“The Way We Live Now,” by Anthony Trollope, and U.S. mailbox

As Donald J. Trump and his partisan postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, do everything they can think of to hamper mail-in ballots for the upcoming election — bad mouthing the security of the ballots against any available evidence, trucking away mailboxes, moving sorting machines, and other wise guy moves — it is worth noting, in passing, the oddity that the man who invented the post box, nineteenth-century English novelist Anthony Trollope, also happened to invent a character much like Trump.

Trollope supported his writing, at first, as a career civil servant in the postal service in England and Ireland. He is credited with suggesting the post (pillar) box in England for mail, first put into service at St. Helier, Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, in November 1852. (Similarly shaped boxes were introduced in the U.S. soon after; the design for the modern U.S. mailbox, with the hinged lid that we know today, was patented by Philip B. Downing in 1891. More of interest about him below.)

By the way, if you are a writer you don’t even want to know how many massive novels Trollope wrote while working full time.

Opening his introduction to the Modern Library Classics edition of the novel, David Brooks (yes, that David Brooks), imagines an American mogul who has come to town, who “starts throwing money around”:

“Everybody loves this guy in public and hates him in private. He’s got a big head and a booming voice and his conversation, such as it is, never strays too far from himself and his own epic accomplishments. Nobody’s even quite sure where all the money comes from.”

So who is Trollope’s Trump? Augustus Melmotte, who appears in his 1874 novel The Way We Live Now, a title with perhaps special resonance today.

Ever since Trump started running for president — indeed, ever since he determined to insert himself into the public eye (which ever since has been persistently infected and weepy) — writers have sought to compare him to fictional characters.

Connecting Trump to characters of literature and film goes back at least as far as 1982, when Wayne Barrett of The Village Voice described him as “Mr. Gimme, the tax break whiz kid” in writing about Trumpian/Roy Cohnian machinations to bilk the public around Donald’s new condo building going up on Fifth Avenue and his work on the Grand Hyatt Hotel (“Trump’s Stairway to Hell,” The Village Voice, 1982).

“Mr. Gimme” was Barrett’s own fictional creation, but it perfectly describes the man-boy who grew rich by being massively set up by his father and then not paying for services rendered, cheating on his taxes, and being bailed out by the public (and, as we now know, almost certainly by other entities). In any case, Barrett deserves a monument (perhaps placed directly across Fifth Avenue from Trump Tower?) for his tireless efforts from the beginning of the daddy-funded career of the Oddly Coiffed One to warn Americans about Trump’s utter lack of character.

Perhaps that lack has driven people to look to fiction to explain Trump ever since Barrett coined “Mr. Gimme.” As human beings will attempt to find a face in anything, it may be our human impulse to try to fill what we perceive as an immense void in character with something, anything, we can recognize.

An opinion piece in The New York Times by Bret Stephens (“When Fiction Most Becomes Trump”) from 2019 discusses the various characters who most resemble the President, posing the questions: “If history’s greatest novelists and playwrights were to come back from the dead so they could tell the improbable tale of Donald J. Trump, how would they do it? How might they capture the man and his presidency in all of its hallucinatory, absurd and terrifying detail when we journalists usually seem to come up short?”

This speculation is at least doubly ironic. It both gives Trump attention — the only thing he seems to desire more than money, which is money to him — and ties his name to some of the greatest novelists and playwrights in history, which is absurd, given Trump clearly is no reader, not just of literature but, from what we well know now from numerous White House insiders, of policy documents or even his daily briefings. His staff learned early on that to get this president to even partially focus on his briefing they needed to keep it briefer than brief and insert his name as often as possible, at mention of which he would perk up.

And yet it is nearly impossible to not see numerous Trumpian characteristics in the devious and malign characters in various novels and plays.

In The Way We Live Now a literary doppelgänger for Trump, Augustus Melmotte, nearly leaps from the pages.

As I turned the pages, the resemblance grew ever more uncanny. It seemed that Trollope had anticipated a Trump during the 1870s, which, Brooks notes, was a time of much speculation and avid moneygetting. The character Trollope created was almost certainly inspired by a few real-life scoundrels making wild promises to shareholders. Here are the main similarities:

People are convinced he is a great businessman. Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghost writer for his Art of the Deal, is on record saying that he was instrumental in creating the fiction of Trump as a good businessman. The “reality” show “The Apprentice” did more of this work. (And Trump’s P.R. flack “John Barron,” with that oddly familiar voice, also did yeoman’s work here.)

As for Melmotte, in the novel it is rumored he is immensely rich and quite sagacious about his various business endeavors, but no one quite knows what those business interests might be. And there are unsettling rumors of bankruptcies in his past:

And then from time to time little rumours reached her ears which made her aware that, in the teeth of Mr. Melmotte’s social successes, a general opinion that he was a gigantic swindler was rather gaining ground….”There’s nothing like being a robber, if you can only rob enough,” said Lord Grasslough, — not exactly naming Melmotte, but very clearly alluding to him….Mr. Melmotte was admitted into society, because of some enormous power which was supposed to lie in his hands; but even by those who thus admitted him he was regarded as a thief and a scoundrel.

He intends to not pay people who work for him. As a developer, Trump is infamous for refusing to pay people who work for him, especially contractors. The pianos made especially for the casino, the caterers for one of his weddings (who said he told them they could, in lieu of payment, brag about their connection to him) — we know the stories. Trump’s longstanding tactic is to renege on payment over some small objection to the work and thereby dare the small company to sue and get enmeshed in a costly legal battle.

In the novel, Melmotte, too, manages to weasel out of paying for work done. He even tricks investors out of both their stock (he insists on holding the certificates for them) and their purported gains. He buys a house from a once-august family, the Longestaffes, and manages to bamboozle them about the payment:

The father and son who never had agreed before, and who now had come to no agreement in the presence of each other, had each considered that their affairs would be safe in the hands of so great a man as Mr. Melmotte, and had been brought to terms. The purchase-money, which was large, was to be divided between them. The thing was done with the greatest ease, — there being no longer any delay as is the case when small people are at work. The magnificence of Mr. Melmotte affected even the Longestaffe lawyers. Were I to buy a little property, some humble cottage with a garden, — or you, O reader, unless you be magnificent, — the money to the last farthing would be wanted, or security for the money more than sufficient, before we should be able to enter in upon our new home. But money was the very breath of Melmotte’s nostrils, and therefore his breath was taken for money.

He gets involved in politics. Roger Carbury, who easily fathoms the deceptions of Melmotte and writhes at the madness of his popularity, has this to say to Mr. Hepworth, the local bishop, in the course of a conversation about Melmotte’s run for a seat in Parliament:

“‘You think Melmotte will turn out a failure.”

“A failure! Of course he’s a failure, whether rich or poor; — a miserable imposition, a hollow vulgar fraud from beginning to end, — too insignificant for you and me to talk of, were it not that his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age. What are we coming to when such as he is an honoured guest at our tables?”

He is narcissist/bully, with deeply held resentments. Many people know the story of how Donald Trump, son of a financially successful Queens developer, wanted to conquer Manhattan and be accepted in high society but entirely misjudged how one might go about such a thing. (Was it even possible? Certainly not after erecting his abominable namesake on upper Fifth Avenue. Speaking of Manhattan, he lost there in 2016 by a staggering percentage, garnering only 10% of the vote. In Queens only 20% gave their homeboy the nod. Perhaps the media should pay more attention to how candidates are polling where they are best known?) It has been suggested that much of Trump’s rage comes from his not being well thought of by the well-heeled of Manhattan.

Melmotte has his own dreams. As he finds his stock rising in the eyes of the gullible (today one might say the “low-information people”) in England, Melmotte begins to think quite highly of himself and resentful about various perceived slights. He has been asked to host the Emperor of China at a great dinner at his home on Grosvenor Square but receives only common tickets to attend a preliminary soirée at the India Office:

But he had felt himself to be ill-used and was offended. He spoke with bitterness to some of his supporters of the Royal Family generally, because he had not been brought to the front rank either at the breakfast or at the ball.

And:

Six month since he had been a humble man to a Lord, — but now he scolded Earls and snubbed Dukes, and yet did it in a manner which showed how proud he was of connecting himself with their social pre-eminence, and how ignorant of the manner in which such pre-eminence affects English gentlemen generally. The more arrogant he became the more vulgar he was, till even Lord Alfred would almost be tempted to rush away to impecuniosity and freedom. Perhaps there were some with whom this conduct had a salutary effect. No doubt arrogance will produce submission; and there are men who take other men at the price those other men put upon themselves. Such persons could not refrain from thinking Melmotte to be mighty because he swaggered; and gave their hinder parts to be kicked merely because he put up his toe.

Senator Lindsey Graham, et al., are you reading this?

“Fake news!” Demagogue that he is, Trump endlessly calls the free press, the Fourth Estate of Democracy, “the enemy of the people.” At political rallies he berates the press, sometimes being so specific that at least one journalist, Katy Tur, had to literally be escorted from a campaign event for her own safety. Any news not complimentary to him is invariably branded “fake.” If the press is materially correct but makes one error in reporting, this point is seized upon to call all into question.

Trollope knew all about how that sort of thing works:

It was declared that every shilling which he had brought to England with him had consisted of plunder stolen from the shareholders in the company. Now the “Evening Pulpit” in its endeavour to make the facts of this transaction known, had placed what it called the domicile of this company in Paris, whereas it was ascertained that its official head-quarters had in truth been placed at Vienna. Was not such a blunder as this sufficient to show that no merchant of higher honour than Mr. Melmotte had ever adorned the Exchanges of modern capitals? And then two different newspapers of the time, both of them antagonistic to Melmotte, failed to be in accord on a material point. One declared that Mr. Melmotte was not in truth possessed of any wealth. The other said that he had derived his wealth from those unfortunate shareholders. Could anything be so false, so weak, so malignant, so useless, so wicked, so self-condemned, — in fact, so “Liberal” as a course of action such as this.

Deutsche Bank and Russian money, anyone? The investigation into collusion with Russia?

His wife is a “foreigner.” Melanija Knavs came to the United States from Slovenia in 1996 and worked as a model while waiting for a worker’s permit, and then stuck around — and married a guy with serious hair issues, perhaps thinking she might help him with that problem.

As for Melmotte, “He admitted that his wife was a foreigner, — an admission that was necessary as she spoke very little English.” (Trollope made her French.)

He is a phony Christian. By this time, everyone knows how much Trump loves the Bible, which is, in fact, his favorite book (“Nothing beats the Bible,” he once remarked. “Not even The Art of the Deal”). The protesters in Lafayette Square got a taste of how much Trump loves to play a Christian, having them gassed so he could hold up “a Bible” for cameras. And he is a general for white evangelical Christians, who see him as their new leader in the endless diversion of our culture wars.

If Trump is a Christian, he believes in the so-called Prosperity Gospel — the Jesus of which I’ve personally come to think of as Country-Club Jesus, a washed-out version of our Redeemer who sits on a barstool in the 19th hole and nurses his drink, docilely smiling and shaking his head at the unfathomable irony (side note: also the pet-name of his favorite wedge) while the old boys trade hilarious bigoted and misogynistic jokes.

In running for a seat in Parliament representing Westminster, Trollope’s character may have given small donations (no one is sure of it) to both Protestant and Catholic causes. But he then berates a priest, Father Barham, who has the temerity to come to his home to inquire about his faith:

“You’re in the way,” said Lord Alfred.

“It’s a piece of gross impertinence,” said Melmotte. “Go away.”

“Will you not tell me before I go whether I shall pray for you as one whose steps in the right path should be made sure and firm; or as one still in error and in darkness?”

“What the mischief does he mean?” asked Melmotte.

“He wants to know if you are a papist,” said Lord Alfred.

“What the deuce is it to him?” almost screamed Melmotte; — whereupon Father Barham bowed and took his leave.

He is a coward and a false patriot. We all know how as a young man Trump avoided serving his country (while still managing to serve ably on the tennis court) due to painful bone spurs of one or the other foot. (When asked about it, he couldn’t remember which.) As an older man, he has taken to hugging the flag — sometimes weirdly lasciviously.

As for Melmotte — okay, I didn’t catch anything on this score regarding Trollope’s character. There are no scenes in the novel of Melmotte humping the Union Jack.

His followers are, well, passionate. The tribal nature of present-day politics is also well captured by Trollope, showing that this is no new phenomenon. Melmotte is praised for his great business acumen by one paper while being disparaged by others, and both work to his advantage:

The hotter the opposition the keener will be the support. Honest good men, men who really loved their country, fine gentlemen, who had received unsullied names from great ancestors, shed their money right and left, and grew hot in personally energetic struggles to have this man returned to Parliament as the head of the great Conservative mercantile interests of Great Britain!

And we continue to deal with the cult of personality around Donald J. Trump, with all of its unsettling, and, as Stephens wrote, even terrifying resemblances to the stuff of fiction.

Even though it has nearly been 4 years, to many it still does not compute to see the columns, the flags, the salutes, the dart-and-egg, all the ceremonial pomp — and, then, in walks this guy, praising QAnon, speaking highly of white supremacists, sending his best wishes to a child predator, shrugging at unending deaths in the pandemic, and complaining about shower pressure.

This incongruity from the expected behavior of a leader at this level alone is exhausting. The mind rebels. And that, of course, is the point. Overwhelming people to the point of despair is the job of a demagogue. That’s the one job he is doing terrifyingly well.

Speaking of terrifying, to get a complete, concise take on Trump’s attack on the postal service, go back and find historian Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American” for August 14, 2020.

If you are a supporter of the postal service (and nearly all of us, some 91% of Americans, are), you might find and share one of the clever memes of the mailbox emblazoned This Machine Kills Fascists, a mash-up nod, as it were, to a nineteenth-century English novelist, a twentieth-century folk singer, and another man I mentioned in passing above.

That would be Mr. Downing, the man who designed and patented, in 1891, the blue mailboxes we know in the United States, the ones with the overhang to keep out the rain (improving on the pillar design). Mr. Downing happened to be African American.

So, how perfect is that?

What do you suppose he would think of a mobster American president and his henchman postmaster general actively trying to subvert voting by mail specifically to thwart the votes of people of color?

By the way, there were a few working titles for this piece, but I settled on “Trollope’s Trump.” The flipped version, “Trump’s Trollops,” would, of course, be an entirely different piece, but one not at all out of character for this president who doesn’t have a jot of character.