by Akim Reinhardt
Violence : War :: Lies : Mythology
This analogy holds. Violence is central to war, and lies are central to mythology. At the same time, violence and lies often stem from one or a few people, whereas war and mythology exist and function on a social level. One person can be violent to another, but warfare, by definition, involves entire societies. Likewise, one person can lie to another, but mythology, by definition, involves an entire society.
Donald Trump lies. A lot. Clearly more than most people, and probably more than any other president. Arguably professional journalism’s greatest failing of the last several years has been its reticence to label him a liar or to even identify his lies as such. Instead, they almost always play it safe, on the grounds that they cannot read his mind, and settle for euphemisms. He is incorrect. His statements are inaccurate. Respected, professional news outlets almost never state the obvious and the real. He is a liar. He lies. What he said is a lie. Not all of it, of course. Some if it is just gross stupidity. But also intentionally lies. A lot.
This is very important. Because Donald Trump’s many individual lies allow and the vast army of right wing media to perpetuate the mythology of Donald Trump.
A myth is full of statements that are “inaccurate” or “incorrect.” Sometimes these are expressed as supernatural impossibilities. Sometimes they are false statements purporting to be fact. Either way, a society can bundle up these individual lies and transform them into a mythological truth. Take for example story of Pocahontas.
In popular culture, the story of her life is riddled with false assertions that combine to tell a larger story Americans believe. Some versions of the myth are obviously false, such as Disney’s Pocahontas movie (1995). We all know that Pocahontas did not sing to animals, and if she did, they did not sing back, because that is impossible. But we accept these flights of fancy in an animated musical film geared for children. At the same time, however, the movie, and most other popular recountings of her life, are full of factual inaccuracies that audiences simply accept because they do not know any better. And this collection of lies allows us to accept a bigger “truth” that we really ought to challenge. Dispelling those popular lies reveals not only the true facts of her life, but also helps us puncture the larger mythological “truth” Americans embrace.
Lie no. 1 in the myth of Pocahontas: she was not a princess. Yes, her father Powhatan was the leader of a vast confederacy in the lower Chesapeake Bay region, with towns owing him fealty and tribute, making him something like a “king.” But Algonquin societies of the Chesapeake didn’t have royalty. And perhaps more importantly, were matrilineal. Thus, Pocahontas did not inherit any elite or “royal” standing from her father. She was simply one among the many children born to the wives who Powhatan took from various towns he held sway over. Any inheritance she might receive came from the common line of her mother, not her powerful father.
Indeed, her name wasn’t even Pocahontas. It was Amonute. “Pocahontas” was just a nickname that means something like “mischievous child.” And that’s exactly what she was: merely a child of eight years old or so when John Smith showed up in her father’s lands.
Furthermore, Pocahonatas was never Smith’s child bride, and most certainly did not save his life. Indeed, the entire episode probably never even happened. A widely traveled soldier of fortune, Smith was also a spinner of yarns, and had previously published stories of exotic, beautiful, smitten women saving him from certain death in romantic locales such as Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and France. The Pocahontas story, which he did not first tell until many years later, was likely just another variation on this theme, and one that he concocted only after she became famous in England.
However, if Smith’s story is based in reality, then Pocahontas did not literally save him from being beheaded by her father. Rather, she would have been playing a predetermined role in some kind of adoption ritual. She definitely would not have been an lovesick teen impetuously pleading for Smith’s life. She would have been an actor in a ritual play.
Furthermore, if something like Smith’s version of events did happen (again, it probably didn’t), then we must also remember that Smith and Powhatan spoke only a few words of each other’s languages in 1608. Smith would not have understood much of what was going on.
So ask yourself: Is it at all credible that the mighty Powhatan sought or heeded the counsel of a young child in deciding the fate of the Jamestown leader? The contention is laughable.
We also know for a fact that Smith never courted, much less married, Pocahontas. He left North America less than two yeas later, when she was still a pre-pubescent child, and he never returned.
To the contrary, Pocahontas grew up to marry an Algonquin man from one of the villages in her father’s domain. And yes, she did eventually marry an Englishman, but only after the English kidnapped her in 1613, while she was visiting Jamestown. Powhatan did not think enough of Pocahontas to pay their ransom. Instead, the English held her hostage for about a year, renamed her “Rebecca,” and subjected her to Christian tutelage.
Eventually an English widower named John Rolfe fell madly in love with Pocahontas. Rolfe was important. His experiments planting Caribbean tobacco in the Chesapeake eventually paid off and ultimately secured the colony’s export economy. The final i’s and t’s on “Rebecca’s” conversion were hastily dotted and crossed, and her extant Algonquin marriage ignored, so that Rolfe could marry her in 1614.
Powhatan gave his blessing to the union, expecting his daughter to function as a diplomat on his behalf. She did.
In 1615 the couple had a son, christened Thomas after his father. The following year they sailed to England. Pocahontas was introduced as the “princess” daughter of “King” Powhatan, the converted Christian woman Rebecca, and the wife of Rolfe. She was the toast of London and Queen Elizabeth’s court.
While in London, she met John Smith for the first time since she was a child. Whatever the truth of their prior interactions, they definitely remembered each other. They spent the better part of an hour together. According to Smith’s diary, she was initially taciturn, furiously silent with him. When she finally opened up, the woman/wife/mother/diplomat upbraided Smith for being a liar and a disappointment, for not keeping his word to her father, who had treated him so well. Smith’s entry suggests he was somewhat chastened by her reproach. After all, he knew it was true.
At the end of the trip, Pocahontas fell ill and died aboard a ship sailing across England before it could reach the Atlantic Ocean. She was buried in England, where her remains remain to this day.
Yet back here in America, it is the myth of Pocahontas that remains. The beautiful, young princess who, in a fit of adolescent passion, impetuously begs her father to save the life of John Smith, the handsome swashbuckler with whom she is madly in love; the king relents, and the two of them marry and live happily ever after.
Nearly every piece of that story is either an outright fabrication and never happened at all, or is a wild exaggeration of a much more complicated truth. Any person can consult the historical record and dismiss the lies and contextualize the exaggerations. Many historians have done so. However, we as a society have spent centuries accepting those inaccuracies so that we can embrace the larger myth they compose, and accept the “truth” embedded in that myth.
Yeah, there were problem, but you know, by and large, the Indians happily welcomed us, or at least the good ones did, the wise and silent noble savages, and the pretty princesses infatuated with our brave and rugged white men. It was all meant to be.
That’s what the mythological union of Pochontas and John Smith represents that. Just like the myth of Sacajawea eagerly guiding Lewis and Clark across the continent.
In reality she was a pregnant teenager, the wife of a French trader named Toussaint Charbboneau whom Lewis and Clark had hired. Charbboneau had recently bought her from the Hidatsa people, who had previously captured her during a raid on the Shoshone people wherein they killed several of her relatives and friends.
And of course there’s the Thanksgiving myth. They were just so happy to see us, so eager to welcome us.
Once the lies and fabrications are exposed, the myth can begin to crumble. But so long as enough people embrace the lies, the myth can flourish. Which brings us back to Donald Trump.
He lies often and about everything and anything that suits him. He lies to anyone and everyone, not just strangers he’s trying to get over on, but also to his family, colleagues, and friends (if he actually has any).
Why? That’s difficult to say, exactly. Perhaps it’s some combination of mental illness, unchecked selfishness, and the bad habits of forever being a spoiled child. Some of the lies are a manifestation of his personal agency, an expression of his greed and avarice. Some are probably a manifestation of deep seated insecurities and perhaps even undiagnosed mental illness. For it seems at times that Donald Trump is a degenerate liar. “Degenerate” meaning he simply cannot help himself. Like the alcoholic sidling up to the bar or the gambling addict emptying his pockets at the craps table, Trump is to some degree powerless. He must lie.
But whatever the cause, the train of action is tediously predictable. One formulaic lie after another issues forth from his tiny mouth. Previously, those individual lies were the domain of his business and personal life. The endless stream of lies had a personal impact (and likely still do) on his wives and countless mistresses and one-night stands, on his children, on his business partners.
However, that is not our concern. He is not our philandering husband. He is not our narcissistic father. He is not our repeatedly bankrupt business partner. His is not our worthless friend. He is our president. And so now the lies he tells, while each of various importance on their own demerits, have a collective impact on all of us as they feed the mythology of Donald Trump.
Donald Trump, the self-made man instead of the rich kid who had everything handed to him. Donald Trump, the tremendously successful businessman instead of the repeated failure who in the end was left selling nothing but himself. Donald Trump, the chosen leader of the Christian right instead the man who seems to have barely even a passing familiarity with Christianity, and whose own unrepented sins could fill a ledger book that makes the Devil blush. Donald Trump, the stable genius instead of the spectacular dolt who, in front of the international press, wonders aloud if injecting disinfectants might cure Covid-19.
People ask me all the time. How do Donald Trump’s supporters not recognize him for the lying con man that he so obviously is. The answer is at least twofold. Trump is a lifelong grifter. He’s very good at it, and some of his supporters are simply suckers. They are the people who giveaway money to Three Card Monty games, to religious hucksters flying around in private jets, to mail fraud scams, to telephone and email charlatans asking for your social security number, and to any number of schemes designed to bilk the naive, the gullible, and the mentally deficient. But these are not most of Donald Trump’s supporters. These are likely a small minority of them.
Most of his supporters are simply embracing the myth. They are not suckers. They are believers. They’re getting exactly what they want: a champion. Salvation.
For them, each lie is something to be stepped over, another rung in the ladder leading us ever upwards so that we may gaze upon the grand mythology of Donald Trump. The individual lies join together to form a fabulous story bearing a deeper truth. That he is one of us. That he is angry because we are angry. That he hates what we hate and loves what we love. That his sharp elbows and acid tongue, his overflowing confidence and savvy instincts, his street smarts and brutal honesty are just what we need right now. That he is our protector from the brown hoards changing us beyond recognition, from the yellow peril driving us beneath our sanctioned station, and from the invisible threats that surround us on every side. That He is our savior.
This is the myth of Donald Trump. This is what his supporters see when they look upon him. He is their Golden Calf. He is their beautiful Pocahontas, swooping down to save them from a savage beheading. He is their brave and noble Sacajawea, lighting their way towards Eden.
And you. You are Powhatan, barking murderous orders. You are the untamed wilderness through which a path must be blazed. You are too confident and too comfortable with the brown hoards and the yellow peril and the invisible threats. You are the apostate, another American who has betrayed our collective vision by looking upon Him and seeing only warts while blinding yourself to His greater glory. For to behold The Donald is to know him, and only strangers in our midst do not see him, only the enemy within will not climb up towards his righteousness.
Inject your disinfectant, and drink deeply of him.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com