Ever wondered how billionaire Donald Trump might govern if he becomes president? We humbly offer Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 satirical masterpiece Starship Troopers as a possible preview.
Yes, Starship Troopers is just a science fiction movie. But it’s also a metaphor for US militarism and the kind of bombastic neo-fascism that Trump is selling to millions of angry, disaffect Americans.
In the world of Verhoeven’s film and the Robert Heinlein novel it’s based on, the military permeates every aspect of life, the government give preferential treatment to veterans and the constant, thrumming fear of “the other” keeps people pacified, afraid and pro-military.
Sound familiar? Both Trump’s dream and Verhoeven’s nightmare reflect America’s darkest tendencies.
Two decades before Trump became a presidential front-runner, Starship Troopers mocked Trump’s America.
“We’re going to make our military so big and so strong and so great,” Trump proclaimed from the deck of the decommissioned battleship USS Iowa in September 2015. “It will be so powerful that I don’t think we’re ever going to have to use it. No one is going to mess with us.”
Trump spent the bulk of his 20-minute speech lionizing veterans, promising to make the military awesome again and blaming America’s woes on immigrants.
“I’m with the veterans 100 percent,” Trump said. “They’re being treated terribly. We’re going to take apart the system. We’re going to create a whole new system. You’re going to get the greatest service of any veterans in any country. Because you deserve it.”
Trump went on to claim that America takes better care of illegal immigrants than it does its veterans. In that spirit, he vowed to build a wall to keep undocumented Mexicans out of the United States.
Similarly, Starship Troopers opens with an advertisement for the Mobile Infantry—Earth’s frontline fighting force. “Service guarantees citizenship,” the narrator declares.
A puff news piece about the planet’s border security follows. “BUG METEOR,” large block letters declare over an image of a rock spinning through space. “This time we’re ready,” the narrator says. “Planetary defenses are better than ever.” Space guns obliterate the rock.
Space guns are the ultimate wall.
Screengrab: TriStar Pictures
Heinlein wrote the novel Starship Troopersin 1958. Set in the far future, the novel follows the exploits of Johnny Rico as he leaves high school, enlists in the military and travels the galaxy killing aliens.
The book is a libertarian screed for young adults. Rico’s journey is Heinlein’s way of pushing his own ideas about military service, the failures of democracy, and his burgeoning philosophical anarchism.
In the novel Starship Troopers, only veterans of federal service become full citizens with the right to vote and hold public office. There is no need for prisons as most punishment is corporal and public. Heinlein calls for a self-sacrificing elite to govern everyday people who are too afraid and selfish to govern themselves.
Critics have attacked the novel as military-fetishizing, fascist propaganda. When Hollywood adapted the book, it did so with these criticisms in mind. Verhoeven’s film is less an adaptation of the book and more an adaptation of the book as viewed by its haters.
Verhoeven set out to play with fascist imagery and mock American militarism. The director copied, shot-for-shot, scenes from the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, based the costumes on Nazi uniforms and down-played Heinlein’s sexual politics and grand political ideas. The flick is a brilliant send-up, but most critics missed its subtleties.
“Starship Troopers is the most violent kiddie movie ever made”
Initial reviews for the movie took it at face value. “Starship Troopers is the most violent kiddie movie ever made,” Roger Ebert wrote. “I call it a kiddie movie not to be insulting, but to be accurate: Its action, characters and values are pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans.”
Yes, but that was the point. The movie is most brilliant during the YouTube-style propaganda pieces that serve to break up the action. During one, smiling children gather around soldiers showing off their weapons in a park.
One soldier hands over his rifle and the children fight over who gets to hold it. A laughing, grinning trooper passes out bullets to enthusiastic grade-schoolers. Later, children stomp on bugs in a suburban cul-de-sac while a mother claps and laughs in the background.
Two decades before Trump became a presidential front-runner, Starship Troopers mocked Trump’s America—one that brings back torture, executes Muslim prisoner by shooting them with pig’s blood-soaked bullets, and murders the families of its enemies.
Like something out of a bad science fiction movie. Or a brilliant sci-fi satire.