank stare at Trump’s side, or Ben Carson’s bizarrely passive admission that Trump’s accusing him of being like a pedophile worked), you might think that Trump has literalized this analogy and procured some Ceti Eels himself. Thus do Khan and Trump grow their cults of personality—by suasion, force, or a combination thereof.
A Potential Strategy for Defeat
At this point in the analogy, Khan and Trump have so far bested but not destroyed our heroes. Much as Khan hoped to wipe out Kirk with surrogates, only to be flustered (and mocked) by him when he fails (“like a poor marksman, you keep missing the target!”), Trump has thrown everything at Cruz (by process of elimination the best Kirk analog, though obviously an imperfect one): accusations of Iowa cheating, incorrectly filled out bank forms, supporting amnesty, being generally disliked, of being ineligible for the presidency, being “lyin’ Ted,” and, most recently, demeaning his wife.
But just as Khan couldn’t get rid of Kirk with surrogates (“You’re going to have to come down here!”), Trump has not quite shaken Cruz. Although Trump has bested Cruz in a clear majority of contests, only Cruz has managed to put up a respectable string of victories against Trump so far. He even mocks Trump, who will have to do better than Twitter and “come down here” to beat him. Yet beat Cruz in the overall delegate count Trump is still virtually certain to do.
A level playing field, however, could ensure defeat. Kirk sought this by leading his ship and Khan’s—both damaged by their battle—into the Mutara Nebula. Here, onboard instruments fail; Khan and Kirk have only their strategic skill and improvisational wit to guide them. Such an environment would expose Khan as “…intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking,” in Spock’s assessment.
What would be the primary equivalent? Perhaps the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes process of personally securing delegates’ votes at the state-by-state level. Cruz has already begun to out-organize Trump in this area, much to Trump’s chagrin. This would lead to the ultimate Mutara Nebula: the convention itself, which, if contested, would operate by rules unused since 1976.
The prior accomplishments of Trump and Cruz would matter little there. Trump and Cruz both would have to rely on their own innate skills (for them, of organization and persuasion) to secure the nomination at the convention. Such an environment, in which Trump could no longer rely, as he has since launching his campaign, on sheer media dominance to get votes, might expose him as “intelligent…but inexperienced” as it did Khan. At this point, only such a level playing field might stop Trump, much as it thwarted Khan.
Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory
Even defeat, however, will not end these threats. Khan, with his last breath, spit at Kirk and activated the Genesis Device in the hope of destroying the Enterprise. A defeated Trump could spit with his last breath in a variety of ways: if denied the nomination at the convention, by riling up his supporters and making them stay home; if somehow denied it before then, by running as a third-party spoiler in November; and, in either situation, by carrying his supporters forever out of the Republican coalition.
Indeed, much as Khan devastates the Enterprise and its crew, regardless of whether Trump receives the Republican nomination, he has already damaged the party he seeks to represent, perhaps irreparably.
But even reaching the point of defeat requires some sacrifice, although some future good may come of it. Those who know “The Wrath of Khan” surely recall that Kirk thwarts Khan at a great cost to himself: the loss of Spock, his first officer and friend, who gives his life to save the Enterprise and her crew. “The needs of the many,” Spock says, “outweigh…the needs of the few. Or the one.” Spock’s death both allows the Enterprise to escape Khan and enables new life to come from Khan’s attempted destruction via the Genesis device. Who in the Republican Party is so positioned to give himself so nobly, and to allow it post-Trump success?
One is tempted to consider Rubio, or some eleventh-hour unnamed savior, but in sheer analogous terms, the best analogue is: John Kasich. Kasich’s Ohio primary victory has positioned him to remain in the campaign, preventing the Trump-Cruz race that would allow Cruz to prevent Trump from reaching the convention with a majority of the delegates.
Or, if you think Kasich’s continued presence in the race could deny Trump delegates that Cruz alone could not deny him, then Kasich must yield at the convention itself (whether to Cruz or to some currently undetermined figure), much as Spock sacrificed himself at the moment of maximum danger for the Enterprise.
Yes, Kasich, the man who has won one state (of which he is governor) and considers that enough to take his campaign all the way to the convention (conveniently, in the state he governs), must yield to the imperatives of the moment in Spock-like fashion to stop Trump. Kasich holds the fate of the race in his hands. An ambitious politician must curtail his ambition for the common good.
We’re doomed. Kirk/Spock 2016?
The author would like to credit his father, Tim Butler, with the original idea for this article.