One of the most striking and powerful pages in Secret Empire #0 comes after the prologue in the opening scene on the Helicarrier. The unnamed narrator of the book describes the events of the issue in retrospect:
I’ve said before that we shouldn’t read Captain America: Steve Rogers or Secret Empire as a direct allegory, but there’s no doubt that Spencer has American politics in mind. So while we can’t say that Hydra Captain America equals Donald Trump or any other particular president, it’s hard not to think of the idea of the imperial presidency during this monologue.
One of the most disastrous developments in American politics in the last hundred years has been aggrandizement of the presidency. This is true in terms of the actual power that the executive branch possesses, but it’s also true in a more dangerous sense.
Most people care very little about who represents them in Congress, and they care even less about local and state politics. But every four years we learn just how much people care who their president is. Why should this be? Congress makes the laws that actually rule us, and in the constitutional order, power is equally distributed among three branches of government. So why do we only seem to care about the presidency? Secret Empire has an answer for us: “We simply gave him more power and more authority because it was easier to let him do that which we were too weak to do ourselves.”
Why do we all—left, right, and center—see the president as the One Who Will Save Us All?
Because it’s easier.
Our culture puts most of its energy into distracting us, and right now we’re more distracted than we’ve ever been. Our culture also places a premium on “productivity” and multitasking—so while we’re distracted, we’re also busy trying to at least appear to be productive on multiple fronts. And our culture is far more complicated than America was two and a half centuries ago. Few of us have enough education to understand the complexities of government, economics, and social problems, and since we’re all so distracted, we’re increasingly unable to develop the habits of mind necessary for careful thinking. Who has the time, energy, knowledge, or wisdom to participate in a self-governing system? It’s much easier to let the Strong Man (or, one day maybe, Strong Woman) do the job for us.
We all know that it’s dangerous to give too much power to one person, and most of us know why the Founders divided the task of governance between three branches. Most of us understand that there’s a good reason that the three branches exist to check and balance one another. But we convince ourselves that if we can just pick the right person to be President—the Hero, the Savior, the Strong Man or Strong Woman—then everything will be alright. Then we won’t have to bother with the hard work and discipline of self-governance. The Hero will be there to do it for us.
That’s why the Marvel Universe’s America happily gives over power to Hydra Cap—because the Steve Rogers that we’ve all known really can be the hero that we need, and really, isn’t it easier to let him? He really is a moral leader who would do what’s best for everyone, who will sacrifice his own interests to the common good. But even the best of us can be mistaken or corrupted. What’s happened to Steve Rogers in Secret Empire is not his fault (if you need proof, see the last two paragraphs of this article), but that doesn’t make the situation any better. As the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., he has more power than even a good person should have (more power than he himself would ever accept if he were in his right mind), and he’s been twisted by an evil force bent on the domination of the weak.
The Hydra Cap story doesn’t quite have the literary sophistication or genius that some of its greatest predecessors have, but I suspect that Secret Empire will be remembered with Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Kingdom Come for the way in which it has spoken to the political malaise of its time.