Star Wars creator George Lucas often talks about his motivations for creating the iconic franchise. He wanted to recreate the fun adventures from the sci-fi serials he loved as a child, and to give kids a moral, mythic tale about good and evil in the stark, morally gray cinematic era of the late 1970s. But his motivations for the prequel trilogy (beyond “finishing the story”) haven’t been as closely examined. This trilogy wasn’t just about character backstory, it was a warning about the shift toward authoritarianism that we’re seeing happen in politics today.
At the Star Wars Celebration convention in Orlando this spring, actor Ian McDiarmid described Lucas’s prescience in crafting the character he played, Emperor Palpatine. “As far as the Emperor’s story is concerned, it’s about somebody who preaches democracy and acts as an authoritarian,” he said. “And, all I would say is that hasn’t gone away. It probably won’t go away. There’s a lot of that about, so keep your wits about you,” he added.
This seems to be an oblique reference to modern-day authoritarians, the rise of far-right, nativist politics in Europe, and, of course, the election of Donald Trump. But when Lucas dreamed up this part of the saga, he had a different Republican president in mind. During a story conference in 1981, Lucas told his collaborators that Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Knight, was pals with the Emperor before the Republic fell. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan asked if the Emperor was also a Jedi.
Lucas replied: “No, he was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy. He sucked Luke’s father into the dark side.”
Lucas envisioned a Nixon who didn’t resign and bested his Congressional enemies. But when the young(-er) Palpatine character finally appeared on screens 18 years later, he sounded more like candidate Trump than President Nixon. In The Phantom Menace, Palpatine explains how the legislature works to Padmé Amidala, played by Natalie Portman. His description echoes the “broken politics” argument favored by the Trump campaign.
Palpatine says: “The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates who are only looking out for themselves and their home systems. There is no interest in the common good…no civility, only politics…it’s disgusting.”
He also captures the political climate of the 2016 election when he acknowledges that “baseless accusations of corruption” have weakened his rival. The only solution is to elect “a stronger” leader, meaning himself. Now with more power, Palpatine can erode the Republic’s democratic institutions in favor of autocracy. Palpatine’s motivations throughout the prequels, as stated in the infamous opera scene from Revenge of the Sith, is to gain more and more power. First he used the established order to go as far as he could. Then, as Supreme Chancellor, he breaks norms and traditions, ultimately retaining his office after his term expires. Finally, he accuses the Jedi of treason, kills them, and names himself emperor because they were the last check on his power.
Equally relevant in that opera scene is a clear example of how authoritarians manipulate good people — in this case, Anakin — into buying their lies. While Palpatine tells the tale of “Darth Plagueis the wise,” he also talks about the Jedi as enemies of democracy. This appeals to Anakin, who told his liberty-loving wife earlier in the film that if Palpatine had more power, the good work of the Republic could be done more quickly. The rulers know what’s best for people, not the people themselves.
As Rian Johnson, the director of the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, wrote on Twitter in December of 2016, “the prequels are a [seven-hour-long] kids’ movie about how fear of loss turns good people into fascists.” Like those who enable authoritarians, Anakin only truly cares about himself and those closest to him. That the thing he most feared (his wife’s death) ends up happening is an apt metaphor for what typically happens when people give in to autocrats.
Because of the clear delineation between the forces of light and dark in the original trilogy, people of all political persuasions think that the “Rebellion” represents their ideology and the “Empire” represents the elected officials who don’t share it. In reality, if you think things like liberty and due process are good and genocide is bad: Congratulations, you are welcome in the rebellion. The prequel trilogy gives us no such easy political answers. Where the original trilogy served to give audiences in the late 1970s and early 1980s a tale of good versus evil, the prequels reveal that inherently good institutions of the Republic and the Jedi Order can be corrupted by guile and complacency.
The characters in these films have complex motivations that blur right and wrong. The Separatists want to secede from the Republic because their interests are not adequately represented in the Senate. The Jedi want to protect the Republic from the influence of the Dark Side, intending to assassinate a popular, democratically elected leader. The order also forced Anakin to lead a secret life — because of rules against marriage — which led to the central conflict that ultimately destroys everything. The Jedi’s rigid dogma and the government’s corruption are how it happens, but it’s arrogance that brings them down.
This idea was also subtly present in Return of the Jedi, as Lucas explained on the director’s commentary of the 2004 DVD release of the films. He said that the Ewoks were inspired by the Viet Cong: a primitive fighting force that used creative tactics to fight the militarily superior Empire. Like the rebellion before them, the Empire didn’t see the little bug-eyed murder-bears as a threat, and they paid the price. Of course, in this allegory, that makes the Empire the United States of America. When Return of the Jedi premiered, only eight years had passed since the war’s end. It should be no surprise that the Ewoks caused an uproar, but that outrage had nothing to do with Lucas’s political statements.
Star Wars fanboys of a certain age absolutely hated the Ewoks, thinking they were just some cutesy nonsense meant to sell toys and appeal to kids. This was also the most common criticism of the prequels, but much more intense. The backlash actually inspired Lucas to retire and eventually sell his company to Disney. Because of the hate these films received from fans, specifically older ones, it’s possible that we missed a message just as important as the ones found in the original trilogy. The prequel’s complex commentary on politics was lost amid the criticism of disappointed fans who found the films lacking in what made them love the original films.
People grew up spawning entire universes of stories from those 30 seconds or so where old Ben Kenobi, played by Alec Guinness, describes how the Jedi were “the guardians of peace and justice” in the galaxy for time immemorial. It would have been nearly impossible for Lucas to deliver on the fans’ expectations, but from his depiction of the Jedi it’s clear he didn’t even try. During an appearance on the UK’s The Big Breakfast in 1999, Lucas described the Jedi not as an order of devout warrior-monk heroes, but like “the mob,” essentially intimidating citizens of the Republic to get their way. It wasn’t that Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin, or the other Jedi weren’t “good,” but rather that the order itself wasn’t what it should be.
Dark-side religiosity aside, much of what Palpatine does to subvert and weaken the Republic is reflected in real-world leaders, including Trump. There is an investigation into his campaign, and while he didn’t issue “Order 66” on the FBI, he fired the man leading that investigation in order to shut it down. Similarly, President Trump has only addressed his specific campaign agenda through executive orders. When he tries to move things through the legislature and they fail, he reverts to his old campaign arguments of “the Establishment” trying to prevent him from doing the people’s business. He’s simply a less loquacious Chancellor Palpatine.
The prequels are often seen as the part of the Star Wars universe to be ignored or mocked, the stain on George Lucas’s legacy. However, these films tell a story that is just as important for kids to take to heart as the earlier films that inspired them. In fact, this story might even be more important because in its highest ambitions it strives to prevent a return of the real-world atrocities that inspired the Empire in the first place.
Joshua M. Patton is the best star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend.