My favorite line in the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy comes from Padmé toward the end of Revenge of The Sith. She stands in the Galactic Senate and watches Supreme Chancellor Palpatine proclaim himself Emperor of a newly founded Empire.
“This is how liberty dies,” she comments to her companions, “with thunderous applause.”
It’s a chilling line simply because we know from our own history how true it can be. Even the briefest look at the story of Hitler’s rise to power mirrors Palpatine’s own journey in many ways. Rising to power on a tidal wave of support, first elected as Chancellor before using fear to manipulate other politicians and transform the country/Republic into a dictatorship under his control alone.
The Star Wars prequels reflect our own history back at us through the lens of a galaxy far, far away and remind us of things we ought not to forget. In our post 9/11 era where we as “good citizens” are expected to throw away more and more of our personal liberties in the never-ending pursuit of the spectre of terrorism, and where increasingly oppressive politicians are growing in popularity with an increasingly scared population – perhaps the story we see across the three prequels has never been more important.
This is what I love about the Star Wars prequel trilogy. While the Original Trilogy throws us straight into the heart of an ongoing war where heroes and villains are already established, the prequels show us both how those things came to be, and how easily the road to war can be walked. In fact, if we take a look at recent news, it’s a path we can see being trodden once again – only this time it’s happening in the United States with the rise of Donald Trump.
Trump is a cartoonish character at best, but what he lacks in the cunning manipulation of politicians, he and his team make up for in the manipulation of the populace.
As Yoda taught us, “fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” and a lot of people are afraid right now. In Star Wars, Palpatine manipulates from both sides, setting up the war that will ultimately allow him to seize control of the Republic and create his Empire. Trump is late to the game in comparison, but he has instead up onto a foundation of fear already created by the United States’ legacy in the Middle East, and fed each day by the right-wing media. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan & Syria, against faceless enemies like Al Qaeda and ISIS, have led to an all-consuming fear of the Muslim world for many Americans. Fear that drives those same people toward Trump’s policies.
“We will defend our ideals by force of arms. We will give no ground to our enemies and will stand together against attacks from within or without,” Palpatine announces to the Senate in the full version of his speech from Revenge of The Sith.
“There must be a wall across the southern border.” There needs to be “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” Trump announces to the roaring sound of approval from his supporters. Thunderous applause indeed.
Am I suggesting that Trump would attempt to take control of the House and establish himself as Emperor of the United States? No, but it certainly wouldn’t be the most outrageous thing he’d said either. Not so very long ago, it would have been impossible to imagine anyone with policies so profoundly anti-American as Trump’s First Amendment bashing statements on Muslim immigration and enforced ID badges, as being any more than a laughing stock and an embarrassment, and yet here we are with him leading the race for the GOP nomination.
At this point, Hillary Clinton still leads in the overall polls, but Trump’s continuing popularity proves that his brand of hatred and xenophobia is exactly what some highly vocal Americans want from their politics – even if they (so far) don’t make up a majority. The politicians in the Galactic Senate probably didn’t want a Sith Lord as their Emperor either, Palpatine was just a lot better than Trump at concealing his plans until it was too late.
The lesson we can learn from the prequels is that even the Galactic Republic, ruled by democracy and policed by “guardians of peace and justice”, can be lost if fear and hatred are allowed to take root in the houses of law.
If you’re like me, you’re probably re-watching the Star Wars movies this week in preparation for the opening of The Force Awakens in only a few days. If you are including the prequels, and as a lifelong Star Wars fangirl I hope that you are, then I invite you to look at them through new eyes. We do indeed stand “on the threshold of a new beginning”, as Palpatine told the galaxy, let us hope it is one of peace and prosperity, not of fear and hatred.