Flap and doodle. Balder and Dash.

Every so often, when I need to remind myself that there have been other brutally corrupt, know-nothing moments in American history, and other leaders who exhibit at least some of the same personality traits as does Donald Trump – laziness, greed, cupidity, short-sightedness, a penchant for corruption, an isolationist temperament – I turn to H.L. Mencken.

Mencken, a Baltimore newspaperman who rose to become the country’s leading commentator in the decades surrounding the first world war, wielded his pen like a sword. His editorials for the Baltimore Sun skewered public figures whom the journalist viewed as being corrupt or inane or incurious or simply wrong.

In the early 1920s, President Warren G. Harding particularly enraged Mencken. Even before the Teapot Dome scandal, in which interior secretary Albert Fall was caught accepting bags of cash from oil men keen to lease federal land in Wyoming and California, on which they could then drill for oil, Harding had stacked his cabinet with influence-peddlers and grifters.

President Harding himself, a good looking, chronically inarticulate ne’er do well who, perhaps to own disbelief, had won the election in 1920, cared little for the details of the job, and seemed more interested in using his position of power to get investors to bid an outlandishly high purchasing price for the Ohio newspaper that he owned. He prided himself on having the common touch, but, to Mencken, that really was little more than a prop to cover up the almost sub-literate nature of his personality.

On March 7th, 1921, three days after the new president’s inauguration, Mencken penned an absolutely brutal take down. “He writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights.” Mencken concluded of Harding’s relationship to the English language that, “it is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abyss (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

What would Mencken have made of Trump and his bloviating tweets? His flap and doodle about his own genius, his balder and dash about his great and unmatched wisdom, his rumble and bumble about traitorous whistleblowers and about how those women who accuse him of sexual assault are not his type? How would he have reacted to the slew of testimony indicating a Quid Pro Quo regarding military aid to the Ukraine being held up until that country dug up dirt on the Bidens? What wondrous turns of phrase would he have conjured up to eviscerate the GOP toadies who bastardize the notion of “truth” and of “facts” on an hourly basis in order to defend Trump? And with what glee would he have pointed out that the most lawless president in American history is being shielded by his party from all accountability simply so that he can keep sending far-right, unqualified judicial nominees to the Senate who can then reinterpret the law and reshape society as they see fit?

Hypocrisy in public life was something that Mencken found particularly disdainful. “It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything, he once opined. “I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.”

Warren Harding dispatched U.S. marines to the teapot dome oil site in Wyoming in order to stop employees from a rival oil company to the one that was bribing his cabinet secretary drilling their own wells. Trump rents out military personnel to the Saudi royals, his thuggish and kleptocratic oil buddies, and boasts like a used car salesman about how much they are paying, while setting up Kurdish allies to be massacred by the Turks. Like a mafia don, he blackmails the Ukrainians to force them to interfere in the upcoming elections here in the US, and he openly seeks personal financial gain by encouraging overseas governments and corporations to channel business to his hotels and golf resorts and apartment complexes in exchange for presidential meetings and access to the White House inner circle.

Harding died in August 1923. Had he not, it’s entirely likely he would have spent the remainder of his presidency mired in lawsuits, in Congressional investigations, and cowed by the ever-present threat of impeachment.

That will, surely, be Trump’s fate. Enough information is in the public domain now that if he dodges one legal bullet, another will quickly be fired his way. If he avoids revealing his taxes in one setting, he will soon afterwards face another subpoena from another jurisdiction. If he survives impeachment, he will, once he leaves office, almost certainly be indicted on campaign finance violation charges, perhaps on tax fraud, who knows but maybe even on money laundering charges.

Trump will tell his cult-followers this is all fake news. He will add bold-face and capital letters and triple-exclamation points to his savage tweets, keyed into his phone during his insomniac night, denouncing these proceedings. But eventually his din, his mendacious, self-pitying braying, will cease to matter. He will, quite simply, be seen for what he is: a piteous figure, constantly needing the adoration of the crowd. An insecure and cruel man. An American freak show addicted to his own image and the martinet sounds of his own vituperative voice.

— Sasha Abramsky



2 Replies to “Flap and Doodle. Balder and Dash.”

  1. I think we’re now counting on you to carry on and wield your pen. And I always count on you for a nourishing history lesson and a few new words to look up. Thanks, Sasha

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