What, one wonders, would Mark Twain make of Donald Trump? Twain was not known for political punditry, but late in his life he acquired a visceral aversion to President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the showy egoist of his era.
Indeed, the novelist labeled the Rough Rider “far and away the worst President we have ever had” and “the most formidable disaster that has befallen the country since the Civil War.”
Twain expressed his withering scorn strictly in private — in correspondence and in commentary that he would not allow to be published during his lifetime. While not forthright, this approach allowed him to speak his mind with searing intensity.
By 1907, the author and stage humorist was deeply pessimistic not just about the sitting president, but also his nation and humanity. He was not happy that America, once a colony, had joined the imperialist sweepstakes, with Roosevelt leading the charge.
He even feared that monarchy might reassert itself in the form of a strongman who would sweep we the people off our feet with patent but appealing nonsense. To add insult to ideological injury, Twain very nearly lost a bundle in the Panic of 1907, which the banker J.P. Morgan put a stop to — while Roosevelt claimed credit for the feat.
Twain conceded that most Americans did not agree with his view of Roosevelt: “[T]he vast mass of the nation loves him, is frantically fond of him, even idolizes him. This is the simple truth. It sounds like a libel upon the intelligence of the human race but it isn’t; there isn’t any way to libel the intelligence of the human race.”
It wasn’t only the president’s politics that agitated Twain. It was his style as well: for example, his penchant for frenetic self-aggrandizement. “He flies from one thing to another with incredible dispatch – throws a somersault and is straightaway back again where he was last week,” Twain wrote. “He will then throw some more somersaults and nobody can foretell where he is finally going to land after the series.”
In a satire of Roosevelt’s much ballyhooed bear hunt, titled “The Hunting of the Cow,” Twain commented on the president’s jubilation after dispatching his prey: “There it is—he hugged the guides after the kill. It is the President all over; he is still only fourteen years old after living half a century; he takes a boy’s delight in showing off; he is always hugging something or somebody —when there is a crowd around to see the hugging and envy the hugged.”
Twain did not simply judge Roosevelt from afar. The two bumped into one another on occasion, once when both were awarded honorary degrees from Yale University. Another time, at a small luncheon gathering, the president rambled on about his military service, according to Twain: “He was in a skirmish once at San Juan Hill, and he got so much moonshine glory out of it that he was never able to stop talking about it since … he dragged San Juan Hill in three or four times, in spite of attempts of the judicious to abolish the subject and introduce an interesting one in its place.”
Twain, himself a Republican, bemoaned 50 years of “constitutional monarchy, with the Republican party sitting on the throne.” Excepting Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, Americans had elected Republican presidents since 1861, and in 1909 William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, would begin his four-year reign.
That Roosevelt was a manic, egotistical, and sometimes impulsive leader is beyond question. Thankfully, he also had admirable traits that escaped Twain’s notice: he was a progressive who championed laws that helped middle and lower class Americans; he was an environmentalist and intellectually curious. He is widely regarded as one of America’s best presidents.
But what of a leader who is vainglorious and impetuous with few if any socially redeeming characteristics?
Twain would have seen right through Trump as if he were a screen door. Trump, after all, is a grownup version of the novelist’s masterful creation, albeit a distended and malevolent Tom Sawyer. When our contemporary con man is through with we the people, it will cost us more than an afternoon whitewashing someone else’s fence —and paying for the privilege.
Pudd’nhead Wilson, another of Twain’s characters, summed up modern political mores nicely, with this aphorism: “Tell the truth or trump —but get the trick.”
David Holahan is a freelance writer from East Haddam.