I recently read The Twelve Chairs, a novel written in the 1920’s by a pair of Soviet authors, Ilf and Petrov. It is a comedy, and a true delight; light-hearted, good-natured, nimble and sly. It is apparently still popular today. President Putin quoted from it in a recent press conference over there.
It features a character named Ostap Bender, who is described in the translation I have as “the smooth operator.” The notes indicate that the Russian words in question could also be translated more literally, however, as “the great manipulator” or even “the great combiner.” Bender is a con man with a heart of ice. He does whatever it takes to get whatever he wants, and he is good at it, too.
There are statues of this character in various places throughout Russia. One suspects that Russia’s various governments have always been more or less corrupt, so its citizens have always fended for themselves, and they have always admired those who do so successfully. Putin himself reminds me of Bender.
Donald Trump reminds me of literature, too; more specifically, he reminds me of a pair of characters who have always been one in my mind, because not much separates them. He reminds me of the Duke and the Dauphin, the traveling blowhards in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, who make their living by both entertaining and cheating people, and who ultimately kidnap and steal Huck’s friend, the runaway slave named Jim.
One suspects that America’s governments have always been more or less decent, so its citizens have always believed the best of everyone, and they are therefore easily duped.
Historically speaking, America’s leaders have tended to be aware of this. They have understood that ours is a fundamentally decent nation, that both requires and requites a certain amount of kindness from its leaders.
It took us two hundred years to get a president who instead took advantage of this fact; who sold us down the river for his own personal profit.
I pity the poor historian who tries to make sense of this development.
First, she’ll need to translate everything she reads into whatever language she is speaking: Mandarin, probably. That alone will be tough. Translations tend to work best with large blocks of text, where the sheer amount of verbiage makes the accuracy of any one word less important. It’s one thing to translate a novel, in other words. You can get the gist of it, even if you lose some of the flash. It’s another thing to translate a facebook posting, much less a twitter message, much less a meme. The flash is often all there is.
Second, she’ll need to put aside the truth of her own times. She’ll need to imagine a time when certain things were still possible; when the great cities of the East had not yet succumbed to the ocean, for instance, when people thought they might still make it; when American defeatist thinking was a conscious choice made by cowards, not something inevitable thrust upon a downtrodden land by the hand of fate itself.
Third, she’ll need to develop real sympathy for a foreign and ugly people. Time makes strangers of us all; the present has a way of annihilating the past; history is a story that people tell each other, different people tell different histories, and little seems real about any of it. She will have to look at scary, twisted, and leering faces, and understand that these faces weren’t born that way; that something made them that way, and none of it was preordained.
Fourth, she’ll have to put aside what she thinks she knows of human nature. For people to be influential, it stands to reason that they must have some sort of gift; for people to be highly influential, it stands to reason that they must be greatly gifted. Who will ever be able to understand, once he is dead and gone, once he is buried, once a giant fence with spikes has been built around his grave, to save it from the ministrations of every local dog in need of relief, how truly tawdry, was President Donald Trump?
It beggars belief that the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower remains, even after his definitive defeat, the party of a sideshow barker. Its leaders long accepted him because they liked his judges, they liked his tax policies, and they liked how loyal his followers were. Over and again, they claimed to ignore his words and look only at his actions. Yet words only matter as the harbingers of action; and Donald Trump’s words led to violence.
Future historians may think he was a genius. We know the truth, though. He wasn’t big. We were just small.
Michael Davidow is a lawyer in Nashua. He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project. His most recent one is The Book of Order. They are available on Amazon.
InDepthNH.org takes no position on politics. The opinions in columns and op-eds pieces belong to the author.