Donald Trump and Martin Shkreli are arguably two of the richest and most devious figures in modern American times. The former is a multi-millionaire entrepreneur/reality star, whose fear-mongering tactics and political incorrectness have made him the frontrunner for the Republican party in the 2016 Presidential election. The latter is a financial entrepreneur and pharmaceutical executive who raised the price of the anti-HIV drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per tablet. Both are wealthy white men who look and act like villains straight out of a Marvel comic book; they use their success and notoriety to cause controversy and deprive others of happiness just because they can. Trump is basking in the American media spotlight by reinvigorating the racist underbelly of middle America, while Shkreli is threatening to erase the only copy of the Wu-Tang album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which he bought at an auction for $2 million. Both Trump and Shkreli have faced serious backlash from media sources — Trump has become the epicenter of scorn for many and Shkreli was indicted for securities fraud and after he was freed from bail, resigned from his CEO position at Turing Pharmaceuticals. Yet somehow, the controversy they incite makes them even more popular. It’s a mystifying and even terrifying thing to think about, but Trump and Shkreli possess a potentially destructive power over ordinary people, almost as if their actions imitate the actions of villains depicted in movies and TV shows. If this were the case, they essentially represent two different villain archetypes: Trump is the guy who is actually a threat to American society and Skhreli is the guy who wants to be a threat.
Donald Trump and Bobby Newport in Parks & Recreation
I’m not gonna go on a huge rant on Donald Trump, but what I will say is that his situation as a presidential candidate feels fairly reminiscent of a Parks & Recreation story arc in the show’s 4th season. This is not to say that Trump watched Parks & Rec and thought, “Huh, maybe I can do that” or that Parks & Rec in any way played a part in Trump’s candidacy. However, that story arc — the show’s protagonist Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) faces against the wealthy but clumsy Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) in a city councilman race — boasts a thought-provoking reflection of the popularity of political incorrectness among American voters. Rudd’s character in Parks & Rec and Donald Trump are totally different people, obviously. Newport is depicted as a naïve simpleton and the son of the owner of the popular Sweetums franchise, who just wants everyone to get along and to do something important with his life. In contrast, Trump is maliciously fueling racism and sexism through his speeches and on Twitter (reminder: he has 5.89 million followers) for the sake of media attention. While Newport and Trump are complete polar opposites, both in intention and personality, their political rhetorics seem to have the same effect on the bottom of the barrel of American voters, in that their words are so grotesquely idiotic and unknowingly preachy, yet they attract an entire crowd of people, whether in the fictitious Pawnee, Indiana or the most overtly conservative towns in America. Unlike their opponents, Newport and Trump don’t have real plausible opinions about important American issues — abortion, gun control, women’s rights — and people still eat up whatever words spew from their mouths. Perhaps using Bobby Newport is not the greatest comparison to Donald Trump (after all, he’s just being used as a pawn to help his father’s conglomerate company). In fact, if you want some even deeper perspective on Trump’s influence, here’s a list of film and TV characters who were apparently inspired by Trump. Still, it’s important to recognize that Parks & Rec‘s satire on the mass appeal of a wealthy icon and political incorrectness makes for a thought-provoking commentary on American politics. It seems silly, but simultaneously scary, considering that something like this arc in Parks & Rec can actually happen in real life. If you want, here are two examples of Newport’s rhetoric juxtaposed with Trump’s:
Martin Skhreli and literally any movie/TV villain
Before I talk about Skhreli, watch this recent video he posted as a threat towards the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, specifically one of its members, Ghostface Killah.
In no way does this video pose a national threat, but it still has some very unsettling and ridiculous attributes. It depicts Martin Skhreli using every villain trope imaginable: he has a group of masked men standing around him to really “show” how threatening he can be; he addresses Ghostface Killah by his real name, Dennis, in order to undermine him; he speaks with a snarling, smug, sociopathic delivery; he’s even drinking from a wine glass! This whole diss video, of course, is in reference to some comments made by Ghostface Killah last week. The rapper called Skhreli a “shithead,” slammed him for raising the prices for Daraprim, and said he should release Once Upon a Time in Shaolin for free to the public. In response, Skhreli not only threatens to erase the album, but demands a “500 word” apology with “no grammatical errors” from Ghostface Killah in order to keep the album intact. I’m not kidding. He actually wrote that.
Skhreli finishes off the video by making a direct remark towards Killah: “Ghost, stop pretending, stop acting, stop lying. Be real, as your video once said, and uh, don’t ever fucking mention my name again, or there will be more of a price to pay than just this video.” Out of all the ridiculous things about this video, the strangest one is that even with all of Skhreli’s malicious intent, it feels rather dumb and cartoonish. Masked behind his conceit, Skhreli is scared. He knows that he’s fucked up in the past and he is simply responding out of fear of people perceiving him as the asshole that he is. The irony, however, is that he ends up becoming even more of an asshole when trying to act high and mighty. When watching the video, I was reminded of a brief scene in the trailer for the upcoming disaster flick, London Has Fallen, in which the generic villain makes a viral video announcement about how the American president will die and every major city in the world will be destroyed if the villain doesn’t get what he wants. Of course, Skhreli’s video is not as substantial as the villain’s in London Has Fallen‘s worldwide threat. But the messages in each video are still just as remarkably outrageous. The only difference that Skhreli’s video takes place in real life and it’s flat-out flabbergasting. It also just goes to show how ridiculous and mad a person can become solely because of wanting to maintain wealth and power. Skhreli wants to be taken seriously so badly, as if he wants to be the bad guy for some odd reason. Raising the prices for a drug that could dramatically improve the lives of millions is one way of doing that. Making this video is another. Trump is pretty cartoonish too, but at least it’s having a massive effect on people. (Ironically, Donald Trump has said that Martin Skhreli is a “spoiled brat.”)
(If you want to see the clip I mentioned from London Has Fallen, skip to 1:39.)
The lesson to learn here is this: The villains or antagonists of TV shows and movies may be crazy and maniacal. But when you have people like Trump and Skhreli making headlines, there’s definitely some correlation between how art depicts villains and how those villains become part of our reality.