Twain vs Trump; No Contest


On June 29, 2017, The Boston Globe published an opinion piece by Scott Lehigh called “Mark Twain’s lessons for the Trump Age.”  A friend of mine sent me the link and commented that, while she agreed with much of Lehigh’s argument, she felt that Twain would have a lot more to say about Trump. Knowing my love of Twain’s work, she challenged me to look at Trump as Twain might have.

Challenged accepted.

While I was tempted to go to the “Gilded Age” for perspective, I instead jumped immediately to Twain’s “Comments on the Moro Massacre”  , “The War Prayer”, and “Some National Stupidities.”

In these three powerful pieces, Twain goes after deadly American arrogance. As Donald Trump takes the reins of our absurdly overbuilt and overextended military, more tragedies lie just ahead.  Having an enormous military is not necessarily the problem, but having an appetite for military adventure fueled by American “greatness” is dangerous.

At the root of that appetite is a misplaced sense of a country’s place in the world.  The leaders of all countries would like their citizens to believe they live in the greatest country on earth.  Twain lampooned American arrogance in “Some National Stupidities” when he compared the post office of the Americas and those of European countries.  The words should sound familiar, though in Twain’s case, his tongue was planted firmly in his cheek.

“We are a great people.  We have always been a great people from the start: always alive, alert, up early in the morning, and ready to teach.  But Europe has been a slow and discouraging pupil from the start; always, from the very start. It seems to me that something ought to be done about this.”

In the Trump Age, Europe is already learning what happens if it fails to heed the lessons the United States is trying to teach. The non-binding Paris Accords have now been abandoned by the Trump administration.  While the rest of the world continues to try to save the planet, we know full well that without the world’s biggest polluter involved, those efforts are likely to fail.  But we are a great people.  We have always been a great people.

If the ongoing climate disaster isn’t enough, it seems to be only a matter of time before America’s greatness gets us involved in another military debacle.  And to those so inclined to believe in a God that cheers for one side or another in war, leaders would like to assure their citizens that when the shooting starts, God will certainly pick the right side for which to root. The trouble starts when leaders actually believe this nonsense.

The chilling climax of Twain’s “The War Prayer” will once again garner relevance as people gather on Sundays to pray for American success.
“For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!”
“The War Prayer” was in part inspired by American actions in the Philippines as the United States sought to hang on to its colony seized from the Spanish.  In “Comments on the Moro Massacre”, Twain was moved to write his strongest criticism of our country.   As hundreds of poorly armed Moros were gunned down in a crater, Twain expressed his outrage:

There, with six hundred engaged on each side, we lost fifteen men killed outright, and we had thirty-two wounded-counting that nose and that elbow. The enemy numbered six hundred — including women and children — and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States.

Twain ends his missive in a way many Americans will echo as they watch our country’s prestige and leadership role being dismantled in the Trump Age.  As we walk away from our obligations on climate issues, as we embrace the tyrants around the world as our friends, and as we all wait breathlessly for the next massacre fueled by American “greatness”, we’ll hear the voice of Twain respond:

I was never so enthusiastically proud of the flag till now!

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