Of Frogs and Lions
In a very old play called The Frogs, the protagonists (who find themselves in Hades) are treated to a poetic contest between the great Greek tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides.
It is the older poet Aeschylus, superannuated hero of the war that made Athens great, who wins the contest. He does so with a line about the demagogue Alcibiades, the exiled Wunderkind who led the city into the campaign that sealed her doom.
Aeschylus declaims of this “brilliant man, enthusiastic, great general, helped us enormously but then he goes and defects to the other side, to the Spartans!” in the following one-liner. “It’s a better idea not to rear a lion in a city –but if you do, you better obey his every whim.”
This line, alongside a few others about animals of different kinds, has been running through my head over the last few weeks, every time I have heard leading figures in the Republican Party come out “hard” against Donald Trump.
For come out hard against Trump they have, in what looks less like the 11th hour than five minutes to midnight, in terms of Trump’s likely success in becoming the Republican Presidential candidate in 2016.
“Here’s what I know, Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud, his promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,“ said Mitt Romney, backed by the ageing eminence of Senator John McCain.
“He’s trying to do to the American voter what he did to the people who signed up to his [university],” rejoined “establishment-backed senator” Marco Rubio.
“He’s making promises he has no intention of keeping. It’s not just $35,000 that they lose. It’s our country that’s at stake here.”
Yet for Mr Trump, who might be happy to be compared to Alcibiades, this Tuesday gone was indeed “Super Tuesday”. The controversial outsider won Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, Missouri, and the Marianas.
This secures him 612 delegates: still fewer than half of the 1,237 up for grabs to secure the Republican nomination. But not by that much, as Maxwell Smart might have put it.
Some polls suggest that, in a two-horse race (apologies), it is Mr Trump who would defeat likely Democrat Candidate Hilary Clinton, thereby becoming the next US President. If the American economy slips between now and election day, American history suggests that such a prospect becomes very real indeed.
Whether it is better for the Republicans, or for the Americans, to obey Trump’s every whim, we all may soon have little choice.
Perhaps the best character in George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a donkey, Benjamin.
Benjamin is a dour figure. When the animals rise up against the farm’s tyrannical human owners, he alone amongst all the creatures refuses to get too excited about things.
Benjamin, our narrator tells us, “was the oldest animal on the farm and the worst tempered. He seldom talked, and when he did, it was usually to make some cynical remark."
Benjamin’s most famous, cynical mantra reminds me of the novelist Milan Kundera’s famous line that the struggle against tyrannical power is “the battle of memory against forgetting.”
Asked why he is so politically disillusioned, Benjamin replies that “donkeys live a long time. None of you has ever seen a dead donkey.”
Benjamin is right. Not just about donkeys’ longevity, but to maintain a caution about the new animal proprietors of the establishment. “All animals are equal,” the brilliant PR coup of the pigs soon explains to the animals, placing the writing on the wall: “but some are more equal than others.”
By the end of the story, as readers will know, the pigs are dressing, talking, and acting just as their human predecessors had. They are mistreating their non-pig animal “comrades” just as the human farmers did.
In the most affecting scene of the book, Benjamin’s close friend, the draft horse Boxer, embodying the farm’s honest workers, is sent by the new regime to the knackery.
When he reads the Knackery Company’s name on the side of the truck that the other animals can’t decipher, it is the one time we see Benjamin raging.
What might this sage Donkey Benjamin say today, of the GOP establishment suddenly crying “Trump!”, as if no one could have seen something like the man and the phenomenon coming?
Trump is, indeed, not a child of the Washington establishment. He is a demagogue, a good deal of whose popular appeal comes from his swaggering “no nonsense” rhetoric, talking and taking ordinary Americans’ truth to power.
He is like Clive Palmer over here, with somewhat less girth and somewhat more of a constituency than the presently-struggling Queensland entrepreneur-populist.
But, Benjamin might recall, a good deal of President George W. Bush’s appeal as was came from presenting himself as an ordinary red-blooded American from the heartland and the bible belt—not a sophisticated Washington insider.
Trump plays to the fears and prejudices of ordinary Americans, waxing tough about illegal immigrants and stoking the fires of Islamophobia with talk of heightened surveillance, or even a database on Moslems in the US, and restrictions on Moslems entering America.
Yet all the world knows that the Republicans have long been the more “Hawkish” Party in terms of thinking about America’s place in the world, at the same time stressing its beleaguered, misunderstood status as the world’s only superpower. “They hate our freedom.”
Many in the world will recall that George W. Bush had a 39% increase from 51% to 90% following the attacks on September 11. They will remember that National Security—complete with a new “Homeland Security Advisory System” of color-coded “terrorist alert” warnings—became the principal source of legitimacy for the Bush administration.
They will also recall the Islamophobia that raged throughout the nation during this time. They will remember Mr Bush’s dire bon mots about “smoking guns” that could turn out to be “mushroom clouds” to summon the dogs of war to Baghdad, despite (what became clear) little credible evidence of WMD there, and none concerning Iraq’s involvement in the 911 attacks.
By late November 2001, Benjamin might remind us, more than 700 Moslems and Arabs were preventatively detained and held incommunicado, as the Nation struggled to come to terms with the catastrophe, and “Operation Enduring Freedom” commenced in Afghanistan.
Trump more recently has talked of targeted assassinations, and even putting economic pressure on China to do something about getting North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, to “disappear”.
Benjamin would shake his head, the way he did. But he would also remember that under the Republicans sous Bush, the US began programs of “extraordinary rendition”, whisking foreigners off foreign streets to a variety of military facilities around the globe, many for “enhanced interrogation”.
He would also, for donkeys have good memories and can read, note that the Obama Administration has authorized the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to use drones to “take out” targets in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan based on their intelligence “signatures,” legible only to the executive branch.
Donald Trump has said outrageous things about the need to torture military detainees in the context of the struggle against militant extremism.
“Would I approve waterboarding?”, Trump asked his followers last November: “You bet your ass I would. In a heartbeat. I would approve more than that. It works.”
Rising to the crowd’s response, Mr Trump then added “… and if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us”.
Benjamin would remind us that Mr Trump is not striking out in an unprecedented direction, when it comes to licensing cruel and inhumane treatment of enemy detainees, although there is little historical evidence that “it works” to do anything but vamp up hatred and justify the next rounds of “blowback”.
Our donkey would remind us that torture was not simply refined to a point of art by most of the most despotic regimes in ancient and modern history. It was also quickly implemented by the Republican administration in response to the 11 September 2001 events.
Benjamin would comment wryly that, if the concern is with a candidate whose wealth was almost buying him political legitimacy, perhaps something ought to have done long ago to prevent the republic becoming what one wit has called “the best democracy that money can buy.”
“Napoleon is always right.” That was the slogan the aforementioned, honest but innocent horse Boxer would piously repeat in Animal Farm, as “Napoleon” and his friends redoubled his ”productivity" by working him near to death, before sending his weakened mortal remains (at a profit) to make glue.
A recent poll by political scientists of Trump’s constituency, and Republican voters more widely underscored that:
Fifty-one percent of Republican voters strongly favored building a wall along the Mexican border, 57% strongly favored deporting illegal immigrants, and 37% strongly favored a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Fully 28% of Republican voters strongly favored all three of these proposals. And after last Tuesday, Mr Trump has 612 of the GOP’s delegates.
The other animal story readers might be recalling in all of this is the story of the little boy who cried “wolf.”
Initially, several times, he lied. From memory, he seemed to get a kick out of watching the town people panicking to protect their flocks.
But then a real wolf appeared. The boy cried “wolf!” No one believed him any more. The sheep got eaten.
So it goes, Kurt Vonnegut might have said.
The Republicans’ horror that they have bred a Trump, if not a Lion, is not quite like this fable. For they never cried “Trump!”, with impossible prescience, or more simply “wolf!,” when any or all of the troubling precedents Trump is playing out were set in chain under the stewardship of the Grand Old Party over the last few decades.
They have only now begun to cry “wolf!”, as the recently impossible has become imminently inevitable. A thousand critical voices had been crying the warnings. But these voices were not from the GOP. And they were shouted down or drowned out amidst the din of real and culture war, or calls to rally around the flag, right or wrong.
What, one last time, would Benjamin say of all this?
Benjamin would shake his head in that way of his, I suppose, and tell us that he had seen it before. For donkeys live a very long time.
He would underline that Republican worries about Trump’s shameless plays to popular prejudices can look back for precedents to the deliberate choice made, some decades ago, by neoconservative voices to save the “stupid Party” to try to recruit a “base” from amongst the lower classes by placing divisive “culture wars”—not divisive economic struggles—at the front of their banner. If you breed a lion …
Our donkey might well, I think, assure us that getting your supporters to make a pledge with right hand to vote for you is not yet the same thing as the kind of fascist salutes required of subjects in those benighted states. Mr Trump’s glowing tan is not quite brown, although the political temperature is getting warmer.
The republic may not be quite ready for the knackery, Benjamin might say. And (although exhortation was not his thing) he might exhort the honest denizens of the farm to dig in their heals to prevent it being sent off to make glue, even at five minutes to midnight.
Whether and how this can now be done, certainly for the Republican Party, I wonder whether he would know how to say.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor