The Art of the Political Insult

Mountrushmore

 

In her recent column, Gail Collins reminds us that Trump’s crude political discourse is not unprecedented in this hard-to-govern, rambunctious nation that consists essentially of cast-offs from other continents:

People, [she writes] this is the point at which I’m supposed to make you feel better by pointing to all the terrible presidential campaigns of the past. I could remind you that the first Republican presidential candidate, John Charles Frémont, was accused of being a cannibal. Or that poor Grover Cleveland was tortured by newspaper stories claiming he was “a boon companion to Buffalo harlots, a drunken, fighting, roistering roué.”

What great phrasing — “a boon companion to Buffalo harlots, a drunken, fighting, roistering roué” — it rolls off your tongue like an ee cummings poem, topping even the great HL Mencken’s depiction of Cleveland: He sailed through American history like a steel ship loaded with monoliths of granite.

Slightly less musical but imagistically more powerful is Samantha Bee’s (or one of her writer’s) description of Donald Trump as “a tangerine tinted trash can fire.”

Or dig this dig from a true master, James Wolcott:

An orange Elvis squirted from a can of Cheez Whiz, the Trump of The Apprentice bent the distortion field of Reality TV until it fit him like a girdle.

As far as exuberant insulting prose goes, it’s difficult to top Cintra Wilson:

If Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana were “candles in the wind,” and Anna Nicole Smith was a bonfire in a hailstorm, and Lindsay Lohan is an electric toaster thrown intentionally into a Jacuzzi, then Paris Hilton s a strobe light in an epilepsy ward.

Compare those well-crafted quips to Trump’s insults culled from The Hill:

“[George W] Bush didn’t have the IQ [to be president].”

On Lindsay Graham: A total lightweight. In the private sector, he couldn’t get a job. Believe me. Couldn’t get a job. He couldn’t do what you people did. You’re retired as hell and rich. He wouldn’t be rich; he’d be poor.”

On former Texas Governor Rick Perry: He should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate.”

“I hear that sleepy eyes [Chuck Todd] will be fired like a dog from ratings starved Meet The Press?

It reminds me of that scene from Cyrano de Bergerac when the Viscount De Valvert insults Cyrano by saying, “ir, your nose is. . .hmm. . .it is. . .very big!”

And Cyrano responds

Ah no! young blade! That was a trifle short!

You might have said at least a hundred things

By varying the tone. . .like this, . .

Truculent: ‘When you smoke your pipe. . .[I] suppose

That the tobacco-smoke spouts from your nose–

Do not the neighbors, as the fumes rise higher,

Cry terror-struck: “The chimney is afire”?’

So come on, Donald, you can do better. Hire someone like PJ O’Rourke to come up with something a bit more barbed like “George W Bush has more belly button lint than brains” or “Rick Perry makes George from Of Mice and Men sound like Cicero” or “Hillary is as crooked as Lombard Street.”

We, as a nation, deserve better.

Trump’s Bombastic Trumpeting

221686821_b05eb71b96_oIn the last couple of days, the insult “un-American” has been slung at Donald Trump as if xenophobia is atypical in the home of the brave and land of the free, as if historically, the sons and daughters of the nation’s original Anglican immigrants rolled out red carpets of welcome for those hordes of Irish and Italian immigrants who poured into Manhattan back in the day, as if FDR didn’t round up law-abiding Japanese-American citizens and lock them away in internment camps during WW2, as if the Supreme Court didn’t uphold that action as constitutional.   Although I’m opening myself up to the charge of being one of those “hate-America-first” lefties, we should not forget that genocide and enslavement play important roles in the founding of our country. In fact, you could argue – and virtually all the neighbors who flocked to see the Donald at the Yorktown Monday would agree – it’s I-and-I who is un-American for bringing up those offputting historical blights.

In the current Harpers, Lewis H Lapham, this century’s HL Mencken, casts his satirical eye at the United States’ democratic traditions and the current presidential campaign. I encourage you to read the entire piece [found here], but in the tradition of Harper’s itself, I thought I’d share a few of its highlights, to sort of excerpt the article, and then to end with some personal observations on the Donald.

Lewis H Lapham

Lewis H Lapham

Lapham begins the piece by claiming that “throughout most of its history” the US has preferred “concentrated wealth” to “democracy.” He cites Plato’s contention in The Republic that “’noble falsehood’ is the stuff that binds a society together in self-preserving myth.” The myth in this case is that the god who created men “mixed gold into some of them” and that these men “are adequately equipped to rule, because they are the most valuable.” Lapham suggests that the Founding Fathers essentially agreed with Socrates’ elitist vision of leadership and so created “a government in which a privileged few would arrange the distribution of law and property to and for the less fortunate many, an enlightened oligarchy that would nurture both the private and the public good, accommodating both the motions of the heart and the movements of a market.”

These leaders, to quote Madison, possessed the “most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.” “But not enough virtue and wisdom,” Lapham reminds us, “to free the republic of its slaves.” That task was left to men neither enlightened nor rich giving their ‘last full measure of devotion’ to consecrate ‘the proposition that all men are created equal.” In other words, common men with rifles who fought fiercely at places like Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania accomplished the task of emancipation.

Lapham credits Lincoln with the establishment of the myth of equality but laments  that the myth has lost its power. He argues that now “presidential-election campaigns [are] designed to be seen, not heard, the viewers invited to understand government as representative in the theatrical, not the constitutional, sense of the word.” He goes on to say that “this simplified concept of politics installed Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1981 to represent the country’s preferred image of itself, uproot the democratic style of thought and feeling that underwrote Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, restore America to its rightful place where “someone can always get rich.”

Let’s just say that Lapham is immune to the Gipper’s charms.

The evening [of the welcoming ceremony produced by Frank Sinatra at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, on the night before Reagan’s inauguration] set the tone of the incoming Republican political agenda, promising a happy return to an imaginary American past — to the amber waves of grain from sea to shining sea, the home on the range made safe from Apaches by John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach. The great leap backward was billed as a bright new morning in an America once again cowboy-hatted and standing tall, risen from the ashes of defeat in Vietnam, cleansed of its Watergate impurities, outspending the Russians on weapons of mass destruction. During the whole of his eight years in office Reagan was near perfect in his lines — “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” — sure of hitting his marks on Omaha and Malibu Beach, snapping a sunny salute to a Girl Scout cookie or a nuclear submarine. The president maybe hadn’t read Plato in the ancient Greek, but myth was his métier, and he had the script by heart. Facts didn’t matter because, as he was apt to say, “facts are stupid things.” What mattered was the warmth of Reagan’s bandleader smile, his golden album of red, white, and blue sentiment instilling consumer confidence in the virtuous virtual reality of an America that wasn’t there. The television cameras loved him; so did the voters. To this day he remains up there with Abraham Lincoln in the annual polls asking who was America’s greatest president.

Nor does Lapham have a “man-crush” on Bill Clinton:

The cameras also loved Bill Clinton, who modeled his presidency on The Oprah Winfrey Show rebooted to star himself as both bighearted celebrity host and shamefaced celebrity guest, reaching out at the top of the hour for more love and more cheeseburgers, after the commercial break dealing bravely with the paternity of the stains on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. He was admired not only for the ease with which he told smiling and welcome lies but also for his capacity to bear insult and humiliation with the imperturbable calm of a piñata spilling forth presidential largesse as corporate subsidy and tabloid scandal.

Nowadays, “The proposition that all men are created equal no longer wins the hearts and minds of America’s downwardly mobile working classes — employed and unemployed, lower, lower-middle, middle, upper-middle, adjunct, and retired.”

Political campaigns distinguish voters “not by the fact of being American but by the ancillary characteristics that reduce them to a commodity: gun-carrying American, female American, white American, gay American, African American, Hispanic American, Native American, swing-state American, Christian American, alienated American. The subordination of the noun to the adjective makes a mockery of the democratic premise and fosters the bitter separation of private goods, not the binding together of a public good.” A handful of billionaires possess incredible leverage in determining who becomes the nominee, billionaires “said to have earmarked $900 million to be scattered like baubles from a Mardi Gras parade float among Republican hopefuls able to quote from the Constitution as well as from the Bible.”

But, hold on, wait a minute. Enter Donald Trump. He don’t need their filthy lucre:

Trump established the bona fides of his claim to the White House on the simple but all-encompassing and imperishable truth that he was really, really rich, unbought and therefore unbossed, so magnificently rich that he was free to say whatever it came into his head to say, to do whatever it took to root out the corruption and stupidity in Washington, clean up the mess in the Middle East, or wherever else in the world ungrateful foreigners were neglecting their duty to do the bidding of the United States of America, the greatest show on earth, which deserved the helping hand of Trump, the greatest name on earth, to make it worthy of his signature men’s colognes (Empire and Success) and set it free to fulfill the destiny emblazoned on his baseball cap: make America great again

Well, if Ronald Reagan’s and Bill Clinton’s prodigious charm can’t penetrate the force field Lewis H Lapham’s cynicism, how could a Vaudevillian vulgarian like Trump have a chance:

The man [is] a preposterous self-promoting clown, a vulgar lout, an unscripted canary flown from its gilded cage, a braggart in boorish violation of the political-correctness codes, referring to Mexicans (some Mexicans, not all Mexicans) as “criminals” and “rapists,” questioning John McCain’s credentials as a war hero (“I like people who weren’t captured”), telling Megyn Kelly on Fox News that if from time to time he had been heard to describe women he didn’t like as “dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” he meant “only Rosie O’Donnell.”

Lapham ends on this melancholy note:

The electorate over the past forty years has been taught to believe that the future can be bought instead of made, and the active presence of the citizen has given way to the passive absence of the consumer. A debased electorate asks of their rulers what the rich ask of their servants — comfort us, tell us what to do. The wish to be cared for replaces the will to act, the spirit of freedom trumped by the faith invested in a dear leader. The camera doesn’t lend itself to democracy, but if it’s blind to muddy boots on common ground, it gazes adoringly at polished boots mounted on horseback.

Lapham wrote this piece before the Paris and San Bernardino attacks and so wasn’t privy to Trump’s incendiary ideas of banning Muslims, statements that aid ISIS in propagandizing the USA as a land of Islam-loathing infidels. Some commentators have jacked up his demagogic profile from being a latter-day self-promoting PT Barnum to a Joe McCarthy and now, most recently, to a Mussolini or Hitler.

trumo as barnumObviously, Trump is an incredibly needy, insecure man who has somehow confused the ability to amass money with wisdom. Back in the summer I found his gargantuan self-aggrandizement amusing –  like a blaring trumpeter who’s so bad, it’s funny.  It’s gone on long enough.  It has become tiresome — if not dangerous.

In fact, I’m getting a little bit scared – not that he’ll be elected President but that his super nationalistic rantings have generated such a following. Check out the screaming woman in the picture below. Is she a protestor who has somehow made her way to the front of the crowd or someone bellowing to keep the damn Muslims out?  She certainly doesn’t look like a likely Trump supporter.  Nor does the Whitman-looking fellow three people back on the left.  Is this a picture of un-American Americans or merely a portrait of likely South Carolina primary voters?

 

08-trump-yorktown3.w529.h352

 

Embracing Curmudgeonry

HL Mencken

HL Mencken

There’s nothing that irritates me more as a teacher than a 9th grader offering unsolicited pedagogical advice. For example, today a freshman suggested that I not make my vocabulary quizzes cumulative, or if I felt I had to dip into previous lessons, I only go back one or two. “That way,” she said, “we’d do better on the quizzes.”

In situations like this, rather than seguing into a “best practices” mode and patiently explaining that the goal is for students to remember the word for life, not merely for a week, and that resurrecting words from earlier lists should prompt them to review words from previous lessons, I reminded the student that she merely has an 8th grade education and therefore is about as qualified to offer pedagogical advice to a 30-year veteran teacher as I am to command a nuclear submarine.

Another student countered, “But that’s her opinion, and she should be able to state it freely.”

“Well,” I said, “I think that given that I just responded to it suggests that she stated it freely. My point is merely that in the area of teaching vocabulary Euthanasia [(cough) not her real name] doesn’t know the findings of the latest studies on cognitive retention or really understands that ensuring students make high marks on vocabulary quizzes isn’t my primary goal.[1] Therefore, her offering advice in an area in which she doesn’t possess expertise might be seen by some – I-and-I for example – as arrogant.

Of course, everyone who can read and write thinks he’s capable of teaching English. Believe me, as a former Department Chair, I’ve read many a cover letter from literature lovers in mid-life funks wanting to switch careers from real estate sales to teaching Hemingway.

However, despite HL Mencken’s contention that “[t]he worst idiots, even among pedagogues, are the teachers of English,” I submit it ain’t as easy as it looks in the movies, and it gets old getting professional and philosophical advice from novices.

Perhaps next time, I’ll ask the irritant to diagram on the board one of Faulkner’s sentences from Absalom, Absalom .

Or, better yet, just go into the best practices mode.