May 24, 2016

Trump and the art of the braggart

'Trump’s MO is much the same as Clay’s: constant declamation of his own worth (“I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created…. I’m so good looking…. Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich…”) interrupted by restatements of the incompetence of his enemy. A man who has rendered himself an orange-hued cartoon for the purposes of reality TV, Trump has a master caricaturist’s instinct for turning his opponents, too, into cartoons (“low energy [Bush], Little Marco…. Lyin' Ted….”) so he can then kapow! them. His fame may have been incubated on reality TV and in the Twittersphere but his persona — big, brash, boastful — goes all the way back to the Wild West, and the tall-talking show offs, of somewhat fuzzy historical provenance, who spun the unfunny facts of frontier existence into comic fictions around the camp fire and bar room stove — Paul Bunyan, the lumberjack said to have created the Great Lakes to water his ox Babe, trained ants to do logging work and eat 50 pancakes in one minute; Sam Hyde (“the Munchausen of the red man”) who claimed to have killed a whale by plugging its spout hole; or Davy Crockett, the pioneer from Tennessee who told Congress in 1857, “I can walk like an ox, run like a fox, swim like an eel yell like an Indian, fight like a devil and spout like an earthquake, make love like a mad bull!” This is how the West was won: with boasting. “American braggadocio is more than usually distasteful” wrote novelist Anthony Trollope, rather missing the point. The Old World virtues of reserve and modesty were only possible in a heavily stratified society in which everyone knew his place and nobody pointed it out. Such tall frontier talk not only tamed fear and made friends of strangers, it established your bona fides in a fluid, fast-moving society that had largely cut loose from such social indices as class, family and birthplace. You were who you said you were, with all the elasticity of spirit and potential for charlatanism that implied.   “It is good to be shifty in a new country" says Joseph Hooper’s  Simon Suggs, one of many confidence tricksters who prowl the pages of 19th century American literature, suckering their unsuspecting compatriots — Melville’s The Lightning Rod Man, the Duke and the King in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Joseph Baldwin’s Ovid Bolus, a “natural liar” who lies “with a relish from the delight in invention”. In each case, these unscrupulous Fagins draw from the reader a certain amount of awe and respect together with a suspicion that the boundless self-assertion is barely a breath away from what makes America great. Edgar Allen Poe called his era “the epoch of the hoax.”' — from my column for 1843

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