Buffalo Trump: Closing the frontier again

Kirby Farrell | January 24, 2016

Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

Instead of saying someone died, some folks a century ago might say he “went to the happy hunting ground,” or he’s gone “to join the Indians.” The euphemism referred to the closing of the American frontier in the late 19th century. The saying made the near-extermination of native Americans sound regrettable but also humorous. Like the 20C fad for westerns, the euphemism was a way of acknowledging but taming guilty violence.

The phrase sounds quaint now, but its spirit is alive today in the wish that all immigrants were socially dead and gone. Media have pumped up Donald Trump’s vow to rout the aliens who want “our” land. It’s one of the oldest American myths. Vowing to make America great again, Trump’s campaign follows the formula of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West” show.

For thirty years Bill Cody made a living by restaging the white American hero’s conquest of the frontier, the nation’s biggest real estate deal. In reenacting the Indian wars, the show’s pageant battles magically undid Custer’s last stand and the shameful slaughter of Indians. The replay turned murderous greed (“the only good Indian is a dead Indian”) into celebrity appearances and a paycheck for a reluctant but impoverished Sitting Bull.

Like Buffalo Bill, Trump advertises showmanship and mythic truth. Sounding outspoken and slangy, Trump tries to suggest authenticity as Bill’s personally designed buckskin outfit did. Much of what Trump says is plainly untrue, but his impromptu theatricality shrugs off niggling reality-testing. It’s a show, a style. He’s a gunslinger and slyly brags (link is external) about his ability to command attention like a rampage killer: “I could stand in the middle of 5th ave, shoot somebody & I wouldn’t lose any voters, it is incredible.” [1] It’s play: an actual threat, but somehow just an act.

As in Bill’s show, the real estate tycoon celebrates the ambitions of empire and the bravura confidence of a Gilded Age. As in a pageant, Trump vanquishes immigrants, terrorists, and Muslims as if by magic. His policies (deportation, a Great Wall like China’s) are mythic hyperbole. He tells tall tales about his own business glories, hailing the ruthless Vladimir Putin as if they’re both world leaders. It’s show biz.

P. T. Barnum summed up the sinister side of such entertainment in his famous quip that “There’s a sucker born every minute.” This jocular put-down, even in the slang term “sucker,” disguises the hoaxer’s contempt. A sucker is an infant helplessly dependent on the nipple. It’s a powerful theme in American history. Fitzgerald romanticizes its ironies when the great Jay Gatsby dreams of “sucking on the pap of life” and “gulping down the incomparable milk of wonder.”

Wonder is also the bunkum that Barnum was peddling. By staying “on message,” avoiding reality-testing, the new Buffalo Bill acts out the transformation of politics into pure advertising.

As Trump replays Buffalo Bill replaying the social death of the Indians, the press calls his language “incendiary,” meaning not actual arson but “a device to cause fires.” You can hear the play-killing as he attacks journalists at a rally in Michigan (12/21/15): “I would never kill them. But I do hate them.” Play allows him to repeat the formula, verbally killing journalists even as he disavows it. Like Buffalo Bill or Annie Oakley, Trump “shoots from the hip” for a crowd that Barnum describes with a disturbing wink.

The play-actor is selling morale. Like the snake oil of Bill Cody’s day, Trump converts anxiety and depression into fighting spirit. He gives the crowd permission to get angry at scapegoats. At the Michigan rally he quipped that the despised journalists in the press box were surrounded by a hostile mob—meaning his supporters.

Promising greatness, today’s Buffalo Bill brings together the roles of robber baron, Indian fighter, and hard-headed working man. He acts out a story to rationalize declining wages, the usual racism, and a string of expensive American military defeats. The crowd needs to know that we’ve been there, done that.

The faithful throw themselves at the hero. But despite all the hype, a recent Gallup poll reports that only 5% of American adults think Trump “could turn things around.” Only 1% regard him as “better than what we have.” And astonishingly, only 2% found him “entertaining.”

To me this suggests that “Trump” is a play space, like Bill’s Wild West Show, where people can act out feelings and fantasies they know aren’t altogether real. As play, it can relieve inner conflicts over arrogance and guilt. But it can also be a rehearsal for viciousness. As ritual, the show radiates power, and people want to be part of it. In this sense, it’s like playing with guns or play-fantasies about the US military wiping out enemies everywhere. The show is unrealistic, but it’s doing real work for people who need to know they’re watching colorful fireworks made with real gunpowder.

[1] For an in-depth treatment of play mentality in the behavior of real rampage killers such as Adam Lanza, see The Psychology of Abandon (Leveller’s Press), pp. 41ff.

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