The Khaaaaaaaaaan presidency

What Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan teaches us about Trump

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Win McNamee/Getty Images, Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo, NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Forget the The Godfather. Don't focus on Groundhog Day. If you're looking for a movie character to sum up what the Donald Trump presidency is all about, take a close look at the villain who so memorably, meme-ably made William Shatner howl in frustration.

I'm talking, of course, about Khan Noonien Singh.

You know: Khaaaaaaaaaan!

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Khan, played by the immortal Ricardo Montalban, first made an appearance during Star Trek's original television run in the 1960s. He was a genetically enhanced warrior, frozen in sleep for hundreds of years before he was awakened and tried to take over the Enterprise. For his troubles, he was marooned with his genetically enhanced followers on an empty planet.

That's where we find him in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the movie, he's all bulging pectorals and feathered hair usually seen in heavy metal rock bands of the era, a man with a penchant for ostentatiously quoting Moby Dick.

I know that doesn't sound like President Trump. But Khan's outlook on life was decidedly Trumpesque. Here are four key similarities.

1. Khan and Trump are all about rage and grievances.

"He tasks me," Khan says. "He tasks me and I shall have him! I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares Maelstrom and 'round perdition's flames before I give him up!"

There's that Moby Dick thing. It's obviously too literate for one of Trump's tweets — but the anger in Khan's words sure sounds familiar.

Khan, after all, was a man driven by one thing: his grievances against Kirk. When faced with choices that pit the good of his crew — and his own future — against his need to pursue vengeance, he always chose the latter.

Trump is nothing if not the incarnate form of America's raging grievances.

2. Khan and Trump can't stand to be mocked.

"This is Admiral Kirk," our hero says. "We tried it once your way, Khan, are you game for a rematch? Khan, I'm laughing at the 'superior intellect.'"

That's all it takes — just a little mockery — and Khan plunges into a losing battle with the Enterprise. He's a man who constantly speaks of his own superior intellect and strength, but all it takes is one mean comment for Khan to start making life-altering, irrational decisions.

Here's one thing we know about Trump: He doesn't like to be the butt of jokes. He was reportedly motivated to run for president after Seth Meyers roasted him at the 2011 White House Correspondents Association dinner. He overreacts to Saturday Night Live sketches. And Trump famously casts his criticisms in terms of rivals who are "laughing" at U.S. policies. The man can't take a joke — and appears to fear being the punchline. Weirdly, much of our current governance seems to stem from that fear.

3. Khan and Trump are not nearly as smart as they claim to be.

"He's intelligent," Spock says of Khan, "but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking."

That's perhaps the most Trumpian characteristic of all. It's here that Bob Woodward's new book, Fear, makes the Khan-Trump connection most clear. For all the talk of Trump playing "three-dimensional" chess in politics, there's a mountain of evidence suggesting he doesn't grasp — or doesn't care to grasp — even mildly complex ideas. He sees alliances and deals only in win-loss terms for the United States, and never appears to contemplate win-win scenarios. He doesn't see how U.S. participation in international organizations can increase American security, or how trade and security are linked.

That letter Gary Cohn reportedly stole from Trump's desk? Woodward reports it would've withdrawn the U.S. from a trade agreement with South Korea — which in turn would've jeopardized a program that allows the U.S. to detect a North Korean missile launch in seconds. Trump's refusal to understand the connections, his aides believe, endangers America. "He's never going to see that document," Cohn says, according to Woodward. "Got to protect the country."

4. Khan and Trump's irrationality is dangerous.

Given his mix of arrogance and rage, it's probably no surprise — here's a 36-year-old spoiler warning — that Khan's life ends in an attempt to take down the Enterprise with him. He fails, of course, but the good guys pay a terrible price.

Given Trump's well-documented erratic temperament, it's fair to wonder how he'll react if Robert Mueller releases a scathing report, if close family members are indicted, or if Congress chooses to impeach. Trump has given little indication he'd accept the rule of law, and has shown plenty of willingness to undermine institutions and shred norms to protect his own hide. The closer we get to the endgame, the more dangerous Trump is likely to become.

It's no accident we keep looking to movies to make sense of Donald Trump's presidency: His administration represents the purest merging of pop culture and politics to hit the White House since Ronald Reagan — and even Reagan had the sense to do an apprenticeship as California governor before heading to Washington, D.C. Trump's journey from network TV to the presidency was much more direct. Even now, it appears that Trump is experiencing the presidency mostly as a TV show about himself.

Thankfully, all shows eventually end.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us