By David Hoppe
Even now I am tempted. Part of me is pulled in his direction, like a compass arrow toward true north. There is no end of material. No end to the outrage. Writing about him is like striking two stones together and getting not just sparks, but central heating.
Trump is too easy.
I know, I know: the man is a walking catastrophe. The presidency, the government, the constitution, even the culture — all are in jeopardy. Americans have, as long as I can remember, taken a certain pride in not being susceptible to the gaffes and debacles besetting other, seemingly backward countries, with their strongmen, coups, crony economies, and ruling families. We watched as they tore themselves apart and put things back together in chronic cycles playing simultaneously as arbitrary and inevitable. At the end of the evening news, we imagined ourselves secure, believing that whatever plagued those pretenders to sovereignty could never infect us. We were immune.
Now we have to admit: Maybe not.
It turns out we have a president who sees his office in a way no previous president has dared. Perhaps that’s because Trump (as we have found he is wont to do) doesn’t take words seriously. Here are the words he dutifully repeated at his inauguration: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Seems straightforward. Unless, that is, you’ve never really thought to read the Constitution any more closely than, say, your cable-TV contract. Which, famously, is Trump’s style, his modus operandi. He thought nothing of saying those words. They were, he was almost certainly assured, just part of the deal — a kind of hazing to be endured before a night of partying.
It wasn’t until he was actually president that Trump discovered how little he and the Constitution have in common. As he said after clocking his first 100 days in office, America’s government is “a very rough system, an archaic system,” adding, “it’s a really bad thing for the country.”
And here we thought we were something special.
The trouble is that unlike other presidents — those who bothered reading the job description — the current model doesn’t like how Constitutional stuff, like checks and balances, the separation of powers, and that thing about how no one, not even POTUS, is above the law, keeps getting in his way.
He thought being president meant being the Boss. That he and the government would be indivisible, with profits and favors for all who made nice. No wonder he found the presidents who preceded him such fools and nincompoops. He confused the political complexities baked into our three-headed form of government with lack of personal awesomeness.
But, like I said, making this about Trump is too easy.
It needs, instead, to be about how we got here. To be about why a pre-adolescent catchphrase, the kind of slogan you might expect to find emblazoned on a plastic bag of white bread, “Make America Great Again,” found legs.
This is hard, I know, because it means history — and history, the story of how and why things happen, has never been an American strong point. Oh, we like the costumes and tales of derring-do; how this one overcame tremendous odds, or that one sacrificed herself so that others might be better off. Stories, in other words, with inspiring morals, also known as myths.
Creating a national mythology was arguably what made Hollywood’s movie business such a smashing success. Back in the days when studios like MGM and Warner Brothers churned out hundreds of “pictures” a year, the need for stories was unrelenting. Screenwriters mined history books for narratives about the trials and tribulations of famous people, from Marco Polo to Marie Antoinette.
These films featured not mere actors, but stars, like Gary Cooper and Norma Shearer. The stars dressed in period clothes, but were instantly recognizable as the modern role models audiences knew and loved. The evocation of the worlds their characters inhabited, whether castles, or frontier saloons, the streets of Paris, or the Northwest Passage, were mainly decorative, as scrubbed and dusted as hospital waiting rooms.
These movies, along with the living gods they featured, made history appear timeless — mythological. As dissolute newsman Edmund O’Brien tells Jimmy Stewart’s misbegotten hero in John Ford’s Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
This seemed harmless, maybe even useful. Myth-movies helped Americans weather the Great Depression. And after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Hollywood produced one story after another showing Americans, many of whom had previously resisted the idea of fighting overseas, that World War II was a mythic struggle between good and evil. Academics called these movies propaganda. But most people — including the wide-eyed Baby Boomers who saw these movies on TV after the war was won —found them inspirational.
America was in an unfamiliar place after the war. A country that, for all its size, had never fancied itself a world power vaulted past its European cousins to become captain of “the Free World.” Slavery and the slaughter of indigenous peoples, isolationism, Jim Crow, public lynchings, prohibition, the Scopes monkey trial, child labor, Robber Barons and strike breaking — all the historical baggage that made our society more weird than truly principled, was, with the help of our commercially abundant mythmaking, made to seem like the natural order of things.
Mythology, of course, is important. Myths provide the cultural ballast that makes society sustainable. But confusing mythology with what has actually happened makes progress almost impossible.
Take, for example, the political utopians known as Republicans. They believe, in spite of a Mt. Rushmore of evidence to the contrary, that this country depends upon the largesse of its richest citizens. This myth flies in the face of history on several counts; I will mention just a few.
First, it is generally agreed that America has never seen a more prosperous time than the roughly 25 years following World War II. The economy boomed and the middle class expanded to include a majority of American families.
What today’s Republicans willfully forget is that this wide-spread prosperity was made possible by government policies, most notably the G.I. Bill, which made free college, and low-interest home and business loans available to most returning veterans. They hate remembering that it was during a Republican administration — Eisenhower’s — that the personal income tax rate for the wealthiest Americans was over 90 percent, but that some people still got rich.
Republicans are famous for their advocacy of small government and the moral revulsion they express at the idea of national debt. Yet history dating back at least to the 1980’s proves these attitudes are based more on mythology than practical behavior.
Ronald Reagan, a Republican patron saint, cut taxes but ballooned the federal deficit through spending on national defense. George W. Bush followed suit — and wound up presiding over a Great Recession.
Donald Trump is now engaged in a similar shell game: slashing taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals, while claiming these policies will somehow lift sinking middle-class boats. What history, rather than the mythology of billionaire-worship, tells us is that the budget deficit created by Trump’s tax cuts is the first part of an historically familiar Republican two-step: Having engorged the federal deficit, that engorgement will serve as pretext for cuts to popular, middle-class sustaining, programs like Social Security and Medicare.
But why, one asks, should Republican politicians have it in for the very people — middle-class suburbanites, mostly — who keep them in power? And what keeps these good folks voting against their own self-interest?
Preferring American mythology to American history has elevated stories of personal achievement at the expense of understanding how the world actually works. For some returning World War II veterans, the G.I. Bill was proof positive they had served a government that had their best interests at heart. But many others bought into a mythology in which they served a country where whatever benefits they received were somehow owed them thanks to their personal sacrifice.
But those benefits were the result of policymaking. These policies were intended to strengthen society by deliberately nurturing a materially better life for a majority of Americans. Policies like the G.I. Bill were so straight forward in their design, so unobtrusive in their implementation, a large number of their beneficiaries came eventually to conflate these virtues with the personal intiatives they helped make possible.
Call this the myth of middle-class individualism. Republicans are enthralled by this myth. And, so long as a sufficient number of folks insist on voting for the utopian notion that showering the rich with advantages will somehow make it more likely to become rich oneself, Republicans will continue spinning and maybe even believing this yarn.
Which is why raging over Donald Trump, although justified, is insufficient. For while his faults may be too egregious to ignore, only one makes him truly dangerous: he is an enemy of our history. This history can be difficult to digest at times. It is far more complex and troubling than mythology allows. But facing it, owning it and even defending it is the only way to get free of the real threat Trump poses.
David Hoppe is an award-winning writer and editor based in Indiana. A collection of his columns written for alternative weekly NUVO, Personal Indianapolis, is published by Hawthorne Books.