Guest Post: Andor, Sam Harris, and The Trumpian World
Stephen Kent on the politics of the new Star Wars TV series
Stephen Kent is the author of This Is The Way, a Substack newsletter on Star Wars, ethics, politics, and philosophy. He’s also the author of the book How the Force Can Fix the World: Lessons on Life, Liberty, and Happiness from a Galaxy Far, Far Away. I’m pleased to share this essay on the world of Andor, the new Star Wars TV series on Disney+, which shows a different side of the rebellion.
Star Wars fans are no strangers when it comes to conflict. In the case of the now streaming TV series, Andor on Disney+, they got a headstart. The inciting incident back in August was a predictable and buzzy quote given by series actress Fiona Shaw, to Empire Magazine where she said of Andor, “Tony (Gilroy) has written a great, scurrilous [take] on the Trumpian world. Our world is exploding in different places right now, people’s rights are disappearing, and Andor reflects that.” That sounds interesting for a Star Wars show, which is hardly a consensus view among fans of the franchise who tend to be split on whether or not Star Wars should be “political.” But what exactly is “the Trumpian world” Fiona Shaw is pointing to, and how do you effectively graft that onto Star Wars?
A persons political priors will always play into how they interpret real world events. The same must be said for how we watch movies and consume stories. For some, politicizing pop culture is sport. They see a momentary image of newly minted Imperial riot police suppressing a crowd in the trailer for Andor, and for just a fleeting moment they recall June 2020 when then President Trump had a protest in Washington, D.C. by St. John's Church and Lafayette Park, cleared with tear gas so he could take a photo on the church steps, quite literally to thump a Bible for cameras. This is only natural when you live in the real world. My first thought after the FBI’s raid of Donald Trump’s residence in Mar-a-Lago was that of the Jedi Council’s rogue effort to depose and arrest Chancellor Palpatine in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith on reports of his being a Sith Lord. Regardless of the artist’s intent, consumers of it will connect the dots to their priors.
When Disney released the first theatrical trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in August of 2016, roughly one year after Episode VII: The Force Awakens and the effective revival of the franchise sold to them by George Lucas in 2012, we lived in a very different world.
Donald Trump had just secured the GOP nomination for the 2016 election and at the time it was still a decent punchline. The real showdown as far as most observers and members of the chattering class were concerned was that of Bernie Sanders' insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton. The American left was at a crossroads in their perennial struggle to square the concerns of populist progressives with that of the more business-friendly establishment of the Democratic Party. The fight was ferocious as it was emblematic of a tension that sits just beneath the surface of all political combat and activism, which is the choice over not if to fight, but how, and on whose terms. Hillary Clinton and her brand of moderate, “work within the system,” neoliberal politics — effectively won. Bernie Sanders and the massive socialist-lite youth movement that he inspired was defeated. But that rebellion was only getting started.
You know what happened next. Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 general election to Donald Trump. When Rogue One finally hit theaters on December 16th of that year, it would be an understatement to say the mood in the room had changed somewhat from when the trailers for this Rebel Alliance spy-thriller had initially dropped.
No longer was Rogue One just a story about the impossible bid to nab the Death Star plans and deliver a crushing blow to the Empire. Now it was about the awakening of a rebel, Jyn Erso, a stand-in for the political fence sitter and apathetic onlooker.
“You can stand to see the Imperial flag fly?” says the political radical, Saw Gerrera. “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up,” Erso responds. She changes her tune soon enough. For an ideological liberal who chose not to vote in 2016 because Hillary Clinton wasn’t left enough for them, and who thought she’d beat Donald Trump with our without their vote, this kind of sentiment was a gut punch.
Gerrera’s purpose in the film is clear, and it isn’t to serve as a political role model for Erso. Saw’s body is maimed, lungs debilitated, and his mind frayed. The “good fight” is only as good as the fighter, and Saw has become a shell of a man the likes of Darth Vader. Forget the mechanical trappings of his body. He tortures captives (“the Bor Gullet knows the truth”) and launches indiscriminate violence in civilian areas. Saw has lost the plot.
The inclusion of Saw Gerrera in Andor is likely to be one of the more politically charged subplots of the series. He represents the alternative to the restrained leadership and hopeful vision of a new Repubic being promoted by Senator Mon Mothma of Chandrila.
Both are willing to employ violence to resist the Empire, but it’s the when and where that is at issue.
After all, even Gandhi once said, “When there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advice violence.”
With Mothma pitted against Gerrera for the hearts and minds of would be rebels, you have pragmatism and working within the system versus total revolution and frantic urgency. It’s moral high ground versus the ends justifying the means. Patient persusion of reluctant bystanders versus labeling everyone unwilling to stand right then and there as a potential enemy. This exists in every real world political faction both left and right. On the American right, look at the conservatives of The American Mind and Claremont Institute, where the Flight 93 mindset of politics has made a direct challenge to the more institutional instincts of conservative elites in Washington. It is suddenly relatively popular in young conservative circles to bemoan the small government dogma of the Reagan era Republican Party, embracing instead a view of government that the bureaucracy is a blunt instrument you’d be irresponsible not grab hold of when your enemies are trying to do the same thing. To the left, this divide in political ethics is more relatable to the Star Wars universe. At it’s most dramatic, it’s the archetypal Antifa radical versus the Democratic grassroots organizer. One habors the sincere belief that the system is rotten to the core, oppressive not by way of bad choice but by design. The committed leftist is the one who sees “white supremacy” and militarism in the DNA of the organism, written into the Constitution, if you will. Whereas with the average liberal or Democrat, they believe the system can be made better.
Remember, Mon Mothma is leading the “Alliance to Restore the Republic.” Has anyone told her that the Republic was actually kind of awful?
It’s one of the more interesting narrative developments within Star Wars lore over time. The prequel trilogy of George Lucas gave us a Republic that was ugly, corrupt, accomdoating to slavery and bought out by corporate interests. Eventually, those corporate interests lead a secessionist movement which sparks civil war, the Clone Wars. But it didn’t take long before even George Lucas, through his work on The Clone Wars animated series, added complexity to that narrative. The Clone Wars featured numerous episodes exploring the relatability of the Separatist cause and relaying thatto even the most passionate defenders of the Republic status quo (Padme, Bail Organa, Ahsoka Tano).
Cassian Andor explained in Rogue One that his family had fought with the Separatist Movement against the Republic. The Republic…The Empire….what’s the difference to someone like him?
Saw Gerrera also thought this way. Much of the Star Wars fandom does as well. The Empire was indeed a natural extension of the militarism, inhumanity, nonrepresentative corporate democracy that Palpatine himself mocked in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, as being full of “greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good.”
So therefore the whole thing is not worth saving, there is no hope for the better angels of our nature and we should just burn the whole thing down? No. That’s never been the Star Wars take. Hope, is.
This is the “politics of Star Wars” that is so often ignored for partisan, stupid and American-centric debates over what the galaxy far, far away is all about. Star Wars has asked us again and again to consider the possibility that the using the dark in service of the light is a step on the road to ruin. “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will,” said Yoda to Luke. Or again, consider the prequels and Mace Windu’s choice over how to unseat Chancellor Palpatine in Episode III when faced with the realization the sitting executive of the Republic was an enemy of the state. These are hinge moments for our personal morality and in history vooks. When there’s a “crisis,” what tools are ethical to use in service of quelling it? Mace Windu chose the route of immediate extralegal arrest and positioning the Jedi Council to take control of the democratically legitimate Senate, “in order to secure a peaceful transition.”
Such incredible foolishness. Such an incredibly “Trumpian” approach to solving problems.
The philosopher, podcaster and writer Sam Harris made some waves recently when on the Triggernometry podcast he confessed to a view somewhat reminiscent of the Mace Windu approach for a democratic crisis. Speaking about his sincere belief that Donald Trump poses an existential threat to American democracy and the world itself, Harris brought up the occasion when just before the 2020 election Twitter censored the New York Post’s factual reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop full of criminal escapades and evidence of familial corruption. He said about Twitter and the media suppressing the story that it was a, “left-wing conspiracy to deny the presidency to Donald Trump - absolutely it was, absolutely. But I think it was warranted.”
Last week in Axios it was revealed in a poll with Ipsos that one-third of American’s believe that presidents should be able to “remove judges whose decisions go against the national interest.” Democrats believe this by 13% more than Republicans, a significant margin. Roughly a third also expressed that the federal government should be able to prosecute members of the news media who make “offensive” or “unpatriotic” statements. These anti-democratic attitudes have risen across both parties since Donald Trump first entered office. Why? Because when people are afraid they tend to be willing to break all sorts of rules and norms in service of that fear.
And there you have “the Trumpian world” in a nutshell. Bad men and anti-democratic forces are nothing new, therefore what defines the world after Trump descended the golden escalator is not the orange-man himself, but the response to Trump by his opponents. Become the very thing you swore to destroy. Use your hatred in service of your narrow view of what is “good.” Don’t worry about saving what you love, just fight what you hate with whatever tool you can find.
Star Wars fans of all stripes would do well to ignore the remarks of Fiona Shaw, Denise Gough and other performers constantly playing to the press’ favorite tune: anti-Trumpism. It’s substance free and serves the singlular purpose of making the actor or actress in question feel better about themselves and generate buzz.
Andor is very “political” by the mere nature of its place in the Star Wars timeline. It is what is going on in our own world that defines how we interpret those events on screen. In the last 18 months we’ve watched the Congress of the United States be ransacked by an unhinged mob, and the residence of a former President of the United States be raided with reckless abandon by a politicized Department of Justice and FBI. The supposed solution to Trump’s authoritarian instincts, Joe Biden, soaked Independence Hall in blood-red light and gave a speech demonizing half of the country as active threats to the republic.
The wheels are coming off for America. And they come unglued faster with each inflection point in which we decide that the normal rules of engagement are insufficient to meet the moment. If we don’t get a collective grip and consider the lessons of stories like Star Wars and the rise of the Galactic Empire, we might as well call this whole thing quits.