At some point shortly before this year's presidential election, a tweet popped up from Bat Labels, a terrific account that does little more than highlight the superfluous signage that peppers the classic, campy Batman television series.
During the second season of that series, it turns out, Batman ran for mayor of Gotham City over the course of two episodes, "Hizzoner the Penguin" and "Dizonner the Penguin." When I reached out to Aaron Reynolds, the guy behind @BatLabels, it turned out that the parallels to this year's election were hard to miss.
It starts at the most elementary level. In the episodes, which aired precisely 50 years ago during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, there was none of the "dark knight" nonsense where Batman was an outside force working to save Gotham. This was well after that: Batman can walk into city hall for a confab with Mayor Linseed with no one blinking an eye. Batman was Gotham City's establishment, through and through. The Penguin, on the other hand, was an outsider with an iffy reputation.
Nor did the establishment really think he had a shot. "I don't think there's any danger of the Penguin being elected, Robin," Batman tells his sidekick once he learns that the Penguin plans to challenge Linseed. "The people of Gotham City are not as simple-minded as he might think." Sound familiar?
Before you begin drafting that email about how we're comparing the president-elect to a cartoon supervillain — which I guess we technically are — know that by the end of the two episodes the roles will have reversed. As it turns out, Batman's flip dismissal of the Penguin's chances is premature.
Pollsters from Gallus, Rooper and Trendek are summoned to give a sense of the state of the race. Bad news from the outset: Penguin shows surprising strength.
"Gallus, Rooper, Trendek. They're never wrong!," Mayor Linseed laments. "It's hopeless. I can't possibly beat the Penguin. He'll use every underhanded political trick in the book." Linseed, defeated, drops out. Batman steps in.
We cut to Penguin's campaign headquarters, where an ebullient crowd is making its way inside. Over the course of the episodes, the campaign headquarters will host a motley gang of supporters: thugs in black shirts, a belly dancer, 1940s-style gangsters, a bunch of old women sipping champagne and, for one peppy scene, Paul Revere and the Raiders. HQ is always bustling, always energetic.
The Penguin explained his campaign strategy.
Double the assessments. Triple the size of the posters. Quadruple the number of campaign buttons. We'll give the voters of this city the kind of campaign that they want. Plenty of girls and bands and slogans and lots of hoopla. But remember! No politics! Issues confuse people. A big smile, a hearty handshake, a catchy campaign song. That's the way to win an election.
("I don't think the people care" about detailed policy platforms, Republican Donald Trump said on the campaign trail in August 2015. "I think they trust me. I think they know I'm going to make good deals for them." Many of his followers, of course, championed the intangible benefits of lawn signs and other tools for candidate visibility.)
At Batman headquarters, a much sleepier scene unfolds in a nearly empty room as Batman explains his thinking on the campaign while he and Robin make signs.
ROBIN: "Don't you think we should make them a little bigger, Batman?"
BATMAN: "I think these are quite large enough, Robin. After all, the voters are interested in issues, not in window-dressing."
ROBIN: "Sure, Batman, but a little showmanship wouldn't hurt us any."
BATMAN: "No, Robin, I want to conduct a campaign that deals with the issues. I'm convinced that the American electorate is too mature to be taken in by cheap vaudeville trickery. After all, if our national leaders were elected on the basis of tricky slogans, brass bands and pretty girls, our country would be in a terrible mess, wouldn't it?"
Batman's campaign never seems to really capture the imagination of the people. Penguin's rallies are thrilling and fun. (Paul Revere and the Raiders!) Batman's are dull and ponderous. At one point, the police chief falls asleep during a Batman speech.
The caped campaigner's refusal to kiss some babies (it's not hygienic) costs him several votes. Penguin seizes the opportunity.
BABY'S FATHER: "A politician that won't kiss babies? That's outrageous!"
BATMAN: "I admit it's rather unusual, but..."
BABY'S FATHER: "It's more than unusual, it's downright suspicious!"
THE PENGUIN (SUDDENLY APPEARING): "It's more than suspicious, it's downright criminal!"
Lock him up!
Batman complains about the Penguin's comment, but there's nothing he can do. "Politics is wonderful!" the Penguin says. "I can use all of my lowest, slurpiest tricks, but now they're legal! Oh, I should have been a politician years ago."
Everything's coming up Penguin. At his headquarters, three supporters sing his campaign song to the tune of "Yankee Doodle": "Vote for Penguin, yes sirree / He's the bird for you and me / Clean up Gotham, 1-2-3 / So cast your vote for Pengy!"
The candidate explains his platform: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Penguin Party stands for: mother (applause), country (applause), the flag (applause)..." Those old women drinking champagne approve: "It's such a pleasure to hear plain, honest talk from a candidate instead of the usual political mumbo-jumbo!"
Things look grim. "That blasted bird has put on a fantastic campaign," the police chief says.
Batman is optimistic, though. "The Penguin depends on the cynicism of the people, while I depend on their good judgment," he assures his team. A line right out of the Democratic National Convention. "After all, there's more to Penguin's caper than just running for mayor. If he wins, he'll bleed Gotham City dry."
Some traditional Batman hijinks ensue. Penguin's goons capture Batman and put him in an elaborate death trap that the superhero easily escapes. There's a brief debate — during which the Penguin cleverly notes that he's always in the paper surrounded by cops while Batman's always surrounded by criminals — and then a very stupid extended fight at the convention center.
Since the goons at the convention center causing all the trouble are his employees, the Penguin takes a moment to speak with the press mid-fight. "I'm very busy right now, as you can see, bringing law and order back to Gotham City!" he says.
Soon enough, voting begins. And this is where the roles flip. Penguin, cocky, has the polls in his favor. Batman and his crew are glum.
MAYOR: "The latest polls show 65 percent Penguin, 35 percent Batman."
CHIEF: "That's gratitude for you, after all the Batman has done for our citizens."
BATMAN: "I think you underestimate the good citizens of Gotham City, chief."
COMMISSIONER: "But look at the poll, Batman!"
BATMAN: "Elections are not won by polls, commissioner. They're won by votes, at least in this country."
ROBIN: "Sixty-five percent is a big margin, Batman."
BATMAN: "I know it looks grim, Robin. But I wouldn't throw in the towel until the votes are counted."
As it turns out, the Penguin's confidence in the polls is misplaced. Batman is doing far better than expected. He turns to Gallus, Rooper and Trendek. "You three blowhards told me I couldn't lose. What's happening?" he asks.
"The X factor?" replies one. "Random sampling error?" says another. Penguin threatens to murder them — in a very 1966 television-friendly way — and then simply hangs them on hooks in his campaign office.
At Batman's headquarters, jubilation.
"You were the only one who really had faith in the voters, Batman!" Robin says.
"I never would have believed that the polls could be wrong!" the mayor adds.
"There've been other candidates who've trusted too much in the polls, Mayor Linseed," our hero replies, "and they've found out that it's the votes that count. Smart politicians trust the voters, not the polls. After all, if you can't trust the voters, who can you trust?"
No one, according to the Penguin. "Fraud!" he cries. "It's a fraud, I say! I demand a recount!" He kidnaps the vote-counters — but Batman, as always, stymies him. Eventually the Penguin is captured — packaged up neatly by one of those standard "campaign literature packager" machines.
The end result? Batman wins, quickly resigning and turning things back over to Linseed (which is an odd city government system, but whatever). The episode closes with Batman getting a phone call. It's a national political party wanting him to run for president! He declines.
The phone rings again. It's the other side making the same request.
"I'm flattered, gentlemen, but I thought your party had a candidate for 1968," Batman says, as the credits roll. The joke being, of course, that the second call was from the Democrats, whose incumbent president was, rightly, expected to run for reelection. But the show was prescient in that race, too. President Lyndon Johnson didn't run for reelection, in the face of collapsing support as the Vietnam quagmire worsened. Instead, Republican Richard Nixon advanced to the White House on a crime-fighting platform that itself sounded very much like the Penguin's.
Johnson should have just run and, if he won, turned things over to the mayor of the city after which Gotham was modeled, New York. The mayor at the time was a Republican, sure, but that's the final parallel. His name was John Lindsay.