I taught in colleges and universities for many years. From time to time I enjoy a little quiz.
Can you tell me who said this?
“This pack of snivelers! Scapegraces hardly out of the nursery. And they will debate at noon tomorrow. What are we coming to? To go out and yammer in the open air. I’ll bet anything you please, a million to one, they’ll all be fugitives from justice and discharged convicts. Republicans and convicts. They all should be strictly forbidden to have any political opinions.”
Was it Donald Trump during his 2016 primary campaign, or perhaps in one of his continuously unraveling tweets, or lately after the Democratic debates?
It sounds like him. Every word out of his mouth is a slur or an insult, a racist dog whistle, a sexist attack. A woman in the news is “horse-face” or “Pocahontas.” Opponents are “fat,” “ugly,” “crazed, crying lowlifes.” They have “extraordinarily low IQs,” he shouts. Mexicans are “animals, criminals, and rapists.” A Democrat has the “smallest, thinnest neck I have ever seen. He is not a long-ball hitter.”
But no, it was not the Trumpster who brayed the lines I quoted.
It was Victor Hugo in a satire deep in the middle of his novel, Les Miserables, from which Broadway derived the smash musical.
One of the good things about being an old guy is that I’ve had a lifetime to read the great authors of western world literature: Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Balzac, Flaubert, Whitman, Hemingway, Stephen Crane, whose grandfather was a minister at the Presbyterian church in Wilkes-Barre.
I have indeed been reading Victor Hugo, the hero of France and French literature and the great mind, as I said, of Les Miserables. Of all the world’s writers, no other has better understood the human heart. Thousands upon thousands of delighted Broadway theatergoers have thrilled to Les Miz, loved Cosette, and taken courage from the agony and ecstasy of Jean Valjean.
One irony is that, as they have left the theater, many have imagined that the year of the play’s action was 1789 and the French Revolution. But the French Revolution was a success, a horrible success, that ended with the Terror and the guillotine.
Les Miserables was about 1832 and the failed revolution of a night and a day. The men and boys at the barricades died for nothing. They had an itch. They had too much wine and wanted more. The king was not so bad; he was not the inheritor of a thousand years of infamy as were the aristocrats of 1789.
But Victor Hugo saw, in the world around him, the decay of the republic.
People who go to the theater and see the show don’t often recognize how deeply he felt about freedom and tyranny, though perhaps they feel how prescient he was about our 21st century world and our struggle in it.
Donald Trump is very strong now. In only 30 months he has turned the American Republic upside down. He asks that we add another two years to his term to “compensate” him for the time he worried while the Special Counsel was investigating his crimes. He refuses to give an inch. He orders everyone he knows to ignore subpoenas, the law notwithstanding. He denies that Congress has any right to look over his situation, despite the Constitution. He makes the law by executive order. He recognizes no moral values. He lies. He’s a demagogue and a wannabe dictator. He undercuts the beliefs to which we have clung for 230 years. He slams the door on our bedrock tradition as a welcoming and humane haven. He takes babies from their mothers and flings them into animal cages.
He is evil and corrupt and is making us like him.