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How Dr. Seuss Helped Me Understand Donald Trump

L-R: American author, artist and publisher Theodor Seuss Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, pictured in 1987; Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, pictured in 2016. (Both images/AP)
L-R: American author, artist and publisher Theodor Seuss Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, pictured in 1987; Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, pictured in 2016. (Both images/AP)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Like a lot of confused and terrified Americans, I have spent the past several months trying to understand the Donald Trump phenomenon. How could such a self-absorbed adolescent greedbot ascend to within smirking distance of the presidency of the United States?

My own theories have the run the gamut, from the media’s compulsion to retail spectacle to our nation’s sad legacy of falling for paranoid hucksters to the peculiar American penchant for patriarchal dominion.

As I read the title story to Rosalie, I couldn’t help but to see the eerie parallels.

But when it comes to understanding Trump and Trumpism, I’ve located the urtext. I came upon it in the most unlikely of places: reading an obscure work by Dr. Seuss to my 3-year-old daughter, Rosalie.

Actually, I shouldn’t say unlikely. In addition to his talents as a storyteller and poet — I’m convinced the good doctor is actually the greatest rapper in history — Seuss is a keen social critic. "The Lorax," for instance, sums up the planet’s environmental crisis in fewer than a thousand words. "Horton Hears a Who" is properly understood as a parable about our need to protect the powerless.

Of course, I thought I’d read the entire Seuss canon over the past decade of putting unruly children to bed. But it turns out I’d missed one: "The Sneetches and Other Stories."

As I read the title story to Rosalie, I couldn’t help but to see the eerie parallels. The Sneetches are a tribe of people who live on the beach, in relative luxury. But they have created a caste system, in which one set of Sneetches (the Elite Sneetches?) look down upon another set because they don’t have stars on their bellies. The star-less Sneetches feel dispossessed. In other words, their world is riven by class anxiety, grievance and bigotry.

Sound familiar?

Into this fractious ecosystem comes a canny businessman, hungry for profit. To quote the bard:

My name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean.

And I’ve heard of your troubles. I’ve heard you’re unhappy.

But I can fix that. I’m the Fix-it-Up Chappie.

I’ve come here to help you. I have what you need.

And my prices are low. And I work at great speed.

And my work is one hundred percent guaranteed.

McBean spends the rest of the day exciting and exploiting the Sneetches prejudice, then charging them more and more to affix stars, then remove them. It all goes beautifully for McBean:

Then, when every last cent

Of their money was spent

The Fix-it-Up Chappie packed up

And he went.

And he laughed as he drove

In his car up the beach,

“They never will learn.

No. You can’t teach a Sneetch!”

That, folks, is Donald J. Trump in a nutshell.

The guy has spent his life in a fevered pursuit of money (and whatever self-esteem that money might purchase him). The idea that he has any concern for other people — let alone the public good -- is complete horse crap. Anybody with a functioning intellect knows that.

His master plan is not to win the presidency, but to use his candidacy as the launchpad for a media empire that will generate endless profits by sowing endless division. Heck, he’s even got a guy lined up to do the spadework: deposed Fox News honcho (and chronic sexual harasser) Roger Ailes.

That’s the most likely scenario.

But there are two other possibilities.

Let us hope, for our own sake and the sake of our children, that we learn our lesson before it’s too late.

The first is Trump’s plan to lose will fail. In this case, we will wind up with Sylvester McMonkey McBean as the leader of the free world.

But the second possibility is that the American people — or a significant majority of us, anyway — will learn from the rise of Trumpism. Once the echo of his endless bluster dies down, we may come to see his exploitation of our primal negative emotions (fear, rage, grievance) as a collective setback for our democracy.

In some sense, the most ardent bigot in modern political history may inoculate us from future Trumps. That’s what Dr. Seuss prophesizes in the end:

But McBean was quite wrong. I’m quite happy to say

That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day,

The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches

And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.

That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars

And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.

Let us hope, for our own sake and the sake of our children, that we learn our lesson before it’s too late.

Also by Steve Almond:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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