The candidacy of Donald Trump continues to mesmerise like a piece of moon rock. While op-ed writers reach for their historical precedents (Trump is like Berlusconi, or like Mussolini, or like a Latin American caudillo), Roy Wood junior, a correspondent for “The Daily Show”, recently nailed it: “Trump doesn’t belong in the White House,” he told host Trevor Noah, “[he] belongs in a rap video.” To prove it, Wood delivered a rap composed entirely of authentic Trumpisms, clipped straight from the news wires.
Fingers long and beautiful
Look at these hands
I win, I win, I always win
Some people would say I’m very, very, very intelligent
Check me out, Megyn Kelly she love me (love me!)
Check me out, illegals they love me (love me!)
What it do, these veterans love me
Protestors love me
Everybody love me (told ya!)
It was a terrific segment, underlining not just how neatly Trump fits into the history of braggadocious rap, but reminding us of the long history of American bragging and boosterism. This is, after all, the country that gave us Captain Ahab (“I’d strike the sun if it insulted me”), James Brown (“I wanna kiss myself!”) and the lyrical boasts of Muhammad Ali. “The order of the day was to bury all dread,” wrote Norman Mailer (no wallflower himself) of the self-exhortations of Ali before the George Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974. “Ali breathed forth a baleful self-confidence, monotonous in the extreme…Buried anxiety was transmuted into ego. The funk of terror was being compressed into psychic bricks.”
Talk about building a wall. Trump’s modus operandi is much the same: hyperbolic declamations 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’m very rich”) punctuated by sneers at his enemy’s incompetence. 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 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. Men like Paul Bunyan, the lumberjack who allegedly created the Great Lakes to water his ox Babe, trained ants to transport logs, and could eat fifty pancakes a minute; Sam Hyde (“the Münchausen 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 the English 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-evolving society that had largely cut loose from the traditional markers of class, family and birthplace. You were who you said you were, with all the 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 and revelling in their own invention. Herman Melville’s “Lightning-Rod Man”, the “Duke” and the “King” in Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, Joseph Baldwin’s Ovid Bolus: unscrupulous as they were, these characters displayed the kind of awe-inspiring gumption that oiled the wheels of of the republic. Edgar Allan Poe called his era “the epoch of the hoax”.
The truly American attitude, of course, is to suspect a hoax but still go along with it, just for the hell of it. “I might swallow the lie, or scoff at the face logic, but to respond in these ways is to be branded a boob or a cynic,” writes the academic John Bryant, capturing the mood of the 19th-century “American Renaissance” in his book, “Melville and Repose”. There is another valid response, says Bryant: to admire the sincerity of the con artist’s comic spirit. “I see that you are exaggerating but your lie demonstrates significant virtues – companionship, courage, humor, a desire to tease me out of anxiety.”
This is Trump’s appeal in a nutshell, for it resolves the seeming contradiction between assessments of his truthfulness – which polling suggests is quite low, even among his supporters – with his immense popularity. Trump fans may not always buy what he is saying but they do appreciate the gusto with which it is said. We find ourselves in the strange twilight of pseudo-belief – or “truthiness” to use satirist Stephen Colbert’s term – that underlies Area 51 conspiracy theorists, WrestleMania, birtherism and Fox News. “I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump wrote in his 1987 memoir, “The Art of the Deal”. “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.”
There was a fascinating interview on MSNBC the other day with a West Virginia miner offended by Hillary Clinton’s comments about the decline of the coal industry. He would be voting for Trump, he explained, because he promised to put the miners back to work. But was Clinton not being honest? asked the interviewer. Oh sure, agreed the man. That was why he would be voting for Trump. Some people prefer to be conned, if the con keeps the truth at bay.