Days of Future Past: Are the X-Men more relevant now than ever before?
It's no secret that the X-Men were originally a response to the relatively open racism and discrimination of the 1950s and early 1960s. However, while the mutants of the X-Men suffer discrimination because they are seen as fundamentally different from ordinary people, the fact that they are also gifted with incredible abilities gives people's discrimination a fairly straightforward justification that plain-old racism lacks. The mutants of the X-Men are scary not only for their difference, but for the threat they pose to "ordinary" people. While this sense of threat can be more difficult to identify in characters like Angel and The Beast, it’s relatively obvious with Cyclops’ optic blasts and Charles Xavier’s ability to read minds.
As the presidential race has heated up, Donald Trump has been vocal about how his administration would treat those who are "different" from the broader sweep of American society. He has already proposed a physical wall separating the US from Mexico to ensure as little illegal immigration as possible, as well as a proposed ban on Muslim immigrants. If all of this sounds oddly supervillainous to you, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Indeed, the politicisation of the “mutant problem” specifically has been a long-running theme of the X-Men comics. As a result, the entirely superpowerless Senator Robert Kelly ascended to the ranks of the X-Men’s most loathed antagonists by running for office on an anti-mutant platform, promising to keep ordinary people safe from the dangers of a world fraught with mutant powers.
Now, Trump seems to be running on a relatively similar series of policies, reassuring voters that America will be free from the tyranny of powerful Mexicans and Muslims for as long as he is president. With the suggestion that the US should seek to deport as many as 11 million people, Trump is already working on a scale of infrastructure more often encountered by comic book villains than by typical politicians.
At this point, would we really be so surprised if Trump were to take the stage and announce that his (totally not) mass deportations are to be carried out by a newly-constructed fleet of “the best robots” built by “some really smart people?” It's all too easy to picture the looming purple silhouettes of the 1980s-style Sentinels behind Trump as he makes his announcements.
"And we're gonna make the mutants pay for it!"
Compared to Trump, Hillary Clinton looks increasingly reasonable, though she does little to lessen the impression that the we are approaching a world that is difficult to distinguish from that of the X-Men. While Clinton’s stance on immigrants and Muslims is at least more forgiving than Trump’s, her position is, at best vacillating. Her inconsistent behaviour and quasi-inhuman speech patterns paint her as a Mystique-style shapeshifter, both in her political stances and in the vague, unshakeable feeling that the real threat is from some invisible power looming behind her, pulling her strings. After all, how could she have been so confident that her notorious email server had been wiped clean unless Magneto himself had taken care of the wiping?
As you might expect, all of this breeds an atmosphere of insecurity at best, and fear at worst. We find ourselves in a political climate in which discrimination against immigrants and Muslims seems broadly acceptable. Moreover, the resonances between the genesis of the X-Men and the current political climate exist not only in the perception of prejudice as acceptable (or even necessary), but in the people being discriminated against.
Unfortunately for the X-Men, there are some fundamental difficulties in attempting to deal with racism through the medium of a class of people who are not only not immediately identifiable for discrimination, but who also have the means to defend themselves with spectacular powers. Indeed, as a group of mutants, the X-Men often seemed to occupy a position of privilege. This necessitated the introduction of the “morlocks” in the early 1980s, a class of mutants with physical mutations so pronounced that they are incapable of living among ordinary people and are forced to live in the sewers to avoid conflict.
What is, perhaps, most relevant in all of this is the fundamental disconnect between the type of discrimination and fear being represented in the earliest days of the X-Men and the kind of fear we see today. In the tense years of those early X-Men comics, mutants were hated and feared for being different, powerful, and threatening, but it’s no coincidence that they were organised and operated as a team in an effort to defend their people. In the 50s and 60s, the real threat was that the subjects of racist discrimination would organise and act together; their power would come from unity.
By contrast, in what could well soon be Trump’s America, the fear is not only of large-scale organisation bringing victims of discrimination together, but of the power of the individual radical, acting alone or in extremely loose relation with some distant ideology. In many respects, the fear of the lone terrorist or the suicide bomber reconstructs the subject of racist or religious discrimination in much the same way as the “mutant problem" does, reconfiguring the individual, rather than the group, as a locus of profound disruptive and destructive power.
It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, and one that seems all the more relevant given the messaging around Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims, which he has since specified would apply only to individuals travelling from “terrorist countries.” Just what constitutes a terrorist country remains to be seen, and Trump has yet to elaborate on it, but it seems too much to hope that he’s using the term "terrorist country" to describe the mutant paradise of Genosha...
It may be an oversimplification to say that the history and origins of the X-Men are more relevant to us today than they were when those first comics appeared in the early 1960s, but our day-to-day world is starting to feel increasingly like the world that spawned Xavier’s team of mutants-for-justice. The X-Men are at their best when the stories are little more than thinly-veiled allegories for real-world discrimination, but the truth is that the real world is beginning to look more and more like a thinly-veiled allegory for an X-Men comic than the other way around.