Monday, April 02, 2018

The Daniels and Donald Trumpster

At the close of the short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benet, the Devil (identified throughout only as a "stranger" who calls himself Scratch), having been defeated by the great legislator and orator, offers to read Daniel Webster's fortune. It is, of course, one last attempt to make mischief before departing the field:
     "The future's not as you think it," he said. "It's dark. You have a great ambition, Mr. Webster."
     "I have," said Dan'l firmly, for everybody knew he wanted to be President.
     "It seems almost within your grasp," said the stranger, "but you will not attain it. Lesser men will be made President and you will be passed over."
      "And, if I am, I'll still be Daniel Webster," said Dan'l.

 There is much in the current Stormy Daniels Affair (other than the phonic affinity rooted in the name "Daniel") that resonates with Benet's story. The figures in each case are shuffled in relation to one-another in complex ways that make the derivation of perfect analogies intractable. But both tales concern lawyers, and court battles, and the regretted sale of something that an individual hopes to retain or redeem.

There are strong parallels between Benet's Dan'l Webster and our own Donald Trump. Both are ambitious, belligerent, and vain of their public reputation. Both are men of appetites. Both love to hear themselves talk. Both have a folksy touch and can move crowds with their oratory.

The differences are, of course, considerable. Webster takes on his case against the Devil on behalf of a neighbor, the New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone. Trump has entered the legal arena to defend himself, though against what is not yet clear. Trump's most serious legal jeopardy derives from the possibility that the $130,000 paid for Stormy Daniels' silence might be construed as an illegal campaign contribution. But the facts of the case cast doubt on that motive. The payoff to Daniels was made after the Access Hollywood tape had broken, thus it is unlikely that Trump paid off Daniels to aid his chances at the presidency. How could the news that he had slept with a porn star have done more damage to his perceived worthiness for office than his open admissions of sexual assault on a married woman?

No, the threat that Ms. Daniels (or Ms. Clifford) had posed to Trump at that point could not have been to his election, but to his brand. He feared, to borrow Benet's words, that in the wake of the Daniels revelation he would not be "Donald Trump". It would be touching to think that Trump acted out of concern for his marriage, but his history would suggest otherwise. Rather, it is much more likely that Stormy Daniels has something to reveal about Trump (his habits, his physique) that he feels would damage his image. If we ever find out what that is, it will be chiefly interesting for one reason: we will know what Trump cares about more than being president. One more gauge of his one-dimensionality will be made public.

Whatever that is, we can be sure of one thing: it is at the very apex of Trump's list of priorities. In this respect Trump and Daniel Webster part ways. Like Trump, Benet's Dan'il Webster cared about his persona more than he cared about the presidency, but he cared about something else even more:

     "[The] last great speech you make will turn many of your own against you," said the stranger. "They will call you Ichabod; they will call you by other names. Even in New England some will say you have turned your coat and sold your country, and their voices will be loud against you till you die."
      "So it is an honest speech, it does not matter what men say," said Dan'l Webster. Then he looked at the stranger and their glances locked. "One question," he said. "I have fought for the Union all my life. Will I see that fight won against those who would tear it apart?"
     "Not while you live," said the stranger, grimly, "but it will be won. And after you are dead, there are thousands who will fight for your cause, because of words that you spoke."
     "Why, then, you long-barreled, slab-sided, lantern-jawed, fortune-telling note shaver!" said Dan'l Webster, with a great roar of laughter, "be off with you to your own place before I put my mark on you! For, by the thirteen original colonies, I'd go to the Pit itself to save the Union!"

    Contrast Webster's avowed preference for an "honest speech" that serves the Union against Trump's behavior. The most recent example is Trump's claim that undocumented immigrants are pouring across the southern border to take advantage of DACA, a divisive lie so grotesque that Benet's Devil would blanch at it, much less his Daniel Webster. But this whopper of a lie is only one in a long litany stretching back to the election, the campaign, and decades of public life beforehand. If there is one point that can serve as a pole star in navigating Donald Trump it is this: he cares about nothing more than the preservation and inflation of his own image.

In the final analysis, the Affair Daniels reveals more about us, the American electorate, than it does about Donald Trump or any other of its individual characters. At the climax of Benet's story, Daniel Webster realizes that he himself is the intended victim of the Devil, that Scratch has come for Webster's soul instead of (or along with) that of Jabez Stone. The trial has been rigged, and the demonic jury before which Webster has been arguing is anticipating the moment when Webster will let loose with rage and profanity, thus damning himself:

     He read it in the glitter of their eyes and in the way the stranger hid his mouth with one hand. And if he fought them with their own weapons, he'd fall into their power; he knew that, though he couldn't have told you how. It was his own anger and horror that burned in their eyes; and he'd have to wipe that out or the case was lost. He stood there for a moment, his black eyes burning like anthracite. And then he began to speak.
      He started off in a low voice, though you could hear every word. They say he could call on the harps of the blessed when he chose. And this was just as simple and easy as a man could talk. But he didn't start out by condemning or reviling. He was talking about the things that make a country a country, and a man a man.
       And he began with the simple things that everybody's known and felt—the freshness of a fine morning when you're young, and the taste of food when you're hungry, and the new day that's every day when you're a child. He took them up and he turned them in his hands. They were good things for any man. But without freedom, they sickened. And when he talked of those enslaved, and the sorrows of slavery, his voice got like a big bell. He talked of the early days of America and the men who had made those days. It wasn't a spread-eagle speech, but he made you see it. He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.

  In the end Webster's oratory saves the day. The jury, made of villains from America's past, is so moved by Webster's words that they find in favor of the defendant, declaring, "[E]ven the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster."
    The story of Donald Trump's election unfolded along structurally similar lines. The deck was stacked against him. The party machines, the pundits, and the polls all predicted his defeat. But he talked to us. He talked to us about how Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and about how Islam hates us, and about how Mexican migrants are rapists and thieves, and about how women who have abortions should be punished, about how journalists are evil, etc. etc. And in the end we decided that we should salute the eloquence of Donald Trump.
   Whatever traits the characters of Donald Trump and Dan'il Webster might share, in the final analysis the difference is stark. There has been a lot of pearl-clutching and hand-wringing about the Stormy Daniels case, but can anyone really be surprised? Everyone, both those who supported Donald Trump and those who opposed him, knew he was capable of the behavior that Stormy Daniels has brought to light. Even more than that, all of us could see clearly (except perhaps those who were impenetrably daft) that Donald Trump cares about nothing as much as he cares about his own image. Where Benet's venerable American myth (like so many others) celebrates the virtue of an individual who places Union before self, we have rewarded the ambition of a man who told us time and again that he would place self before Union every day of the week and twice on Sunday. What conclusion is there to reach, if we believe Stephen Vincent Benet, except that the voters of the present have less sense than the damned of the past?

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