One of the most innovative aspects of The Dark Knight Returns is that Miller very clearly places Gotham City in the real world of 1980s America, and not a hyper exaggerated comic book universe. Ronald Reagan is president, the United States is locked in an ever-escalating Cold War, and real-life celebrities like David Letterman and Dr Ruth Westheimer are murdered by the Joker. Of course, Miller never comes right out and names these people, but by the way he draws them, it is easy enough to figure out what he is up to.

Based on previous installments of this series, you may assume that Frank Miller would be very supportive of Ronald Reagan. After all, Batman is a stand in for a type of conservatism that, to paraphrase Whittaker Chambers, recognizes the reality of evil and fights it instead of smiling and waving at it (Chambers, Witness, 704). In a time when Reagan was constantly (and rightly) denouncing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” while many on the Left did not want to hear it, a reader may easily think The Dark Knight Returns is thinly veiled pro-Reagan propaganda. When Reagan does show up approximately halfway through the book however, Miller paints him in a less than flattering light. In almost every appearance, Miller portrays Reagan as a doddering, uncaring fool, who throws American soldiers into Cold War conflicts for no particular reason.

Check out the previous installments in this series: Part 1, The Media, and Part 2, Law and Order

Whether or not you like Reagan, it is hard to deny that Miller’s caricaturing of him is often hilarious, parodying every insincere politician who has ever graced a microphone. “…American Tr–Excuse me…Heroic American Troops are now engaged in direct combat with Soviet forces…” Reagan stutters in a press conference, later saying that everything will be fine because “we have God on our side…or the next best thing anyway…” (Miller, The Dark Knight Returns, 119). Later, Reagan shows himself to be completely incompetent as America falls into chaos in the aftermath of a nuclear winter.

When reading Miller’s criticisms of Reagan along with his criticisms of the media, it can appear as if Miller is now just flailing his arms around, not really thinking about a coherent target for his satire, only attacking everything in sight because it is always easier to tear down than to build up.

Until we remember another politician who has made just as many enemies among the Republican establishment as he has the on the Left: President Donald J. Trump.

While he has often favorably compared himself to President Reagan, Trump has also undermined the credibility of those conservatives who claim to be the real successors to the conservative icon. On the campaign trail, Trump insulted fellow Republicans John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Ted Cruz, and also attacked traditional Republican policy positions that claim their origins in the Reagan era, such as free trade and a hawkish foreign policy. Trump’s basic argument (later expounded on by populist commentators such as Ann Coulter or Tucker Carlson) was that many of these Republican elites had grown cold and indifferent to the problems of their constituents, and that their worship of the free market and American military dominance had alienated rural white voters in the country’s heartland.

In The Dark Knight Returns, Ronald Reagan represents every politician who trades in talking points rather than actual solutions, who represents an empty husk of what America used to be instead of providing solutions to the real problems Americans face today. This theme really becomes apparent in the last chapter, when Reagan has failed to save America from the nuclear winter (this can represent the opioid crisis, unchecked immigration, globalization, or any other number of populist concerns) while Batman has done what is necessary to save Gotham, even if what is necessary is unorthodox or even unconstitutional.

A really interesting example of this happened just recently with Tucker Carlson’s reaction to Mitt Romney’s critical column on Donald Trump. In a provocative monologue that launched a fiery debate on the Right, Carlson condemned Romney as taking part of a ruling class of Republicans that only exist to “make the world safe for banking,” ignoring the concerns of ordinary Americans. Trump, on the other hand, rode on the wave of a “popular revolution” that sought to reverse these trends. Like Lana Lang couching Batman’s war on crime in lofty platitudes about the “will of the people,” Carlson places Trump as the vanguard of an uprising of the people that is only rightfully putting the country back in America’s hands.

This is what makes The Dark Knight Returnsreally ahead of its time. For decades, many readers were confused as to the nature of the book’s political worldview. It seemed conservative, but there were certain things about it, like criticism of Reagan and America’s foreign policy, that seemed more liberal, so was Miller just lashing out at everything in sight instead of having any coherent set of political beliefs? It is clear now that Miller predicted a right-wing populism that would only emerge thirty years after The Dark Knight Returnswas originally published, a sort of populism that pined for traditional American ideas surrounding masculinity and the nature of good and evil, while at the same time revolting against the Republican politicians who claimed to be fighting for those same values. It is the same type of anti-elitism expressed in founding conservative figures such as William F. Buckley (“I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University”) or Whittaker Chambers (Who pointed out that his chief enemies in his witness against communist subversion in the United States were upper class intellectuals, not the working class), only this time turned back at the conservative elite.

Yes, Miller’s Batman is a right-winger, believing that deterrence is often a more effective means of stopping criminality than rehabilitation. But he is certainly no John McCain when it comes to matters of war and peace. Notice how Batman only focuses on domestic threats, criminals directly jeopardizing Gotham’s security. Meanwhile, Superman, who in Miller’s world has become a government shill (and will be covered more in the next and concluding part of this series) spends all of his time and energy fighting Soviet Forces on an irrelevant South American island, Corto Maltese, the importance of which Reagan never bothers to explain. In his monologue, Carlson opined about how American forces in Syria seemed to have little to nothing to do with concrete American interests at home. Even if it did, good luck trying to get our ruling class to tell you why. In Carlson’s mind, as well as Miller’s, the American elites who claim to serve us seem to be more interested in fiddling with the affairs of far-flung nations than with the real problems of Americans back home. In this respect, Lana Lang and Tucker Carlson both agree that the American people are “victims of fear, of violence, of social impotence,” and that “a man [either Batman or Trump] has risen to show us that the power is, and always has been, in our hands” (Miller, 66).

If that is the case, perhaps Donald Trump is in fact the president that we need, but not the one that we deserve…

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