There’s been a lot of good writing, here and elsewhere, about why it’s so upsetting for Marvel to reboot Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, as a crypto-Nazi HYDRA agent. But oh, is it worse than that. I want to offer this: Rogers, in both the comics and the movies, has always been a fascist. It’s just that he’s previously been on our side.
To be fair, he’s not usually a racist, white supremacist, or otherwise an evildoer; that’s a new aspect of the HYDRA-Steve persona. But behind the red, white, and blue shield and optimistic, inclusive rhetoric, there is a man who believes, ultimately, that only he can truly separate right from wrong and stand between good and evil. The simple fact that he’s been written so that the reader/viewer will agree with his conclusions is a mere distraction from his antipathy for democratic values and individual rights.
Here he is at his most idealistic, righteous, and pure. And yet, he’s 100% wrong: he goes after the press, the politicians, and the “mob”, dismissing the public, their representatives, and their voices with a simple assertion of his own moral views. The United States was not founded on a principle of individual defiance of the general will: rather, we were founded as a nation of laws, not men, of separated powers, of due process, and of representative government. Such scorn for media, politicians, and the electorate is more commonly reserved for repressive regimes.
If anything, the traditional version of Steve Rogers provides a more apt and chilling warning about the risk of an authoritarian America than any weak-sauce HYDRA parody of the man.
When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.
—Sinclair Lewis (apocryphal)
Fascists are simply depicted the bad guys—in World War II, in comics and movies, and in the modern world. But the ideology is more complex than that, and while it’s most famously associated with Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi party, it’s risen in different forms across the world. Racist hate is a common attribute, but not a necessary one: instead, fascists’ fundamental claim is that liberal democracy is weak and useless, and individualism is a threat. Instead, they call for the total centralization of a country: the people, the economy, and the government all united for a common, glorified national purpose. Hitler imagined a new German Reich and world domination for the Germanic race; other fascists had their own missions. Mussolini pledged to rebuild the Roman Empire, Francisco Franco called for a return to traditional hierarchies around religion and gender in Spain, as did Antonio Salazar in Portugal and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Getulio Vargas in Brazil just promised a return to law and order. All are united by a firm rejection of the modern world: its industrial economies (either capitalist or socialist), its individualism (in defiance of traditional moralities), and its increasing global integrations.
Steve Rogers is not, and has never been, a Nazi. You already knew that; just look at him punching out Hitler on the cover of his first-ever appearance. But an opposition to the Third Reich is no guarantee of any democratic principle—just ask Josef Stalin. Hitler and the Nazis promoted an ideology of hatred that was exclusive to the German people; it automatically excluded everyone else. Its potency came from its principle of a master race, that all Germans had a right to rule and dominate because of their supposed inherent superiority. A parallel assertion that, say, Americans had an inherent right to rule, would conflict with Nazi ideology without being any less evil.
Despite the ominous panel above, when Marvel elected Rogers president in 2012 (admittedly in the Ultimates universe), there was still little doubt expressed that this was anything but good news for the country. Said Ultimates writer Sam Humphries:
Cap is a soldier, not a politician. He’s been called by the people to unite America. He’s going to reinterpret the job of president to fit the crisis at hand, and to align with what he feels is the right thing to do. From his point of view, sitting in a giant mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue is not going to be the way to get the job done.
Humphries, without hesitation, dismissed the fundamental American principle that the president, though commander-in-chief, is a civilian. He doesn’t even deign to run for office: the people, en masse, write in his name, sparing the hero the indignity of actually having to deal with dissenting voices in an election, or even articulate any policy ideas. Cap ultimately resigns the office, finding politics to be too dirty a business for him—reinforcing the idea that power, not democracy, is the way to justice and a better world. Steve is never punished for his anti-democratic ideas.
I’ve previously discussed Umberto Eco’s principles of Ur-Fascism, which have become required reading in the era of Trump. They uncomfortably overlap with even the most idyllic vision of Captain America. Eco is helpful enough to provide an organized list of the attributes of fascist regimes and ideologies, reflective of the dominant fascist movements of the 20th century. Steve Rogers, as depicted in comics but especially in the movies, fits neatly into many of these concepts. Eco’s principles are block-quoted in bold below.
The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition…Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism…Even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity.
More than being the genesis of Steve Rogers, this kind of traditionalist thinking is at the epicenter of the 21st century Steve, as the years pass since both the character’s creation and his fictional birth. Cap was literally frozen in ice since the end of World War II; his beliefs are pure, since he slept through the conflicts and traumas that created the modern world. He is a perfect fusion of youth and age: he brings old, lost values in the form of a young man. Thor and other immortals had to live through the 20th century, and become corrupted by it. Steve can preserve his innocence.
Steve’s rejection of “modern depravity” is sexual as much as it is political. In The First Avenger, he heavily implies he was a virgin before receiving the serum. He remains chaste, spurning the affections of Natalie Dormer’s Private Lorraine. His love for Peggy Carter is noble, yet unconsummated. Steve has a similar romantic life in the comics, and his general abstention seems to be sublimated into his yet-platonic relationship with Bucky. This always contrasts with both the playboy Tony Stark (and Howard, his father), and the highly-sexualized women around them.
Fascism can be defined as irrationalism. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.
Steve is a hero of almost pure action. He acts without thinking, not because he is depicted as foolish or reckless, but because he is always instantly able to distinguish right from wrong. Before the serum, he rushes into sure defeats; after, he rushes into sure victories. He liberates the Howling Commandos from a HYDRA base in defiance of the orders of his paralyzed, unacting commanding officer. He protects Bucky from the deliberative sentence pronounced against him by global authorities. He goes with his gut, almost always in contrast to the more intellectual and scientific superheroes: Tony Stark, Natasha Romanov, Bruce Banner, even young Peter Parker.
In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
Once again, Steve is not a scientist. He is instantly impatient with disagreement, and is willing to fight his friends when their views conflict. Moreover, while Steve is never exactly racist, his enemies list tends to tap into the traditional fears of racists. In the movies, he fights foreigners, aliens, and monsters: Red Skull, Loki, the Chitauri, Ultron, the Sokovians. The Americans he fights are infiltrators and spies. Their differences from Rogers and American viewers are laid plain. The man even sells war bonds, frustrated only that it keeps him from the front. His comic enemies are similar: as often as not, they reflect America’s real-world military opponents.
In contrast, Tony Stark’s prime enemies in the movies are Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer, and Aldrich Killian, all human and Anglo-American. Even Ultron is his own creation. His occasional foreign enemies are either imposters, like the Mandarin (whose blatantly racist comic book inspiration fought Captain America in Vietnam) or individuals with highly personal, even justified, grudges against him, often with implicit criticisms of American policy: Ivan Vanko is the son of a Soviet scientist cheated by Howard Stark, and others are victims of weapons built by Stark Industries.
To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.
Dude goes by the name “Captain America”. I don’t have to explain this one. But again, the focus on foreign enemies or internal infiltrators highlight the point: HYDRA is a foreign conspiracy; the Sokovia Accords are a foreign conspiracy; SHIELD is compromised (by HYDRA). Steve promotes the familiar and rewards loyalty.
The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.
Steve’s humble origins are constantly contrasted to his opponents’ wealth, not just the Stark billions; for example, Red Skull enjoys painting, classical music, and the other traditional cultural symbols of the upper class. Steve is the one you want to have a beer with, and his Civil War allies come from similarly humble beginnings—Hawkeye, Ant-Man, etc. His opponents are easily characterized as elites: Stark, the ballerina Romanov, a literal king from Wakanda, the Vision. The comics accent these class differences even more.
In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.
Steve does not merely crave a heroic death, he achieved it. His self-sacrificing nature is often noble, but it sets a particular standard, aimed at making others’ caution seem cowardly. Steve’s frozen death (and revival) defines the character in the movies; the comic character has died again and again.
This is, of course, an oversimplification of the character, and in his long history, there are plenty of contrary threads as well. But Steve’s power is almost always inherently anti-democratic, even by the generally individualistic standards of superherodom. He is not just the strongest man in the world, he is also the wisest, the most just, and the most righteous. To oppose his opinions is almost always wrong, whether the opposition comes from his friends, his enemies, or from elected officials. And that opposition and doubt never pays off: Marvel embraces Steve as the Leader.
When one man stands for the nation, dissent cannot be patriotic.
Which is how we return to HYDRA-Steve. This plot is still a mean-spirited bait & switch by Marvel, which decided to use comic book magic for the transition rather than explore the actual fascist potency of Steve Rogers’s legacy. In this way, it’s a missed opportunity: readers aren’t asked to reflect on Captain America at all, he’s simply substituted for his antithesis.
Despite the fascistic undertones of the traditional Captain America, it’s important to note that he isn’t evil. His causes are always noble, his motivations are pure, his morality is intact. This makes it more insidious; the message becomes “shut up and listen to Captain America”. If you disagree with him, you are almost certainly wrong.
Secret Empire will apparently depict the characters’ struggle to overcome their loyalty to Rogers now that he’s become evil, but readers are left off the hook: they know the truth from day one. The story of HYDRA-Steve risks reinforcing the fascism of the character, while purporting to subvert it. It compels fans to clamor for traditionalism; for the restoration of the values of a character created seventy-five years ago. Steve’s transformation is again the work of a foreign agent, so both in the text and beyond it, there is an outside infiltrator who must be repulsed, so that things can go back to the way they were, and they way they are supposed to be.
This is where Marvel appears to be letting us down again—it has incited its fans to demand an infallible Captain America by clumsily substituting an evil version of the character. By making fascism so alien to Rogers’ character that it requires a complete memory re-write, he remains totally innocent, and fans are never asked to question if he could ever be wrong, or if he should ever be challenged. Once the imposter is cast out, dissent is to fade, and Cap will again be an authoritarian in red, white, and blue, to be loyally defended.