The morning after (why is my mind suddenly filled with images of disasters great and small, hangovers, consequences of mindless sex?) yes, the morning after Donald Trump shook up the world I received from at least a dozen individuals, some known to me, some not, the following: “As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last. And the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.”
Accompanying the quotation was a photograph of H. L. Mencken, greasy long black hair typically parted in the middle. In the days following the presidential elections, several other copies reached me via Whatsapp and Messenger. Indeed, I’d be surprised, dear reader, should it turn out you were spared. I couldn’t help wondering about the apparent abrupt interest in Mencken whom even our more famous best brains had never mentioned in my presence, neither on radio nor on TV. Not once had I heard it spoken by our omniscient political leaders.
I dare to brag, however, that I have long been a Mencken apostle. Indeed, somewhere exists a video that features me being interviewed by a local reporter on the subject of free expression. My interlocutor wanted to know what had inspired me to become not only a journalist but also a publisher. I replied with this line: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” First spoken by Mencken, need I add.
I suspect the distributors of the earlier mentioned missive were less concerned with his perspicacity than with ridiculing the man soon to replace Barrack Obama at the White House. I doubt the e-mailers have even now bothered to look up the source of the convenient bon mots. So join me, dear curious reader, as I revisit Mencken’s 1920 prediction in relation to the people’s choice for President of the United States.
This is how it actually begins: “All of us, if we are of reflective habit, like and admire men whose fundamental beliefs differ radically from our own. But when a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any, save the most elemental; men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either work with the pack or count himself lost . . . All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre; the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men . . .” blah blah blah.
Evidently, many concurred, judging by the speed at which they redistributed Mencken’s comment that seemed close to a hundred years ago to anticipate the coming of Donald Trump. Score one for the prophet Mencken.
And speaking of prophecies, how about this? “I admit freely enough that by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro. But I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste of white stock ready at hand and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it. The educated negro of today is a failure; not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born. And he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.”
As Lillian Ross claims Ernest Hemmingway loved to say: “How do you like it now, gentlemen?” Still believe in the words of the prophet Mencken? In his perspicacity? In his comedic gifts? As we say in Creole: Leur bab camawadoo pwis defay woozay sa woo. (When your friend’s whiskers catch afire, wet your own!) The same Mencken who had afforded so many of you pleasure at Donald Trump’s expense believed black people are an inferior species—and so wrote. So tell me again, how do you like that, gentlemen?
Let’s end with yet another quotation, this time by James Baldwin, the blacker than black gay author of Giovanni’s Room and Price of the Ticket: “Whenever I go to a white writers’ congress, I have a method for figuring out whether my colleagues are racist. It consists of saying stupid things and supporting absurd theories. If they listen to me respectfully and then burst out in applause, there’s no doubt about it: a group of racist pigs.”
What then to make of you who were so quick to applaud an author you know nothing about, simply because you conveniently understood him to be referring to the narcissistic moron you believe Donald Trump to be?
And now you may be wondering about the reasons I continue to be an appreciator of Mencken’s work. Well, for one, he was bold enough to put down in words his true feelings, shared by millions in 1920 and, I daresay, today. What’s more, he did so with style and wit. That his written words exposed his racist inclinations is indisputable. What then to make of the fact that back in 1920 he could not possibly have anticipated a black occupant of the White House? The moronic narcissist of whom he wrote had to have been, in the mind of H. L. Mencken, as white as Donald Trump is white!