***Spoilers for Secret Empire.***
Yesterday’s Secret Empire #10 finally brought Nick Spencer’s sprawling Captain America epic to its close (mostly; there are still some loose ends to tie up in Generations and in Secret Empire: Omega).
To say that the whole Hydra Cap story has been exhausting and expensive would be an understatement. It has also been variously infuriating, thrilling, rewarding, surprising, and disappointing. The entirety of Captain America: Steve Rogers was some of the most compelling comics I’ve read in a long time. The first half of Secret Empire was gut-wrenching. In the second half, things started to go wrong. The story sagged, and it became very hard to care about what was happening as Marvel began to more and more frantically reassure fans that the real Captain America would come back.
Issue #10 has been mostly trashed in the reviews, and for understandable reasons. It’s exactly the predictable ending that Nick Spencer spent months telling us he wouldn’t give us. But I don’t really care. After over a year of enduring a Cap who spouts Hydra rhetoric and does reprehensible things, I tremble with excitement to see a comic that so earnestly and unabashedly embraces Captain America and the things that make him one of the most important characters in the Marvel Universe.
But even to a Captain America fan like me, Secret Empire is yet another event comic that began with promise and then fizzled. While I enjoyed issue #10 a lot, it can’t quite make up for the fact that Marvel took a story that could have easily been told in four issues and stretched it out to ten. (For perspective, stop to consider that books like DC’s Kingdom Come and The Dark Knight Returns both pack far more story into four issues, and neither one feels rushed.)
No doubt the story is a leftist meditation about Trump’s rise to power and the resistance to his government, about progressive fear of a resurgence of nationalism and bigotry. But in a time of extremism on both the left and the right, a time when the supposed resistance to Trump proves to be just as hateful and fascistic as the ones they oppose, it’s hard to take Secret Empire seriously as an allegory. But whether intentionally or not, Spencer has given us something of great value in Secret Empire: he’s given us a powerful critique of the imperial presidency, a critique that we desperately need to hear.
The system that the U.S. Founders put into place with its division of power between branches and between the federal government and states was nothing short of genius, and it is still the greatest system in the world. But somewhere along the way the Presidency has become too powerful, and the office has turned into something that the Founders never intended.
People only seem notice this, though, when they have a president that they don’t like. This problem has seemed especially acute since the 2000 election. The left saw Bush as the epitome of the imperial presidency. The right saw Obama as aggrandizing the office for leftists. And now the left feverishly sounds alarms about fascism in the Oval Office. None of us seems to notice that it’s the Presidency itself, not the man occupying the seat, that is the real threat.
The executive branch has taken on an outsized role in our public life. We care far too much about the presidency and far too little about local and state politics. The genius of the American system, as observers like Alexis de Tocqueville saw early on, is the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity means distributing power at as low a level as possible, so that most political questions are decided on a local level, and the federal government only intervenes on problems that are impossible to settle locally. But somewhere along the way we have allowed the power that was supposed to be distributed widely to become concentrated further and further up. The Secret Empire might be a comic book fantasy, but in the real world we’ve allowed the conditions for it to become a reality.