If Fielding Had Written about Trump

Henry Fielding

Friday

I’ve been combing through Henry Fielding works and have concluded that he would have had a field day with Donald Trump. Hang on to your hats.

One of my favorite Tom Jones quotations explains how villain Blifil succeeds as long as he does. Since Trump has gone further than anyone expected, it’s worth checking out Fielding’s explanation, which invokes the Faustus story:

I look upon the vulgar observation, ‘That the devil often deserts his friends, and leaves them in the lurch,’ to be a great abuse on that gentleman’s character. Perhaps he may sometimes desert those who are only his cup acquaintance; or who, at most, are but half his; but he generally stands by those who are thoroughly his servants, and helps them off in all extremities, till their bargain expires.

Not one of Trump’s opponents, either in the primaries or in the general election, went as far as he did. Having gone all in on lying, boasting, threatening, intimidating, stealing, suing, and possibly colluding with a foreign adversary—no mere cup acquaintance he–Trump continues to profit handsomely. There’s no telling when his devil’s bargain will expire.

In “Essay on the Knowledge of the Characters of Men,” Fielding discusses how a good politician can “impose upon” his constituents to sacrifice their own interests to his own. By this measure, Trump is a superb politician:

[A]s it is impossible that any man endowed with rational faculties, and being in a state of freedom, should willingly agree, without some motive of love or friendship, absolutely to sacrifice his own interest to that of another; it becomes necessary to impose upon him, to persuade him, that his own good is designed, and that he will be a gainer by coming into those schemes, which are, in reality, calculated for his destruction. And this, if I mistake not, is the very essence of that excellent art, called the art of politics. 

We should therefore, Fielding tells us, regard politics as a vast masquerade:

Thus while the crafty and designing part of mankind, consulting only their own separate advantage, endeavor to maintain one constant imposition on others, the whole world becomes a vast masquerade, where the greatest part appear disguised under false visors and habits…

The rest of Fielding’s essay instructs people on how not to get conned by such types.

Fielding’s most extensive look at a Trump-like character occurs in The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great. Fielding claims that the work is about a notorious criminal, but it is really about Whig prime minister Robert Walpole, whom Fielding despised. The similarities between Wild/Walpole and Trump are unsettling. For instance, Fielding describes a boldness unhampered by honesty in carrying out cunning enterprises:

He was extremely ingenious in inventing designs, artful in contriving the means to accomplish his purposes, and resolute in executing them: for as the most exquisite cunning and most undaunted boldness qualified him for any undertaking, so was he not restrained by any of those weaknesses which disappoint the views of mean and vulgar souls, and which are comprehended in one general term of honesty, which is a corruption of HONOSTY, a word derived from what the Greeks call an ass.

The narrator notes that Wild/Walpole is also free of modesty and good-nature. Instead lust, ambition, and greed drive him:

He was entirely free from those low vices of modesty and good-nature, which, as he said, implied a total negation of human greatness, and were the only qualities which absolutely rendered a man incapable of making a considerable figure in the world. His lust was inferior only to his ambition; but, as for what simple people call love, he knew not what it was. His avarice was immense, but it was of the rapacious, not of the tenacious kind…

The narrator goes on to say that his “rapaciousness was indeed so violent” that he squeezes every penny, not only out of his victims, but out of his allies. Keep in mind that the Republican National Committee is currently paying the legal bills of Trump and Trump, Jr.:

Above all, Wild/Walpole values hypocrisy. Without it, he could not have accomplished so much or been the prig (rhymes with Whig, used to mean coxcomb) that he is:

The character which he most valued himself upon, and which he principally honored in others, was that of hypocrisy. His opinion was, that no one could carry priggism very far without it; for which reason, he said, there was little greatness to be expected in a man who acknowledged his vices, but always much to be hoped from him who professed great virtues.

The narrator then lists the rules by which Wild/Walpole operates. The following seem particularly applicable to our own president:

–To know no distinction of men from affection; but to sacrifice all with equal readiness to his interest.
–Never to communicate more of an affair than was necessary to the person who was to execute it.
–To shun poverty and distress, and to ally himself as close as possible to power and riches.
–To foment eternal jealousies in his gang, one of another.
–Never to reward any one equal to his merit; but always to insinuate that the reward was above it.
–That all men were knaves or fools, and much the greater number a composition of both.
–That a good name, like money, must be parted with, or at least greatly risked, in order to bring the owner any advantage.
–That many men were undone by not going deep enough in roguery; as in gaming any man may be a loser who doth not play the whole game.
–That men proclaim their own virtues, as shopkeepers expose their goods, in order to profit by them.

One other Trump-like resemblance comes to mind. In Fielding’s play The Historical Register for the Year 1736, a fiddler, once again a stand-in for Walpole, bribes his fellows so that they will dance to his tune. The author within the play explains what happens next.

Sir, every one of these patriots has a hole in his pocket, as Mr. Quidam, the fiddler, there knows; so that he intends to make them dance till all the money is fallen through, which he will pick up again, and so not lose one halfpenny by his generosity.

Time and again, the GOP has allowed itself to be bought off by Trump, only to find itself with empty pockets.

The history of Fielding’s play, however, carries a sobering lesson. It so upset Walpole that he enacted the Licensing Act of 1737, thereby blacklisting Fielding and effectively ending political commentary in the theater. Trump too dreams of having such power, as indicated by yesterday’s tweet that Senate’s investigatory committee should turn its attention to the media for reporting bad things about him,

The licensing act, though it wouldn’t be entirely repealed until 1968, failed to silence Fielding, who (fortunately for literature) turned to fiction. I suspect the American news media won’t back down either. Nevertheless, it’s worrisome to hear a president talk this way.

One other Walpole-Trump resemblance is worth mentioning. Like the prime minister, who was roasted by Pope and Swift as well as Fielding, our president is the unceasing target of the major comic writers of his day.

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