In the spring of 2009, in a piece for Harper’s Magazine, I wrote that even though our newly inaugurated president probably wouldn’t solve all our problems, it felt as if Atticus Finch had finally come home.
I still get that Atticus feeling when I listen to Obama. Though I’ve disagreed at times with his decisions, I’ve always been impressed – for lack of a less condescending word – by his maturity, by which I mean his intelligence, his measured calm, his sense of humor, his respect for the messy business of governing. This isn’t just a question of appearances – though when you’re the President of the United States, how you present yourself actually does kind of matter. There’s a decency and strength about the man, a deep allegiance to reason. I can see him sitting on the porch with one of his daughters (here his voice changes into Gregory Peck’s, not such a stretch), answering some question about why certain people do the things they do in the same, measured way.
Here’s the bad news: Atticus has to leave soon, and Bob Ewell’s running for mayor.
I dislike simplistic analogies, so let me just say that I realize that the 21st century world of drone strikes and NSC surveillance programs doesn’t correlate to a Depression-era morality play (admittedly, one I have a deep affection for) whose enduring popularity has a lot to do with the fact that it presents us with a picture, drawn in Crayola primary colors, of a world that never was, a world in which all the black folk are innocent and kind, the hero unwavering, the villain repaid with a knife in his ribs. I get that.
That said, I think my analogy has some value. If the Obama presidency has been defined by intelligence and a respect for difference (as well as a conspicuous lack of major scandals), we now seem to be sliding headlong into the Age of Ewell.
You remember Bob Ewell. He’s the white racist who taunts Atticus as a “nigger-lover,” and blames his own abuse of his daughter on a black man, Tom Robinson; later, after Robinson is killed, Ewell attacks the children of the man who defended him. He’s one of the more memorable villains in American literature and film. To some of us, black and white, he’s also familiar, and if he and his kind have been laying relatively low for a while, they seem disinclined to do so much longer.
Big hate is becoming fashionable again.
This is where my analogy gets interesting – and complicated. Consider, for example, that one explanation for the utterly irrational hatred of Obama these past eight years may be that many people did sense a certain Atticus-like quality in him, but couldn’t get past the fact (sort of poetic, really) that Atticus had returned to us as a black man. For some percentage of the population, this was unforgivable. They might be able to tolerate cartoons like Herman Cain (who in 2012 suggested a loyalty oath for Muslims) or, worse, Dr. Ben Carson (who seemed anesthetized), but a conspicuously well-educated, intelligent adult? Someone who could calm the room, explain how things were? A father-figure like Atticus? As a black man? Never. As one voter from Alaska put it when Obama was first running for President, “He just seems snotty, and he looks weaselly.”
So, if Obama is Atticus, am I saying that Donald Trump is Bob Ewell? Not exactly. I’m saying Donald Trump is letting America’s Bob Ewells out of the bag, telling them they’re right to be angry, telling them who to hate - egging them on. Until Trump came along, the only place you’d be likely to hear someone screaming “Go back to Africa,” or “Go to fucking Auschwitz,” would be at a Klan rally or some kind of neo-Nazi get-together. Now these folks have a larger venue – and tacit permission. You can sense their excitement.
And why shouldn’t they be excited - after all, there’s so much to hate, though the big man with the little soul keeps you guessing – raging one minute, joking the next, inciting, then withdrawing, enabling, then denying it. Certain people are “disgusting, “evil”; he hates them – ‘but, hey, this is fun, right? Who has more fun than we do?’ There’s no conviction here. It’s all pose. It’s the very picture of moral cowardice. But he wears it well!
The face of the enemy changes by the hour. Let’s see, the Japanese are a problem (maybe those internment camps weren’t such a bad idea), the Chinese hate us, Muslims hate us, protesters hate America . . . The list goes on. He’d never kill journalists, Trump says. “I would never kill them. I would never do that.” And then he pauses, reconsidering, the mob eating it up: “Uh, let’s see . . . eh, no, I wouldn’t. I would never kill them. But I do hate ‘em, and some of ‘em are such lying, disgusting people.”
I don’t want to re-hash what’s already too familiar to anyone who hasn’t been asleep this past month: Trump’s playing to rage, his incitements to violence (“I’d like to punch him in the face,” “Maybe he should have been roughed up,” etc.), the gradual, step-by-step activation of the mob. What I want to do is use a detail of fiction – in this case a five-second slice of To Kill a Mockingbird, the movie, to shed a light on our current political reality-show. When I noticed the parallel, I felt a small shock of recognition and a slight kick of nausea.
The moment I’m talking about occurs during the courtroom scene. Bob Ewell, who’s been called to testify, gets up to leave the witness stand after being questioned by the prosecution, not realizing the defense gets its turn as well. As Atticus rises to question the witness, they bump shoulders. Ewell chuckles and the white audience chuckles with him. And you can see it in his face: He enjoys this – it’s his moment. For these few seconds, he’s got center stage.
“Would you mind if I just, ah, asked you a few questions, Mr. Ewell?” Atticus asks.
Ewell smirks and mugs at his audience – ‘Look at me, I’m gonna show that tricky, fancy-talkin’ lawyer how smart he is’ – before answering: “No sir, Mr. Finch, I sure wouldn’t.”
Now go on Youtube and replay the interview with John McGraw, the man who sucker-punched a protestor, Rakeem Jones, at a Trump rally in North Carolina a week ago. “Did you like the event?” McGraw is asked. “What did you like about it?” And there it is: That Bob Ewell look. He’s an ignorant coward, but he’s got center stage.
“Knockin’ the hell out of that big mouth,” he answers. “We don’t know who he is, but we know he’s not acting like an American.”
“So he deserved it?”
“Yes! he deserved it. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him. We don’t know who he is. He might be with a terrorist organization.”
Which is true. Jones might be a terrorist. I might be a terrorist. So might you, for reading this. Better kill us, then, just to be sure.
I’ve said it before, as others have said it in their own way before me, but I’m going to keep on saying it. It’s never the puppet master per se, but the army of puppets he sets in motion, the ignorant and the aggrieved he brings to life. The Bob Ewells and the John McGraws. They’re never alone; they draw courage from numbers. Courage enough to shove around and humiliate a black woman who’s brave enough – and trust me, it takes serious guts to walk into that mob - to raise her voice in protest. Courage enough to play the hero by sucker-punching a black protester. Courage enough (if you’re the cops on the scene) to throw the victim to the ground while ignoring the attacker.
Diplomat and historian George Kennan, who I’ve quoted before, wrote that one of the essential components of totalitarianism is the presence of a certain kind of human being. It’s a passage worth quoting in full.
. . . I think such people are always present in any human society, to some degree or another. They are not a product of the political movement itself. They are something that is always there and needs only to be activated. They represent a mutation of the human species. I do not need to describe these people to you, nor is it pleasant to do so . . . . They are the brutal, aggressive, unsuccessful natures, deficient in moral courage, in self-confidence, in self-respect, in the ability to compete on any even terms. They are the ghouls of human society. In the sunlight of normalcy you do not see them. But let society be overtaken by the darkness of some special weakness, which leaves it helpless and vulnerable, and they are suddenly there, slinking out of the shadows, ready to take over, ready to flog, to intimidate, to torture, to do all those things in the company of armed men, and preferably against unarmed ones, that help to give them the illusion of success and security, that dispel for the moment the nightmare of inadequacy by which they are haunted.
Sound familiar? When I look at some of the people drawn to Trump - the John McGraws, the old guy in the video shoving the black woman, even Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, who likes to strong-arm female journalists and has that henchman vibe about him – I see Kennan’s ghouls, and when I listen to Sarah Palin and Trump doing their thing, I know who’s activating them.
So here we are.
Donald Trump, who’s well on the way to the Republican nomination, has instructed his people to look into paying the legal fees for John McGraw - a man who’s on record as saying maybe we should kill people who don’t agree with Donald Trump.
As of this writing, backing McGraw hasn’t hurt Trump’s standing in the polls.
This is new for us – at this level, at any rate.
Big hate is coming into fashion.
What would Atticus do?