The ransom of the Commander in Chief

GUEST BLOG BY DAN CAMPION

Reprinted from the Iowa Press-Citizen, March 31, 2017

As a citizen of the only U.S. UNESCO City of Literature, I regard it a civic duty to find literary strategies for coping with Donald Trump’s presidency.

What “master plot,” or, better, “archetypal” single work, would best help to understand and therapeutically respond to Trump and company?

Was Trump Krishna, Bannon his Govinda? Or the other way around? Was Melania’s Trump Tower Penelope’s Ithaca? Was Donald emulating Aristophanes’ “Cloudcuckooland”? I feared I might be forcing the issue.

But in the spirit of patriotism, I kept at it.

Yukio Mishima seemed right-wing enough but was too consistent. Ngugi wa Thiong’o explored nationalism but with intelligence.

Dostoevsky? Too subtle. Tolstoy? Too grand.

Perhaps Juvenal’s third Satire, about greedy leaders “who make black white at their pleasure, / Finding it easy to grab contracts,” who “used to be hornblowers, working the carneys”? Too depressing. “Gargantua and Pantagruel”? But no, Rabelais’ heroes read books. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? But Trump and Bannon: Which is the Don, which the Panza?

Falstaff and the Merry Wives are too witty. Molière’s doctor is too insouciant. Pope’s dunces and Swift’s Gulliver and Fielding’s Jonathan Wild? Too British.

Trump and his minions are fountainheads of clichés, so I consulted “Bouvard and Pécuchet.” But Flaubert’s paragons of the received opinion, the unexamined life, and the shopworn phrase are too polite. (Alfred Jarry’s Ubu the King is actually too profane.)

Even in the magic realism and surreal insights of Borges, Asturias and Márquez I could not find the key that could unlock the secret anodyne for Trump.

Perhaps “Der Struwwelpeter” (Shockheaded Peter) or a cautionary tale set down by the Brothers Grimm? Too scary.

Neither was Trump a Judge Pyncheon, Ahab, Pap Finn, Flem Snopes, nor Lemuel Pitkin. The combined genius of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Faulkner and Nathanael West could not conjure up Trump. Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald? I tried. Trump is no Nick Adams or J. Ward Moorehouse or Jay Gatsby (or Tom Buchanan).

I struggled, like many in our City of Literature, to find a key in Ellison, Vonnegut, Pynchon, De Vries and in “1984,” “Brave New World” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Milo Minderbinder in “Catch-22” prospers; no therapy to be derived there.

I thought “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” written in the wake of Flannery O’Connor’s study at the Writers’ Workshop, might provide critical clues, but I was mistaken. Even for Trump, the Misfit’s snarl that life holds “no pleasure but meanness” doesn’t parse.

But then, as literary insight will, the template appeared suddenly.

It was a Trump Tantrum that did it: a tweetstorm of signal intensity, shocking in content, irritating in the extreme, infantile in execution, effective in practice. It came straight from the pages of O. Henry.

Trump is the very incarnation of Johnny Dorset, son of Ebenezer Dorset. Johnny is a 10-year-old with “hair the colour of the cover of the magazine you buy at the news-stand when you want to catch a train.” He is a little boy so spoiled, selfish and irksome that he drives Sam and Bill, his hapless kidnappers, to distraction with his incessant chatter, preposterous demands and physical mischief.

Johnny anoints himself “Red Chief, the terror of the plains” and rides roughshod over his captors with stones and slingshot and peremptory requests like “I want some more gravy” and energetic boasting like “My father has lots of money.”

The key I sought in world literature sat, like Poe’s purloined letter, right there in O. Henry’s 1910 short story “The Ransom of Red Chief” all along. Finding it has wonderfully calmed my nerves.

As you remember, Sam and Bill, rather than collect any ransom, end up paying Ebenezer to take Johnny back.

It will not be a surprise O. Henry ending when the Samanthas and Bills who voted Trump in vote him out, or better and more promptly still, implore a congressional committee to usher him out.

Dan Campion is a resident of Iowa City.

1 thought on “The ransom of the Commander in Chief”

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