Trump and Homer

Long ago I was small, and a reader from the first. My local branch library in farthest Brooklyn was, as I remember, the size of a storefront; later, a new, spiffy branch was built a little closer in to the "city," and another in the other direction, which I visited less frequently. But in my beginning beginnings, other than The Five Chinese Brothers, the only book I remember taking to the checkout desk at the storefront branch was The Iliad, of all things. The librarians conferred about whether I should be allowed to take it, as it was an adult book. They consented, but I never got around to reading it, and until this day, it remains on my unaccomplished reading list. I am still saving it for a rainy day.

Later on I caught Robert Graves fever, and read through much of his reimagining - emphasis on the imagining, some would say - of ancient times. And so the subject of Homer has always intrigued me. Graves went so far as to speculate that the Odyssey was written by a young woman centuries after the Iliad, but I may be excused for referring to any and all possible Homers collectively as a "he." Homer was to pagan society what the Bible is to monotheism, a source of endless analysis, speculation, and deconstructive nitpicking. In our day, the idea that Homer's poems were not finished products but began in oral recitations won support in part as a populist reaction to high literary culture. One modern scholar in particular thought the key to Homer lay in the practices of the modern reciters of epics still to be found in the Balkans until not long ago. The use of tags for meter and memory pegs could propel a good bard through hours and even days of a story line. So, that Homer could hardly not mention Achilles without some signifier, swift-footed, godlike, and so on, had a purpose, like a kind of bardic post-it note. The supply of epithets per character was finite and hackneyed, be they a god, goddess, or person. Generally, epithets denoted positive attributes. Whichever side Homer was on - and after all he was on the Greek side - he did not run the other side down by epithets like short-tempered, greedy, cowardly, base, mean, unkempt, stupid. No, there was no glory in sticking a spear into someone like that.

Trump's discourse surprisingly has a Homeric side to it. Perhaps not even surprisingly, since he is essentially a preliterate. People have been bemused, puzzled and naturally repulsed by his speaking style. And it's true, in any bardic competition he would be driven off the stage to a barrage of wilted vegetables. I had a flash of insight when he attacked an obscure government lawyer, Bruce Ohr, and described his wife, yet another of the dramatis personae in the conspiracies he makes up, as "beautiful." It was pointed out on that occasion that Trump is fixated on women's appearances - he described an FBI lawyer in a similar way -, but this word in this context, by any sensible criterion, has no place in any interpretation of the supposed cabal he uncovered. It is a Homeric signifier, one to which he can return when he needs to remember what he was talking about. This is highlighted by the poverty of his vocabulary; chocolate cake is also beautiful, as are the letters he receives from Chairman Kim, and so, I suppose, is steak and lobster and the sand trap of his golf course in Scotland. The seemingly demented tirades he delivers at rallies or finger-pecks on Twitter exhibit this rhetorical pattern, and once it's recognized they almost make sense. But Trump has no poetic powers. His epithets are wildly inappropriate and even meaningless. His evil genius is that when he talks to his base, he taps into their everyday world. Who, among all the candidates and politicians, could insert fabricated references to late night TV hosts or disrespect the National Football League, and have the crowd nodding along, smiling and laughing at his insults? Indeed, on these occasions the audience is even arranged for the television camera rising behind him in amphitheater seating, like the spectators at the performance of a comedy in ancient Athens. His use of childish school-playground nicknames for opponents, violating the Homeric norm of praise for the enemy, was highlighted when he was campaigning and demolishing the pitiful field of Republican candidates, and then after he was nominated: Lyin' Ted (first names only are a necessary component), Liddle (even more childish) Marco, and of course the archvillainess Crooked Hillary. Certain of his signifiers are thinly veiled racial barbs: no Black woman is "beautiful," rather they are "crazy" and "low IQ." I forebear from inflicting further pain by citing more examples.

Maybe even Homer had to warm up his audience with Persian jokes - a perennial favorite - and references to everyday situations like the watered-down retsina at the local tavern and debt enslavement. But once he got going, however his works were composed, there was a soaring story line. In contrast, Trump is easily distracted; one of his signifiers thrown back at him will set him off on a tangent. The word "great" as in "great victory" can trigger a long ramble about the number of electoral votes he captured, like a jack-in-the-box being released. These excursions tend to run the same course. Unlike Homer, who was content to be a narrator of the stories of heroes, Trump is the hero in all his stories. Achilles's weak point was his heel; only those pesky bone spurs in the same place kept Trump from marching toward the sound of the guns and winning the Medal of Honor.

Homer, like Trump, had a lot to keep straight, but did a much better job of it. Geographically and in time scale the Iliad and the Odyssey are poles apart; the former is confined to one episode in the plains before Troy, whereas the Odyssey roams over the entire Mediterranean. Trump's world is rather defined by where he owns property. Not only did Homer have to give shout-outs to the cast of characters on both sides, he had to keep track of their genealogies. Somewhere in the family tree of many was a liaison between a god or goddess and a human. Throughout the Iliad and Odyssey the gods mess with humans, backing one side or the other, and Homer knew - were there leakers on Olympus? - who had intervened in the struggle and at what point. Compared to the Greeks and Trojans, Trump is at a big disadvantage when it comes to divine support. He is nominally a Christian. That can be a problem, inasmuch as divine favor of the Gott mit uns variety tends to be all or nothing. The combatants in the Trojan War had no such limitations, although in the end Fate was the most powerful deity of all.

Trump, like the Trojans, is a big, big wall guy. The story of the Trojan horse that concealed the sneaky Greeks is not found in the Iliad, but rather in the Odyssey, whose central character has a deceitful and tricky nature. Thinking about it, I wonder if it was fake news. An army despoiling the countryside for ten years, not to mention the lumber needed to keep their ships in repair, would not have left enough trees standing to make anything larger than a toothpick. Maybe they imported the wood, tariffs permitting, for the occasion. My guess is they got sick of the endless war and called it quits, then circulated a story about their great victory (see above). News travelled slow in the Late Bronze Age. We do know that the Troy that Schliemann found had been destroyed more than once. Walls can tumble and cities and states can fall for all sorts of reasons: fire, earthquakes, demagoguery, stupidity, and that great Greek word, hubris. It remains to be seen what role Fate will play.


In my very occasional essays I try to steer clear of current events. This is an exception. I wrote this in exasperation in October of 2018, and sent it to a few friends. Subsequently, it turned out to be even more true than I had imagined. It was reported in January, 2019, that in the Presidential campaign, campaign advisers sought for a way to control and channel Trump's erratic mind and keep him on the subject of immigration, a key element of their xenophobic strategy. They hit on the idea of "the wall" as a mnemonic trick, one that would both appeal to his colossal vanity as a "builder" and jerk him back to the topic. "Build the wall" turned out to be a rally mantra and played no small part in selling Trump.