In August of 2015, one month after presidential candidate Donald Trump stunned the political world by questioning the "war hero" status of Senator John McCain, I happened, quite by chance, to be reading Richard Wilbur's 1965 translation of the Molière play Tartuffe (1664). Just like that, a passage grabbed my attention:
"Those who have greatest cause for guilt and shame
Are quickest to besmirch a neighbor's name."
My immediate thought was, "Wow! That sounds a lot like Donald Trump." And, just to make sure Wilbur was accurately reflecting Molière's original intentions, I checked out a 1908 Tartuffe translation (by Curtis Hidden Page). The first two lines were rendered in a slightly different way, but the message was the same:
"Those whose own conduct's most ridiculous, Are always quickest to speak ill of others."As I reflected on these lines, there was something deeply satisfying about seeing a contemporary figure described so accurately by someone writing 350 years earlier. I made a mental note to be on the lookout for similar quotations in the future. Over the next several months, after coming across a half-dozen addional quotations that brought Trump to mind, I decided to create a "Trump File" on my computer.
Some observations in that new file, while written centuries ago, could easily have been written about Trump's remarks about McCain or his infamous role in the "birther" movement:
"There is nothing that more betrays a base, ungenerous spirit than the giving of secret stabs to a man's reputation." -- Joseph Addison
"No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men. -- Thomas CarlyleWhile I treasured these new quotations, I wasn't planning to do much with them because I figured Trump was going to be a short-lived political phenomenon. That feeling was strongly reinforced when a January 2016 "Against Trump" issue of the National Review described him as "a menace to American conservatism." As the months passed, and as Trump began dispatching his Republican primary opponents, I continued to make new discoveries. Some were nothing short of thrilling. I still remember when I first came across a passage from Plato's Laws (4th c. B.C.):
"There is simple ignorance, which is the source of lighter offenses, and double ignorance, which is accompanied by a conceit of wisdom; and he who is under the influence of the latter fancies that he knows all about matters of which he knows nothing."This observation so perfectly captured the essence of candidate Trump that I found myself coming back to it over and over again. Every time he brashly proclaimed how smart he was or how much he knew, Plato's observation served as a helpful reminder that arrogant ignoramuses have been around for millennia. I still wasn't giving Trump--or my little quotation collection--that much thought, though, for it seemed clear that he would never win the presidential election.
When he ultimately shocked the word with his historic upset victory, it affected me in a way I would've never predicted. After the inauguration, I was having trouble concentrating and getting to sleep at night (and when I did, I slept fitfully). In my interactions with others, I was smiling and laughing less, and I was even drinking a bit more than usual. As a psychologist, I was showing all the signs of what people in my profession call a reactive depression. I'd been in similar situations before, so I decided to take a deep dive into the world's great literature (technically, the practice is called bibliotherapy).
I was hoping that insights from the world's great writers and thinkers might help counter my downward drift. The decision paid off almost immediately. I found the following in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brother's Karamazov (1880):
"A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others."Over the next two years, I spend thousands of hours in a systematic reading program that uncovered similar gems in the works of history's great novelists:
"Vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief." -- Jane Austenand
"A man can never do anything at variance with his own nature." -- George Eliotand
"We all run the risk of declining if somebody does not rise to tell us that life is on the heights, and not in the cesspools." -- George Sandand
"If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people." Virginia Woolf
Whenever I found a quotation that "spoke" to me, I faithfully recorded it. I found prescient passages in the works of ancient thinkers, Founding Fathers, former US Presidents, great scientists, and world leaders from the past. While most had a Trump-illuminating quality, some more accurately described his ardent followers:
"There are conditions of blindness so voluntary that they become complicity." -- Paul Bourgetand
"To sin by silence when we should protest, Makes cowards out of men." -- Ella Wheeler WilcoxAs 2018 drew to a close, my "self-help" reading program had paid off handsomely. I was back to my old self and--with a newfound political and philosophical commitment--even a better version of my old self. Then, at the beginning of 2019, a thought popped into my mind: "If your project was so helpful to you, why not turn it into a book?"
And that takes us to the present moment. On Sep. 23, 2019, I will be coming out with my eighth quotation anthology, the first with a political slant: Deconstructing Trump: The Trump Phenomenon Through the Lens of Quotation History. More information about the book may be found at: www.deconstructingtrump.com
Deconstructing Trump consists of 1,000 featured quotations, all of which were written decades--or, more typically, centuries--before Trump arrived on the political scene. The quotations in the book might be viewed as a collective answer to the question: "If they could speak to us today, what would the world's great writers, thinkers, and political leaders have to say about Donald J. Trump?"
Regarding the title, if the precise meaning of the word "deconstructing" escapes you, here's all you need to know. Deconstruction is a form of criticism, specifically one that attempts to set a record straight. The term is based on the notion that a narrative that has been falsely or misleadingly constructed can be deconstructed. In his 1844 poem "The Present Crisis," the American poet James Russell Lowell was writing about the problem of slavery, and his words have relevance to a crisis of a different nature in our current era:
"Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side."Deconstructing Trump is my "moment to decide" book. I've produced it for any person who's been alarmed, troubled, upset, embarrassed, bewildered, disgusted, or otherwise distressed by the whole idea of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America. I consider it my own small contribution to a goal that should motivate us all: bringing the Trump presidency to an end on Election Day, November 3, 2020.