On Monday night, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow talked about how Donald Trump, time and again, escapes accountability by accusing his critics of whatever he himself is guilty of. Having benefited from hundreds of Russia-generated bogus news articles in the 2016 election, he coopted the phrase “fake news,” which he now applies to any news report he doesn’t like. Guilty of unprecedented corruption, he now accuses Ukraine of corruption for not manufacturing dirt on Joe Biden. In the latest instance of him throwing at his enemies whatever they throw at him, he is now calling for the impeachment of Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff and Mitt Romney. (Factual note: Members of Congress cannot be impeached.)
As I thought about this stratagem, I realized I had seen it used in The Last Battle, the final book in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series. There the shifty ape Shift resorts to it when his Aslan scam is exposed.
Shift brings a yuk factor to Last Battle, making it the least popular of the series. Coming across a lion skin, the ape bullies his weak-minded donkey friend Puzzle to put it on, after which he persuades gullible Narnians that Aslan has returned. Shift uses this stratagem to amass wealth and power, and (reminiscent of Trump) he also allies with a foreign adversary—the Calormenes—who by this means insinuate themselves into Narnia.
When King Tirian, the unicorn Jewel, and Jill and Eustace uncover the plot, they think they have what they need to inspire a Narnian resurrection. What happens instead is what we are seeing in America: Shift accuses his enemies of what he himself has done. Suddenly they are accused of trafficking in a false Aslan:
“Yes,” said the Ape. “At this very moment, when the Terrible One himself is among us—there in the stable just behind me—one wicked Beast has chosen to do what you’d think no one would dare to do even if He were a thousand miles away. It has dressed itself up in a lionskin and is wandering about in these very woods pretending to be Aslan.”
Jill wondered for a moment if the Ape had gone mad. Was he going to tell the whole truth? A roar of horror and rage went up from the Beasts. “Grrr!” came the growls, “Who is he? Where is he? Just let me get my teeth into him!”
“It was seen last night,” screamed the Ape, “but it got away. It’s a donkey! A common, miserable Ass! If any of you see that Ass——”
“Grrr!” growled the Beasts. “We will, we will. He’d better keep out of our way.”
Jill looked at the King: his mouth was open and his face was full of horror. And then she understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger. What was the good, now, of telling the Beasts that an ass had been dressed up as a lion to deceive them? The Ape would only say, “That’s just what I’ve said.” What was the good of showing them Puzzle in his lionskin? They would only tear him in pieces. “That’s taken the wind out of our sails,” whispered Eustace. “The ground is taken from under our feet,” said Tirian. “Curst, curst cleverness!” said Poggin.
It’s not just that legitimate arguments have been turned on their head Trump-style. It’s also that so much confusion has been sown that common citizens don’t know what to believe. Take for example a group of dwarfs that Tirian and company rescue from Calormenes. Upon being shown Puzzle in the lion skin, they decline to join the resistance because they now don’t trust anyone:
“Well,” said the Black Dwarf (whose name was Griffle), “I don’t know how all you chaps feel, but I feel I’ve heard as much about Aslan as I want to for the rest of my life.”
“That’s right, that’s right,” growled the other Dwarfs. “It’s all a trick, all a blooming trick.”
“What do you mean?” said Tirian. He had not been pale when he was fighting but he was pale now. He had thought this was going to be a beautiful moment, but it was turning out more like a bad dream.
“You must think we’re blooming soft in the head, that you must,” said Griffle. “We’ve been taken in once and now you expect us to be taken in again the next minute. We’ve no more use for stories about Aslan, see! Look at him! An old moke with long ears!”
“By heaven, you make me mad,” said Tirian. “Which of us said that was Aslan? That is the Ape’s imitation of the real Aslan. Can’t you understand?”
“And you’ve got a better imitation, I suppose!” said Griffle. “No thanks. We’ve been fooled once and we’re not going to be fooled again.”
Lewis uses the scene to show the danger of false prophets, but it applies to our politics as well. Those familiar with autocratic regimes point out that strong men, by muddying the waters, can persuade many to give up on the electoral process altogether. The Truth won’t make us free if enough doubt is cast upon it.
Unfortunately, Lewis doesn’t offer us a solution, at least from a secular point of view. Invoking the Book of Revelations, he has all the good characters killed—well, this being a children’s book, they are thrown into a hut that proves to be a passage to Narnia heaven—and final justice is meted out only by Aslan judging everyone on the Last Day. (As the Nicene Creed says of Jesus, “He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end.”)
Those who are banking on the Rapture may find this consoling, but the rest of us are left looking for more earthly ways to fight back against autocrats. Neil Gaiman’s dictum about fantasy reassuring us that dragons can be beaten doesn’t apply to this book.
But at least The Last Battle points out a pressing problem while assuring us that high-minded people will insist on the truth.