Trump as Browning’s Pied Piper

George John Pinwell, “Study for ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin”


Here’s something I didn’t see coming in these turbulent political times: someone applying Robert Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin to Donald Trump.

Kudos to Charlie Pierce of Esquire for doing so. At one point he describes Trump as the Pied Piper and the children as the voters he has conned. Then he reverses course and the piper becomes one of the subcontractors that Trump has cheated.

If you don’t know the poem, it begins with a description of Hamelin’s rat problem. This sounds a bit like the hellscape that, as Trump sees it, America has become under Barack Obama’s presidency:

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

Enter the man who claims he can fix Hamelin’s problems. Like Trump, the Pied Piper is good at blowing hot air although, unlike Trump, he can actually follow through on his promises:

Into the street the Piper stept, 
Smiling first a little smile, 
As if he knew what magic slept 
In his quiet pipe the while; 
Then, like a musical adept, 
To blow the pipe his lips he wrinkled, 
And green and blue his sharp eyes twinkled, 
Like a candle-flame where salt is sprinkled; 
And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered, 
You heard as if an army muttered; 
And the muttering grew to a grumbling; 
And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling; 
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling. 
Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats, 
Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats, 
Grave old plodders, gay young friskers, 
Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins, 
Cocking tails and pricking whiskers, 
Families by tens and dozens, 
Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives — 
Followed the Piper for their lives. 
From street to street he piped advancing, 
And step for step they followed dancing, 
Until they came to the river Weser 
Wherein all plunged and perished! 

As Pierce sees it, Trump will not be anywhere near as effective. Rather, his hot air serves only to lead his followers either into a river or a hole in a mountain. The one child who, because he is lame, escapes the fate of the others, describes the wonderful sounds he heard. It’s his version of the return of coal and manufacturing jobs, universal health care with no deductibles (“We’re going to have insurance for everybody”), and an America that looks like Mayfield in Leave it to Beaver:

I can’t forget that I’m bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me.
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new.

He sounds like a soon-to-be disaffected Trump voter. Or a previous enrollee in Trump University.

Pierce imagines how the children will respond once they awake from their trance:

And all the children of Hamelin looked around and thought to themselves, “Jesus H. Christ on a four-day bender, how in the everloving fck did we ever get inside this big-ass rock.”

The Esquire columnist then shifts gears, however, and imagines that Trump is Hamelin’s mayor rather than the piper—which is to say, a man who promises good money and then defaults. Here is the mayor applying what he thinks is leverage so as to pay only a fraction of what he owes, which is a thousand guilders:

A thousand guilders! The Mayor looked blue; 
So did the Corporation too. 
For council dinners made rare havoc 
With Claret, Moselle, Vin-de-Grave, Hock; 
And half the money would replenish 
Their cellar’s biggest butt with Rhenish. 
To pay this sum to a wandering fellow 
With a gipsy coat of red and yellow! 
“Beside,” quoth the Mayor with a knowing wink, 
“Our business was done at the river’s brink; 
“We saw with our eyes the vermin sink, 
“And what’s dead can’t come to life, I think. 
“So, friend, we’re not the folks to shrink 
“From the duty of giving you something to drink, 
“And a matter of money to put in your poke; 
“But as for the guilders, what we spoke 
“Of them, as you very well know, was in joke. 
“Beside, our losses have made us thrifty. 
“A thousand guilders! Come, take fifty!”

See, it was all a joke: the piper should have looked at what was in the mayor’s heart rather than what came out of his mouth.

The piper, however, can fight back, as the townspeople learn to their sorrow. Pierce indulges in a revenge fantasy:

You will recall that the story of Hamelin really is nothing more than the story of a subcontractor who got stiffed and took his revenge. There are modern parallels to that, I’m thinking, and if, one day, a flautist dressed in motley shows up at the White House, we may all survive this yet.

With him I proved no bargain-driver,
With you, don’t think I’ll bate a stiver!
And folks who put me in a passion
May find me pipe to another fashion.

What punishment would be appropriate for our PEOTUS conman? If we turned off the spotlight so that he had to be alone with his own emptiness, would he would feel as bereft as the Hamelin citizenry?

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