Read Part 1 here.
I.Thanos the Mad Titan
Thanos’s mission is, in a phrase, to Make the Universe Great Again. Things have gotten out of balance. Overpopulation has led to the starvation of peoples and the destruction of natural environments. The only solution is to cull the herd. The end of social balance and natural beauty justifies the means of mass murder. Humanity has altered the perfect balance of nature; necessity dictates that it must be restored. Well-meaning humanitarian heroes like the Avengers are naïve suckers who fail to face the tragic truth. A strong leader is needed to tell it like it is, make the hard decisions others are unwilling to make, and do what must be done.
You start to get the picture.
A couple of things are worth pointing out about Thanos’ view of the world because 1) they track Trump’s, and 2) they aren’t true.
For one, Thanos operates according to a logic of scarcity rather than a logic of abundance. “Too many mouths to feed,” he explains when justifying his cause. As many people have pointed out, Thanos is essentially Malthusian, and Malthus was wrong. Thomas Malthus believed there was a natural limit to population growth because population increased geometrically (or “exponentially,” as we today would say) while food supply increased arithmetically. What Malthus did not know — and, to be fair, couldn’t have known, writing in the late 18th century — was two things: the demographic transition and the green revolution. In demography, the demographic transition is the equivalent of the law of gravity: once a population crosses a basic level of economic prosperity, its birth rate declines. And what the logic of scarcity fails to account for is the variable of human ingenuity: technological breakthroughs in agriculture dramatically increased crop yields. The problem of starvation — a battle which, by the way, the human race is winning — is not a problem of production, but of distribution.
Another way to put this is that Thanos sees the world in zero-sum terms. One person’s or nation’s loss is another’s gain. Life is a dog eat dog, ruthless competition for resources. This is plainly Trump’s understanding of foreign policy, to the extent that he can be said to possess one.
Thanos’ response to a perceived environmental problem should give pause to those who are tempted to think that the Right is on the cusp of “getting religion” on climate change. In a chilling piece in the World Post of the Bergruenn Institute, “Beware the Rise of Far Right Environmentalism,” Nils Gilman describes “avocado politics:”
The term avocado politics is an ironic nod to a line that was used back in the 1970s and 80s to describe the green parties in Western Europe: “Watermelon Politics” — green on the outside, red on the inside. This moniker referenced the fact that many European Green Party leaders, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, had been prominent members of the New Left student movements, and it suggested that green and environmentalist themes were little more than a reworking of the justifications for the same old leftist policies that these politicians and their followers had favored earlier for other, more explicitly socialistic reasons. The right levels similar charges today against the proponents of the Green New Deal.
Avocado politics is the parallel phenomenon of the right: Green on the outside, but brown(shirt) on the inside. Just as watermelon politics repackaged the political wish list of the left on the basis of the environmental crisis, so avocado politics reiterates the policy agenda of the far right, but now justified on the basis of the environmental crisis. Far from forcing the right to embrace the left’s prescriptions for anthropogenic global warming, our climate crisis may provide a powerful new set of justifications for the far-right policy program.
What might the incipient movement of far-right avocado politics look like if its primary commitment is to maintain the lifestyle and relative social position of the North Atlantic middle class, while at the same time addressing the reality of anthropogenic climate change?
His answer is threefold: “highly anti-immigrant,” “militaristic,” and “antagonistic to Chinese and African development.” It bears pointing out that avocado politics are not new: they emerged in the late 19th century and were embraced extensively by the Nazis. Nor are they a purely hypothetical future: they are already resurfacing in Europe, as Gilman details:
Consider that the Alternative for Germany’s youth league has recently proposed a mandatory “one child” policy for countries in the global south that wish to receive development assistance, or that intellectuals like Renaud Camus in France or Pentti Linkola in Finland specifically justify their virulent anti-immigrant politics in terms of the need to protect the natural ecology of their respective countries.
Not quite a finger-snap, sure, but a gesture in the same general direction.
The second relevant (and related) feature of Thanos’ worldview is that he has a cyclical and tragic view of history. The universe is entropic. Over time, it tends to chaos and disorder. War and conflict are natural and inevitable. The prospect of perpetual peace is a fantasy that will only lead to worse wars than sober acceptance of the tragedy of history.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud famously cast the drama of human history as a tug of war between Eros, the life instinct, and Thanatos (!), the death instinct. The forward thrust of Eros — the life-force seeking greater unity and integration — would always be checked by Thanatos — the death-drive dissolving things down in the direction of nothingness. Life and Death, Freedom and Necessity, Being and Nothingness, Yang and Yin. This is why Thanos repeatedly describes himself as “destiny,” “necessity,” and “inevitable.” He is the dark cosmic principle incarnate.
It is worth pointing out that this is just the traditional view of history, the view shared by most people for most of recorded history. The idea that progress was possible, that history is going somewhere, that the human condition can be fundamentally improved: this is a thoroughly modern idea.
In Infinity War, Thanos presents himself as an impersonal arbiter meting out justice. After his work is done, we learn, he plans to retire alone to a quiet, simple, agricultural life in a place he calls, tellingly, “the Garden.” Having single-handedly bent back the warped wood of history, rolled back the wheel of time, he can rest.
But in Endgame, the Avengers disturb his slumber. Here, they stand in for Eros — the source of creativity, novelty, motion, and freedom. The cosmic tug of war that transpires over and through time is, in metaphor, an argument over time itself: Do we believe in progress, or don’t we? Does history have a purpose, or does it not? To reverse Thanos’ snap, the Avengers realize that their only hope is time travel, to mess with the fabric of spacetime itself. When Thanos learns of this and warps to the future to stop them, Tony Stark tells Cap, “If you mess with time, it tends to mess back.”
This is the hard lesson Thanos has to learn: his attempts at universal stewardship and cosmic gardener were really just futile attempts to control things. The titan who fancies himself an Atlas bearing the weight of the world was really a Zeus-like tyrant. He failed to see how his attempts to control the universe would change the universe. He failed to take responsibility for his own agency — and to account for agency itself. In destroying half of all living creatures, he failed to understand the nature of life itself: its resilience, its adaptability, its unpredictability. As Ian Malcolm put it in a similar context: “Life finds a way.”
So when the Avengers succeed in reversing Thanos’ finger-snap, he embraces a more radical solution: he will destroy the universe itself, and make an entirely new one. He will “shred this universe down to its very last atom.” While his first solution was carried out impersonally, here Thanos shows his true colors, and confesses to how much he will enjoy destroying the Avengers and their “annoying little planet.”
Put simply: in the first film, Thanos pushes the river. In the second, he attempts to drink it dry.
Here we see Thanos’ true nature revealed: the story he told about natural balance and cosmic order was just a cover. The truth is that — like the Greek alpha males titans Uranus and Cronus — he rejected the terms of existence itself.
In Hesiod’s Theogony, we find the Greek version of creation. Uranus (sky) and Gaia (earth) unite and bear children. But Uranus refuses to, well, pull out, because he is afraid that his children will emerge from their mother and overthrow him. So naturally, Gaia gives her oldest son, Cronus, a scythe, and the boy promptly cuts off his father’s manhood, freeing him and his siblings. The story, of course, is an agricultural allegory: the mixture of sky and earth, in the form of rain, produces crops, which must be harvested with a scythe, which allow human life to prosper. The birth of Cronus — “time” — is thus marked by violence, rupture, and overthrow. The cycle repeats. Cronus tries to stymie his children by swallowing them, and his wife Rhea tricks him by substituting a boulder for Zeus, who overtakes his father. And so on.
In short, the tyrant does what tyrants do: tries to outfox fortune, control nature, achieve perfect security, and in so doing sow the seeds of his own undoing. If you mess with time, it tends to mess back. Thanos’ dime store philosophy masks a weak, fearful, power-hungry ego.
Trump the Mad King
At some level, comparing Trump to Thanos is giving him too much credit. I’m reminded of a similar comparison a senior G-7 official made about Trump: “He’s like Heath Ledger’s Joker, but without the operational excellence.” Where Thanos is arguably animated by higher ideals and disciplined in pursuit of them, Trump is raw, raging id, small-souled and petty all the way down, only after a buck and a look. Though Thanos is a tyrant with a cosmic ego, he is at least capable of thinking globally and acting stoically. Trump’s tacit motto, on the other hand, is “think personally, act globally.” Even that may be too generous — maybe “a dog chasing cars”?
There is a history here. Many have noted how Trump has used the exact same rhetoric of conservative standard bearers past, such as Reagan (“Make America Great Again” was one of his campaign slogans) and Nixon (“law and order”). The latter was, of course, a racial dog whistle, part of Nixon’s “Southern strategy”…which took advantage of white southerner’s anger and discomfort over the Civil Rights movement…which was a response to the Jim Crow era…which was a vestige of slavery…which was the reason the country almost literally split in half. In sum, Trump has activated that element in the country that, in response to perceived cultural and economic threats, just wants to secede from reality.
Trump spins a fantasy in which the “real” Americans can return to the Garden of the 1950s. His rallies have become like magical portals to this higher plane. The jeers he and his supporters direct toward reporters covering the rallies are not just expressions of their contempt for the media; they reflect their displeasure at the very suggestions that there is an external, true, independent reality at all. “Knock the crap out of ’em,” Trump directed his supporters to deal with a protester at one of the early rallies, previewing in microcosm his immigration policy.
Trump’s successful use of a divisive, brutal, and hateful style of politics to defeat Hillary Clinton has led many on the Left to conclude that, put simply: we need a Hulk.
To be continued…