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JK Rowling Warned Us
Characters are oftentimes not just imagined and dramatized versions of people on a page, but rather they are metaphors for a significant societal issue or fear. Both Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Thomas C. Foster have explained the idea that “beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends [are] symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervade a society and shape its collective behavior,” in their respective works (Cohen). Therefore, upon closer examination, Professor Dolores Umbridge from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series proves to be more than the pink toad we all love to hate. Her character represents one of our deepest cultural fears, one that has been realized over the course of this past year: that our democratic systems are not faultless; but rather they are vulnerable to being corrupted by narcissistic individuals propelled into power by prejudice and ignorance. Democracies are not brought down by violent revolutions and coup d’etats, but “by elected leaders who subvert the very process that brought them to power” (Levitsky and Ziblatt). Professor Umbridge and President Trump threaten democratic societies by perpetuating bigotry, limiting an individual’s rights under the law, censoring the public. In short, their monstrosity is in their dictatorial actions and behaviors.
THE CASE FOR HOGWARTS AS A LOOSE METAPHOR FOR A DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT
In order to analyze President Trump as a threat to America’s democracy through Professor Umbridge as a threat to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the larger wizarding community, you have to look at Hogwarts as a kind of microcosm of a free, democratic society. In their essay titled, “Harry Potter and the Crisis of Democracy,” Margaret and Murray Young point out that Rowling never declared that “the Muggle world of the Potterverse is or isn’t ‘our’ world, however we can gather that it is a world not dissimilar to our own given the behavior and assumptions of the Muggles we meet in the course of the books” (Young and Young). In this essay, I take their idea a step further to say that while Rowling has not explicitly stated that the Potterverse intentionally or unintentionally represents a modern democracy, like any piece of art, it can be interpreted and reviewed in the context of the modern world.
Like the United States government, Hogwarts is structured as a hierarchy with the Headmaster or Headmistress at the top. More important than their similarity in form, the United States and Hogwarts operate under the idea that they are, or more accurately that they once were sanctuaries for unprivileged, marginalized, or otherwise at risk groups. Think of how the first pilgrims crossed the Atlantic, not out of a lust for adventure, but to escape religious persecution and to create better lives for themselves in a largely unexplored realm brimming with opportunity, a place that they went as far as to call “the New World” (History Staff). Throughout history, people immigrated to this land to seek economic opportunities like the influx of Asian immigrants during the California Gold Rush, to escape poverty like the Irish after a missive famine in the mid-Nineteenth century, or to seek refuge from oppression and violence like the current middle eastern refugees. Furthermore, America was once famously known as a “melting pot” in the early twentieth century because of the intermarriage of western European ethnicities that contribute to a greater American culture.
However outdated and unrealistic this idea may be, it persists within our collective consciousness in textbooks and in various forms of media. For example, the most successful play on Broadway is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece Hamilton: An American Musical, a story about the legacy of an immigrant turned founding father by sheer force of will. So when Harry Potter escapes the literal cupboard in which he was living in to attend Hogwarts where he finds himself with more money than he knows what to do with, a stable place to call home, freedom from his aunt and uncle’s tyranny, and seemingly endless opportunities to showcase his abilities, I cannot ignore how this transition reflects the aspirations of the aforementioned immigrants.
Harry is not the only one to benefit under Headmaster Albus Dumbledore; Argus Filch, Remus Lupin, Rubeus Hagrid, and Hermione Granger are offered sanctuary at Hogwarts despite being ostracized by the rest of society for being different. Filch is a squib, a person born from magical lineage but without magical ability, Lupin is a werewolf which has been perceived as an allusion to those who suffer with a contagious illness such as AIDs, Hagrid is half-giant half-wizard, and Hermione is a Muggle-born often called a “mudblood,” a derogatory slur to describe witches and wizards born with no wizarding relatives. All of these characters represent the idea of “the other,” a group of people who are seen an alien because they differ from the norm. Outside of the Hogwarts walls and, unfortunately, sometimes within them as well, these individuals are discriminated against because they are different. Despite these stigmas, Dumbledore accepts them and establishes Hogwarts as a place where even those who are different are welcome. Therefore, while Rowling does not explicitly say that Hogwarts represents an open, democratic society? nor is our current democratic society a perfect and untarnished version of the ideas expressed above? the correlations between American history and Harry Potter’s life at Hogwarts as well as the inclusive community that Albus Dumbledore creates allow the two to be compared. Through their reprehensible actions, Professor Umbridge and President Trump attack not only democratic societies, but their two major tenants: freedom and safety? the very things that people throughout centuries of history have been striving towards without having to compromise one for the other.
UNQUALIFIED FOR THE JOB
Simply put, Professor Umbridge and President Trump begin to threaten democratic societies in the very fact that they were chosen for the job despite being supremely unqualified. With only her skills gained from her lowly positions within the Ministry of Magic, Professor Umbridge has little to offer as a professor and even less as Headmistress of Hogwarts. The students noted her incompetency from the first time they encountered her at Hogwarts too. After interrupting Professor Dumbledore at the Welcome Dinner, the “students were smirking; this woman obviously did not know how things were done at Hogwarts” (Rowling 211). Similarly, President Trump is unlike any of the 44 men to serve before him in that he won the presidency without ever holding a political office nor serving in the military (Crouch). Even Ronald Reagan, the president that many people cite as a Washington outsider, was the governor of California for eight years before holding the executive office. Like an average employer uses an applicant’s resume, the electorate uses a candidate’s experience in the political and military realms as a barometer for their ability to handle the pressures and demands of the presidency.
But if this election had been like those to come before it, President Trump might be the one hosting the “New Celebrity Apprentice,” not Arnold Schwarzenegger. President Trump appealed to some Americans for similar reasons as Reagan appealed to the American electorate of the 1980s; Trump is a Washington outsider who “might also look like a pretty good start to those who think of the Establishment as a problem and elected Trump as its destroyer” (Vick). In a tweet on October 18 of last year, he even referenced the same adage as Reagan when he tweeted, “I will Make Our Government Honest Again -- believe me. But first, I’m going to have to #DrainTheSwamp in DC” (Trump 18 Oct 2016 8:33 a.m.). The phrase “drain the swamp” refers to cleansing the government of corruption and other governmental waste upon which Trump’s supporters tend to blame their discontent. However, his tweet, like many others, was just empty words according to Conor Friedersdorf’s article for the Washington Post titled “Trump Has Filled, Not Drained, the Swamp” in which he outlines evidence of President Trump’s back door deals and corruptions. More importantly, though his supporters also neglect the inefficiency that often comes with lack of experience that slows down the democratic process. His experiential shortcomings could be overlooked by the American people if he had a staff of skilled veterans to negotiate on Capitol Hill and within government agencies, but he does not. Without either a capable politician at the helm or a seasoned team behind him, President Trump has struggled and will continue to struggle to represent the United States abroad and enact policies which reflect the the people’s wishes.
As if their complete lack of qualifications was not enough, the way in which Professor Umbridge and President Trump gained notoriety and influence makes them even more unfit for their positions. They rose to power as authoritarian leaders often do: by using marginalized groups as scapegoats for broader fears such as terrorism. Professor Umbridge and President Trump relied on bigoted rhetoric to propel them to power and later to keep their power. To begin, Professor Umbridge relied on bigotry to rise to prominence in the Ministry of Magic and at Hogwarts. Her violent objections to half-breeds was, as Rowling described it, “a phobia of beings that are not quite, or wholly, human” meaning that she despises people who are half-human and half-creature in a way similar to how Voldemort despises muggle-borns (“Dolores”). Both evil individuals seek to purify the wizarding world of these ‘corrupted’ beings because their differences threaten their idea of perfection. Throughout her time at the Ministry, she drafted anti-werewolf legislation that made it almost impossible for Lupin to get a job and campaigned to capture and tag merpeople as if they were mindless fish (Rowling 302). Her hostility towards characters such Lupin and mermaids “reveal a terror of the unknown and the wild” (“Dolores”). Similarly, part of this bigotry comes from a fear of things that she can’t control Therefore, when the opportunity to spy on Professor Dumbledore for the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, arose, she took it? not just to advance past her Ministry senior under-secretary position, but to discredit Professor Dumbledore. Furthermore, because Professor Dumbledore was so accepting of the very people that Professor Umbridge feared, she saw the mission as a way to validate her prejudices and force her cruelty onto the liberal education system that, in her mind, had never given her the leadership opportunities she felt that she deserved.
With her position at Hogwarts secure, she immediately set to work on her prejudiced mission. In her first lesson to Potter’s fifth year Defense Against the Dark Arts Class she said, “‘You have been exposed to some very irresponsible wizards in this class… not to mention,’ she gave a nasty little laugh, ‘extremely dangerous half-breeds,’” referring, in a not so veiled manor, to her contempt for Lupin, despite the fact that he was the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher that they would ever have throughout the entire series (Rowling 243). Later, she creates the Inquisitorial Squad, a name which curiously resembles that of the Spanish Inquisition, whose task was to identify and persecute heretics in Fifteenth century Spain. Similarly, the Inquisitorial Squad was a “select group of students who [were] supportive of the Ministry of Magic [and] hand-picked by Professor Umbridge” with the power to deduct points from each Hogwarts house, thus undermining the established prefect system (Rowling 626). One member of the group, Draco Malfoy, even uses his newfound power to deduct points from Hermione Granger simply because she is a “mudblood,” a slur for a witch or wizard born from non-magical parents (Rowling 626). Because Professor Umbridge is an outspoken puritarian, Malfoy feels more secure in spouting the hateful slur. While, Malfoy never shied away from expressing his bigoted opinions, he had never had them validated so clearly by someone in power.
A similar thing happens later in Professor Umbridge’s career. While she was taken away by centaurs at the end of the fifth book, Umbridge returned to the Ministry under Rufus Scrimgeour and gained more influence when Scrimgeour was succeeded by the puppet Minister Pius Thicknesse and the the Ministry became over-run by death-eaters at the height of Voldemort’s return. After being deemed and approved of by senior death-eaters, Professor Umbridge was annointed Head of the Muggle-born Registration Commission, “a kangaroo court that imprisoned all Muggle-borns on the basis that they had ‘stolen’ their wands and their magic;” some of these wrongly imprisoned witches and wizards died in Azkaban (“Dolores”). With the grace of a radical and violent government, Professor Umbridge uses her own intolerance to not only ruin lives that she deemed lesser, but to end them as well, something she had never before had the power to do. Professor Umbridge’s actions before, during, and after her short-lived reign at Hogwarts demonstrates the power and influence that prejudice can have on a democratic society.
President Trump’s tweets are infamous throughout the world for their lack of professionalism, vulgarity, and divisiveness similar to Umbridge’s offensive language. Despite being riddled with grammatical and factual errors, his inflammatory rhetoric is continuously well received by his constituency and vehemently condemned by his opposition. Some of his more famously ruthless tweets include tweets in which he proves that he is transphobic, sexist, islamaphobic, and racist. Some argue that because President Trump does not always write the tweets, there is no way to know that he believes these horrible things brandished with his twitter handle. However, these people ignore the fact that these ghost writers are simply replicating his voice and opinions, not projecting their own separate opinions. More important than who wrote them though, is how undeniably offensive and bigoted the President is. In fewer than 280 characters, he manages to accuse Former President Obama of lying about his citizenship, suggest a coverup of said illegitimate citizenship, and disregard a man’s death and his loved ones’ grief (Trump 12 Dec. 2013. 1:32 p.m.). Worse still, he flippantly paints all Muslims entering the United States as illegal and accused Syrian refugees fleeing from a bloody civil war of being terrorists (Trump 22 Mar. 2016, 7:59 p.m. & Trump 17 Nov. 2015, 5:54 a.m.).
Professor Umbridge’s actions on her quest for power and President Trump’s tweets are not just frivolous vanity exercises, but rather their radical rhetoric threatens citizens’ and students’ safety; Thus, hypocritically threatening Muslims’ safety by pretending that they’re threatening his, just as Professor Umbridge persecuted half-humans in the name of protecting wizards and Hogwarts’s high standards. Their popularized “political incorrectness” has allowed “backstage, or overt, racist sentiments to become steadily normalized as logical in the public frontstage of political discourse and social media” (Shafer). In other words, as people like Professor Umbridge and President Trump accumulate power and relentlessly spout prejudiced rhetoric, they make people feel like it is okay to do so too. Afterall, throughout history, our society has praised leaders such as presidents and headmasters as models of moral behavior, if not moral authorities. If these immoral moral authorities continue to normalize “‘politically incorrect’ ideology and language both on and offline, [it] can lead to increased racial violence” and perpetuate disparate political rhetoric (Shafer). After a quick google search, you find that Shafer’s fears have been realized as reports of increased bias and hate crimes following President Trump’s election has been released. These reports demonstrate how extreme rhetoric is not only hurtful, but directly threatens the safety and freedoms promised under an American democracy.
MISINFORMATION CAMPAIGNS AND CENSORSHIP
The most powerful tools in their divisive arsenals, however, were their misinformation campaigns that delegitimized their strongest competitor’s voice and terrorized the public. Professor Umbridge and the Ministry take steps to discredit Dumbledore throughout the novel mainly through word of mouth and the Daily Prophet despite the fact that Dumbledore had never wanted the position. The Minister called Mr. Weasley “an idiot to run around with Dumbledore, that Dumbledore was heading for trouble and Dad was going to go down with him” (Rowling 72). Later, the Daily Prophet called Dumbledore “eccentric” and that he “is no longer up to the task of managing the prestigious school of Hogwarts” (Rowling 308). These claims forwarded the Minister’s agenda to discredit Dumbledore to protect his position and power within the wizarding community. Similarly, President Trump led a slanderous and ultimately hypocritical campaign against Hillary Clinton in which he repeatedly referenced her husband’s sexual misconduct, said misogynistic comments, and dragged her email investigation through the press in order to discredit the lifetime of experience that he lacked (Apuzzo and Haberman & Chozick and Parker). In a New York Times article, Roger J. Stone, one of President Trump’s confidants of many years said, “He’s going to have to deconstruct Hillary Clinton if he’s going to run against her… He can’t let her be the august secretary of state and former senator” explaining the motive behind his radical language (Chozick and Parker). Even 297 days after winning the presidential election, President Trump continued to mention Clinton’s email investigation on twitter and refer to her as “Crooked Hillary.” Both Professor Umbridge and President Trump used the media to discredit their imagined and actual opponents.
While society is just as fascinated as they are infuriated by these negative campaigns, this onslaught of hyperbolized and polarized rhetoric does more than just damage their opponents’ reputations; They hurt society more than they educate the electorate on the candidates views and plans for their term in office. In fact, when President Trump was elected, the people knew very little about his plans for the country. What the months leading up to the election told the world was that the modern political climate praised toeing the party line over anything else and Trump did just that. And then later contradicted himself. An article published by the Washington Post provided a step-by-step evaluation of how President Trump’s opinion on Former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program changed radically from 2015 to roughly two years later (Blake). While he seemed emphatic upon terminating the program the instant he gained office, in January of 2017, he said that the phase-out would be gradual and that he had a “big heart,” starkly contrasting his previous stance (Blake). This endless back and forth is not only something that even Professor Umbridge never did, but it treats the election process, the hallmark of democracies across the globe, like an MMA prize fight where the winner is simply the last one standing rather than as the chance to educate the voters. Therefore, their distrust in democratic methods grows as their faith that the chosen candidate will represent their ideals dwindles.
Furthermore, Professor Umbridge and President Trump use censorship to further their agendas, attacking a constitutional right, an important facet of a democracy, and the greatest tool of the electoral process. Al Gore said that “a free press is supposed to function as our democracy’s immune system against such gross errors of fact and understanding” (Gore). In other words, when an elected official says something that is deemed untrue by a trustworthy news organization, they work to inform the public not only to not take the official’s words at face value, but to think twice about reelecting them. Thus, news broadcasts and prints help produce and sustain democracies.
Then the question becomes not why does the press matter, but why and when should they be trusted? Both Professor Umbridge and President Trump would argue that only the right ones? the ones that support their agenda are trustworthy. For example, Professor Umbridge and the Ministry use the main news source The Daily Prophet to slander Professor Dumbledore, ostracize Harry Potter, and deny Voldemort’s return. They even go as far as to deny Dumbledore’s assurances that Voldemort has returned by labeling them as “rumor mongering,” leaving the wizarding community largely unaware of real danger (Rowling 94). Worse still, when a strange but genuine magazine The Quibbler publishes an interview with Harry Potter about Voldemort’s return, she bans the publication from Hogwarts. Similarly, President Trump has barred certain press organizations from attending non televised briefings, banned reporters from attending his rallied on his presidential campaign, and has called the press “dishonest,” “the enemy of the American people,” and, most famously, “fake” (Farhi). Fake news, the label that Trump uses often to describe unfavorable media, is a kind of yellow journalism created with intention to deliver deliberate misinformation to mislead the public. By labeling largely truthful articles as fake news, President Trump tries to promote the idea that facts are “indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion” (Stephens). Furthermore, Stephens argues that when you consume a news publication, there is a certain level of truth that you can divest into the piece and “you do so with the assurance that immense reportorial and editorial report has been expended to ensure that what you read is factual. Not probably factual. Not partially factual. Not alternatively factual. I mean fundamentally, comprehensively and exclusively factual. And therefore trustworthy” (Stephens). So when even the concept of something as concrete and trustworthy as a fact, is no longer seen as reliable, a culture of distrust and even fear pervades within a democratic society.
Ultimately through their lack of qualifications for the job, bigoted campaigns, misinformation campaigns, and attempts to censor the press created anxious, tense, and fearful environments. While President Trump blamed this anxious atmosphere on outside forces such as terrorism and government corruption rather than his own actions, Professor Umbridge denied the existence of any threats at all and deliberately lied to the public. Despite this difference, both ignore their culpability in causing the public to feel threatened. Because of these increased levels of anxiety about a threatening world, people turn to someone says that they alone can keep them safe (Hochschild and Schlozman). “Political anxiety shapes how individual citizens interact with politics by affecting how they search for information, who (sic) they trust in times of crises, and their political attitudes” (Hochschild and Schlozman). Sure enough, following President Trump’s victory, many citizens responded with either relief or more often with fear and uncertainty. In an article in Nation, Karl Vick reported that “In an American Psychological Association (APA) poll released on Feb. 15, 6 in 10 Americans call the current political environment a source of ‘significant stress’ for them” (Vick). In the same article Vick quotes a psychotherapist characterizes the current political climate as having “a constant ‘hum’ of anxiety” in which many of her clients express fear over “what’s coming next” following the election (Vick). Professor Umbridge and President Trump exploited and intensified this fear to propel themselves to power.
Throughout the duration of this paper, I avoided describing Professor Umbridge and President Trump as ‘leaders’ because this brand of leadership by intimidation and fear is not leadership at all, but rather it is demagoguery. Gore described leadership as “inspiring [the people] to manage through [their] fears. Demagoguery means exploiting [their] fears for political gain” (Gore). Professor Umbridge and President Trump represent our culture’s fear of returning to the way of living that our founders were trying to escape: the oppressed existence under a dictator. This fate is achievable only after dismantling our democratic systems from within by letting an unqualified power hungry individual gain power through means of bigoted rhetoric and illegitimate processes. Once in power, they limiting an individual's rights under the law and censoring the public. All of these result from and contribute to a great sense of cultural anxiety and unease which threaten the written rule of law, the electoral process, and the atmosphere of democratic societies. Ultimately, ending this attack on the defining aspect of our nation can only be achieved by exercising our constitutional rights to the fullest extent under the law including organizing, protesting, and resisting unjust practices. In other words, the only way to take the system back is through the very laws that they used against us.