Trump, Emerson and the American Strongman

Trump Strongman

Donald J. Trump finds himself the leader-in-waiting of the most powerful empire in the world. During his controversial campaign, Trump wore many faces, that of political outsider, unabashed braggart, artful dealmaker, the crazy uncle who doesn’t give a damn, fix-it-guy, and sometime patriot.  But Trump’s most effective role – the one that won him the presidency – is that of natural-born strong man.

Trump’s ascendancy and staying power in the presidential race surprised nearly everyone, but as early as 1860, one astute observer of American politics and culture foresaw the rise of a Trump-like candidacy. Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s celebrated nineteenth-century writer and orator from Concord, Massachusetts, viewed the strong man as representative of greatness in American politics and in culture at large. Emerson would have seen Trump as the latest and perhaps boldest rendition of the American political strong man, a character full of both great promise and immense danger to the American Republic. Emerson’s observations on the strong man are contained in his essay “Power,” which appeared in his collection of essays called “The Conduct of Life” (1860).

Emerson, who is often misremembered as merely a genteel fount of quotable essays and patriotic poems, was not averse to raw power and the rough-hewn men who exercised it.  He was quite intrigued and enthralled by strong men, those men who understand that they are “Causationists,” that nothing happens by luck but rather “by law.”  Strong men take responsibility for their actions and realize that when they act things happen.

Emerson said that strong men often find themselves exercising power over a clueless, compliant electorate. These voters have “no habit of self-reliance or original action.” Throughout history, Emerson saw “imbecility in the vast majority of men.”

In contrast to the majority of men, the strong man is healthy and vigorous.  “The first wealth is health. Sickness is poor-spirited, and cannot serve any one…But health or fulness (sic) answers its own ends, and has to spare, runs over, and inundates the neighborhoods and creeks of other men’s necessities.”  The strong man exudes vitality and raw power.

During his controversial presidential bid, Trump emphasized his power to destroy his enemies and to create alliances with other notable strongmen, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Trump drew attention to the size of his assets and his genitalia. He said nothing matters except “winning.” He rarely backed down from a position or statement, even from his most egregious and insensitive remarks against Hispanics, women and the disabled, which were widely denounced by the media.  In those rare occasions when Trump did back down, he came across as weak and indecisive.  Trump appeared strongest when he comported himself as towering over others.

Even when the strong man is a newcomer, such as Trump was to politics, he does not wait his turn or defer to others.  Emerson saw this as an essential character of the strong man.  “When a strange ox is driven into a pen or pasture where cattle are kept; there is at once a trial of strength between the best pair of horns and the new comer, and it is settled thenceforth which is the leader…The weaker party finds, that none of his information or wit quite fits the occasion.”  The so-called establishment candidates of the Republican party thought that Trump would get in line, or, at the least, display a momentary flash of strength and then fade off the stage.  The sixteen former GOP candidates who are now prostrating themselves before a President-elect Trump did not understand that when the strong man arrives, he shows up to win and will not politely take his seat before his elders or the party favorites.

The strong man is not defeated by temporary setbacks.  Instead, like a child who falls and scrapes his knees, the strong man barely acknowledges his stumbling, if at all, and he quickly reenters the game.  “We watch in children…” writes Emerson, “the degree in which they possess recuperative force. When they are hurt by us, or by each other, or go to the bottom of the class, or miss the annual prizes, or are beaten in the game, — if they lose heart, and remember the mischance in their chamber at home, they have a serious check. But if they have the buoyancy and resistance that preoccupies them with new interest in the new moment, — the wounds cicatrize, and the fibre is the tougher for the hurt.” Trump marketed himself as one who would not be held down for long by anything, including unfavorable polls or biased press.

The particular strong men whom Emerson admired were the frontiersman and those who worked with their hands as artisans.  The prim and proper men of letters along the New England seacoast who held on to their European apron strings were no match for the “rough and ready style which belongs to a people of sailors, foresters, farmers, and mechanics…”  Emerson held that, “As long as our people quote English standards they dwarf their own proportions.”  Emerson anticipated, or perhaps even hoped, that in time the elite political, professional and clerical classes would be replaced by strong men as the leaders of his burgeoning nation.  The future of American politics was in “rough riders, — legislators in shirt-sleeves, — Hoosier, Sucker, Wolverine, Badger, — or whatever hard head Arkansas, Oregon, or Utah sends, half orator, half assassin, to represent its wrath and cupidity at Washington.”

Trump is no frontiersman, but he brands himself as virile, a tough man among boys, the type of strong man whom most Americans admire. And for Emerson, “The instinct of the people is right.”

Does Emerson contradict himself when he writes of the “imbecility of the majority of men” while affirming “the instinct of the people?”  The instinct that Emerson celebrated did not manifest in most people, who he saw as weak and asleep to the power that lie within and who were easily manipulated by strong men. Emerson trusted in the instinct of the strong man, the one who lives and moves as an agent of power in the world, as “affirmative force.”

Power is not always pretty, but Emerson was willing to side with the strong man of uncommon prowess and an amoral vision for success rather than align with the weak and timid populace. “This power, to be sure, is not clothed in satin,” Emerson admitted.

No one would argue that a modern strong man like Donald Trump matches the eloquence and grace of the establishment man.  Indeed the strong man’s power is volatile, frightening, and often becomes tyrannical and oppressive.  History attests to this two-sided nature of power, Emerson noted. “’Tis the power of Lynch law, of soldiers and pirates; and it bullies the peaceable and loyal. But it brings its own antidote; and here is my point, — that all kinds of power usually emerge at the same time; good energy, and bad…”

Even though the raw power of the strong man arrives with good and evil, still, “All power is of one kind, a sharing of the nature of the world. The mind that is parallel with the laws of nature will be in the current of events, and strong with their strength.”  Trump has demonstrated political genius in locating and riding to victory “the current of events.”  Whether or not Trump is truly the strong man or merely a con artist and skilled reader of the electorate’s temperature is yet to be seen.

Emerson illustrated a portrait of the American strong man when he offers a description of a tavern-keeper with whom he was familiar.  Could he have described more accurately Trump the strong man?:

I knew a burly Boniface who for many years kept a public-house in one of our rural capitals. He was a knave whom the town could ill spare. He was a social, vascular creature, grasping and selfish. There was no crime which he did not or could not commit. But he made good friends of the selectmen, served them with his best chop, when they supped at his house, and also with his honor the Judge, he was very cordial, grasping his hand. He introduced all the fiends, male and female, into the town, and united in his person the functions of bully, incendiary, swindler, barkeeper, and burglar. He girdled the trees, and cut off the horses’ tails of the temperance people, in the night. He led the ‘rummies’ and radicals in town-meeting with a speech. Meantime, he was civil, fat, and easy, in his house, and precisely the most public-spirited citizen. He was active in getting the roads repaired and planted with shade-trees; he subscribed for the fountains, the gas, and the telegraph…

The strong man is a man’s man, and Emerson observed that the strong man, with his “surcharge of arterial blood,”  was the future of power and force in American culture and politics.  Such men do not live on “nuts, herb-tea, and elegies; cannot read novels, and play whist; cannot satisfy all their wants at the Thursday Lecture, or the Boston Athenaeum.”  Strong men “pine for adventure” and “had rather die by the hatchet of a Pawnee, than sit all day and every day at a counting-room desk.”

If Trump is indeed a strong man, or even if he is merely projecting that persona with the ease of con artist, he has convinced many people, including a lot of men, that, in Emerson’s words, “the swarthy juices still flow plentifully from nature.”  These “swarthy juices” have been missing from the America male cultural diet for decades, and Trump has convinced a great number of Americans that a life-giving tonic pours from his veins.  Even with all his warts and wantonness, perhaps Donald Trump is a necessity, not in the sense that the nation needs him or even wants him, but that he is a Necessity.  He is the natural manifestation of the American character that was formed and on display even in Emerson’s day.  Donald Trump is what America has been growing up to be some day, since the time of Emerson.

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