August 15, 2016

The Greatest Man in the World

Originality can be an elusive thing. I had been planning to write an essay about the candidacy of Donald Trump and the James Thurber short story “The Greatest Man in the World.” A preliminary Google search, however, uncovered an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times along the lines of what I had planned to write. The Patt Morrison essay, titled “Donald Trump and ‘The Greatest Man in the World’”—imagine that—was published nearly a year ago, on September 16, 2015.

James Thurber
James Grover Thurber
The Thurber story appeared in the February 21, 1931, issue of The New Yorker, nearly four years after Charles Lindbergh’s famous solo flight across the Atlantic. (The story was reprinted in The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze and The Thurber Carnival.) It concerns a boorish loudmouth pilot, Jacky Smurch, who flies around the world nonstop. When Smurch lands, he is whisked away by what we might today call members of the Establishment, who proceed to cajole the loutish pilot into acting the part of a gentleman hero. Finding this project untenable, the secretary to the Mayor of New York City, with the tacit approval of the President of the United States, pushes Smurch out the window, resulting in his untimely death. Smurch is given an elaborate funeral and buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
“Why is this story about Trump?” Morrison asks. “Because for the Republican establishment, Trump is a better-class Jacky Smurch.” Not much better, I would argue. The question posed in the L.A. Times is whether the GOP establishment will figuratively (I assume) throw Trump out the window or whether Trump will do the same to the GOP establishment.

In September of last year, of course, the threat of Trump’s actually becoming the Republican nominee was only theoretical. The need for the party to act is now even more urgent. I don’t expect Reince Priebus literally to defenestrate Donald Trump, but the RNC could withdraw its support in the hope of saving the hides of down-ticket GOP candidates. At this point, however, it is really unclear whether pretending that Trump is a reasonable candidate or admitting that he isn’t will do the party more good.

Morrison suggested that the country may no longer prefer civilized—my word, not hers—candidates. I sincerely hope that this isn’t the case. We cannot afford a Jacky Smurch President of the United States.

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