To Be Coarse, But Compelling

Tea Partiers profess an affinity with this nation’s founders -- plain-speaking, unapologetic, and rugged sons of liberty. Does the Tea Partiers’ apparent delight in the crude bleacher-bum, WWE-like shouting from Donald Trump channel the best conservative firebrands who have been literate and civil, without conceding an inch? Or instead honor also-ran populist pyrotechnic motor-mouths in the best tradition of George Wallace?

Thomas Paine, perhaps the most passionate of the 1776 patriots, printing Common Sense six months before The Declaration of Independence, maintained a certain direct but compelling style.  Paine’s message was sharp, and unbending, yet he took measure in avoiding ugly epithets; in it you won’t find incendiary ad hominems:

“Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.” 

Political discourse by its nature isn’t gentle. Nonetheless the art of the subtle dig, the casual oblique dismissive put-down, the insult masked in a courtesy was once a studied craft.  Perhaps those pioneering enlightenment writers, wary of being branded heretics by the Church, or traitors to the monarchy, learned to pen criticism in layered code to avoid the rack.

And Samuel Johnson, hardly a courtly fop in using words as weapons, worried about the longer term effect of corrosive speech:  

"When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency."

Lathe-turned cynical and coarse expressions are abundant in early storytellers such as Chaucer -- by the way, his Pardoner’s Tale is a perfect allusion to Barack Obama.  Chaucer’s Miller’s Prologue is far more bawdy than Donald Trump -- at least so far-- with a ten-syllable meter to boot;  if only The Donald could mimic Chaucer’s commanding lilt. Would Trump see himself as the Miller or the Reeve amongst their barbs and blows? Well that’s asking a lot. But couldn’t Trump have read at least a few opening lines of Ulysses instead of marginal utility curves at Wharton?

Perhaps Trump, despite injecting his left frontal lobe with Sunoco SS100 racing fuel, is merely following a long line of political flame-throwers. But such a waste of airtime, and opportunity flushed without a ring-necked vocabulary, having neither rhyme nor rhythm. If only the late Christopher Hitchens could be resurrected to sign on as Trump’s speech-writer.

Elizabethan playwrights first offered the most piquant platform where political roasting spun the turnstiles. Shakespeare’s insults were delicious, perhaps now either too dense or too explicit for 21st century know-nothing buttercups, whose teachers find Shakespeare daunting, and served with a trigger-warning.

Christopher Marlowe, perhaps the first of the transformative Anglo playwright wits whose transparent sarcasm offended the Mayor of London, was assassinated only a decade or so before Shakespeare and Ben Jonson dominated the scene with their erudite stagecraft.

Of course, short of assassination, victims of libelous accusations, and character slanders, usually replied with fistfights, and dueling pistols. Antebellum confrontations on the floor of the US House of Representatives and US Senate were paced in 1856 by the infamous walking stick beat down on Massachusetts’ Congressman Charles Sumner at the hands of South Carolinian Peter Brooks. Sumner’s relentless abject scorn and ridicule lanced against slavery defenders US Senators Stephen Douglas from Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina  -- calling Douglas a “noisome, squat and nameless animal”-- drew the vicious and near deadly response from Brooks, Butler’s cousin.

Anglo politicians in the 19th and 20th centuries have almost always outpaced Americans; Winston Churchill’s wit, and invective was nearly matchless. But like a sudden asteroid, Richard Nixon delivered a perfect put-down of Democrat rival Adlai Stevenson, who represented communist Alger Hiss in his criminal trial for treason, quipping: ” I suppose someone had to defend Alger Hiss, but you don’t have to elect him president.”

Even William F Buckley in 1968 could no longer contain his erudite restraint when provoked by Gore Vidal, in the most famous TV debate ever:  “Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

Look, Donald Trump is only saying what millions are thinking, or have already said at the local sports bar, American Legion Hall, the supermarket checkout line, little league game, Jiffy Lube waiting room, or hockey practice, without the benefit of a billionaire’s platform.  But as Richard Nixon might reprise, “You don’t have to elect him president.”

Regrettably we are now at the stage where decency, and civility are no longer implied prerequisites to be president. Barack Obama possessed none of it.  His first term was replete with vilifying, insulting, and demonizing everyone, be it bankers, Supreme Court judges, conservative politicians, right wing media, policemen, Christians, gun owners, and white people.  Yet he was reelected by a respectable margin. I suppose being an ass is the new normal.

Would Trump be any worse? Of course not, but don’t we deserve better? No, we deserve what we cultivate.  After all, so what if Trump is a ludicrous lowbrow?  He’s our ludicrous lowbrow.

Fed up Americans will cheer on a Trump agenda, like WWE fans who can’t get enough of the body blows and smack down verbal assaults by steroid-plumped imposters barely able to read a simpleton’s script. And after the choreographed cage-matches have ended, ring-masters close up the tent, and their accountants prepare the bank deposit slip for the day’s receipts, the gullible, and disaffected will return to their Thoreau-esque lives of quiet desperation. Nothing much will have changed.

Does it matter if Trump’s Obama-esque conceit and narcissism will leave him with no legislative allies, resorting to parrot the executive order governance by fiat, proving that “The Art of the Deal” is the art of the steal, wondering why he’s a lame duck within six months, awaiting impeachment?  No, none it matters for now.   At least Trump speaks for us, when no one else dares.