Does anyone besides me remember the kerfuffle about all the Donald Trump statues cropping up all over the place a few weeks ago? I don’t think the matter has yet quite outlived Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. But Donald Trump is like one of his eponymous wines (Chateau Tres Belle Mar-A-Lago Drumpf): it turns to vinegar in about 15 minutes, so I can’t afford to wait too long to discuss it. So let the games begin!
Anyone who has read even one of my columns knows that I revile Donald Trump, the Trump brand, and everything both he and it stand for. Regardless of whatever god may exist, Donald Trump is one of that god’s more egregious mistakes. So what follows is not a defense of Donald Trump. Rather, it is a defense of decency even in the face of extreme provocation, because trying to out-Trump Trump will only bring out, to some extent has already brought out, from the woodwork the chthonic demons that can make us ourselves into mini-Trumps.
In the case of the Trump statues, the hatred evoked by the statue assumes the form of lipophobia. Like its better-known cousins homophobia, Islamophobia, gynophobia, etc., lipophobia is a form of hatred of and bigotry. Homophobia is hatred and bigotry against sexual-orientation minorities; Islamophobia, against Muslims; gynophobia, against women; etc. Similarly, lipophobia is hatred of and prejudice against fat people (from the Greek lipos for “fat” and phobos for “fear”). (You will notice that I refuse to use euphemisms like “large people,” “heavy-set people,” “people of size,” etc., because the resort to euphemism is itself a telltale symptom of lipophobia.) I know about lipophobia. I dealt with it all through junior-high school, especially in gym class, and only survived because I learned how to fight, strictly in self-defense, but notwithstanding to fight real dirty, and fight so well that, e.g., I crushed one assailant’s testicle … after which the local Junior Brownshirt Wanna-Be Brigade sedulously left me alone. (Of course, once in a while I did get my arse kicked, but even then, with me as the kick-ee, the kick-er's victory was so Pyrrhic as to be not worth the cost.) After two weeks in high school, I quizzed out -- long story here -- and was fast-tracked to college despite being, chronologically, a high-school freshman. So there was no high-school repetition of junior-high boys’ gym class. But I spent enough time as a young adolescent up close and personal with lipophobia to know the symptoms and, even more so, the stereotypes and the rationalizations for them.
That the Donald Trump statue is a work of art intended to leverage popular lipophobia in the public mind is evident if you ask yourself the following question: granted, Donald Trump is pathologically self-centered, narcissistic, and undisciplined, the question begged is: why were those psychopathologies expressed in the form of someone who is morbidly obese? Like most older men, Trump is overweight, but it is not apparent that he is as overweight as the statue depicts. So what is the connection, and even more to the point why is there a connection? How would the statue have been different, and how would its meaning have been different, if Trump’s undisputed self-absorption and lack of discipline had been expressed in a statue of another middle-aged man, a fit and height-weight proportional middle-aged man, say, George Clooney or Jean Claude “Muscles from Brussels” Van Damme? Finally, what is there about physical fatness that lends itself so seamlessly to portrayals of Trump's "id-centric" psychology? My answer: a fit Donald Trump statue like Clooney or Van Damme would not tap into the popular stereotypical cultural prejudice against fat people as narcissistic and lacking self-control. Hence the fat; hence the flab: the physique incarnates the psyche.
But perhaps even more fascinating to me is that, in discussing this topic in person and on social media with others, I have heard people defend the Trump statue using many cognate forms of the same rationalizations that, e.g., were prevalent when black people, in the early days of the civil-rights movement, objected to similar appeals to stereotypes of African-Americans. (This should not be interpreted as insinuating that the struggles of black people and fat people for dignity are in any way commensurate in degree, but rather as a comment on people's stereotype- and bigotry-driven reactions to those struggles.) Herewith those rationalizations and my responses:
o “Don’t take it so personally”
I don’t know how to take it any other way when people appeal to an arrant and irrational prejudice about fat people to impugn my mental health, emotional stability, and moral integrity by equating fatness with lack of self-discipline. Yes, there are fat people who lack self-discipline, but that physical paragon Jean Claude Van Damme has been arrested for domestic violence and spousal abuse: the mere possession of musculature does not entail control of same. Ray Rice beat his fiancée unconscious … but – damn! – at least he ain’t fat! So when issues of such intimacy are involved, personally is the only way I can take it.
o "It’s all about the Emperor’s new clothes"
This one really frosts me in unmentionable areas, and that for three reasons: (1) saying that the obesity of the Trump statue is “about the Emperor’s new clothes” only proves that the speaker has never actually read or heard the parable, and so is (2) desperately searching for even a threadbare rationalization as a fig leaf – as it were – to conceal their own lipophobia. As long as it is about clothes instead of bodies, the speaker can attempt to divert the conversation toward the former and away from the latter. Finally, (3), the “Emperor’s new clothes” response only compounds the offense by insulting my intelligence: a rather dull third grader could instantly penetrate the rhetorical smokescreen. But – no need to thank me here – I’ll make it even more explicit: if the Emperor in the parable had the physique of the god Apollo, that would change nothing, because the story is not about the Emperor’s body, but about his flagrant obliviousness to the reality around him. The Emperor is absurd, not because he isn’t wearing a doublet, but because he is dumb.
o "Trump himself set the precedent when he alluded to his own physical endowments"
A precedent entails no obligation to follow it. Dred Scott v. Sandford set a precedent that said black folks could never be citizens; Plessy v. Ferguson, that said the principle of “separate but equal” was permissible. We followed those precedents until we didn’t – in 1868 and 1954, respectively. Precedents don’t program us, least of all do they program us to respond in kind with “an eye for an eye” (which Gandhi wisely said would “leave the whole world blind”). We can be better than our precedents.
o "Where is your sense of humor about being fat?"
Oh golly-gee-gawrsh … I dunno … probably in the same general place African-Americans left their sense of humor about, e.g., Little Black Sambo, “the ['n-word' expurgated] beat[ing] their feet on the Mississippi mud,” and white guys in blackface mouthing supposed black locutions about “Massah” and “Feets do yo’ duty”. Or 1950s movies portraying Native Americans as “Injun Joe” or being killed by US Cavalry troops whose guns apparently had an infinite supply of ammunition that could kill a half-dozen or so Native Americans with a singe shot. You know … someplace like that ... that's where my "sense of humor" about fat bigotry is.
That the Donald Trump statue is a statue depicting Donald Trump in particular is ultimately irrelevant. Trump is one of those people like Louie Gohmert, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann who are almost impossible to satirize, because they are walking, breathing satires of themselves. Reality leaves art gasping in the dust: Andy Borowitz and I are flagrantly superfluous. Rather, the statue is, in reality, a statue referencing anyone who, for whatever reason, deviates from the standard societal / cultural definition of physical fitness and beauty in ways that the society considers especially egregious, e.g., body size and type. So when people ridicule and revile the Trump statue, they are, in reality, giving both themselves and others permission to ridicule and to revile those who are different, those they consider deformed. (Who knows? In future, there might be similar statues depicting such hilarious images as people with hare lip and cleft palates – or NY Times reporters with neural impairments. Hey! Wudd’n-at be a mega-hoot? I mean, it’s important to have something to look forward to!) It's a rather crude form of sympathetic magic: stick the pin in the little doll, and you hurt the real person. That so many people are willing to participate in such behavior and to condone it in others suggests that there is really not all that much difference between Trump and his neo-brownshirts and the rest of us. Laughing at the Trump statues is a relatively mild and benign manifestation of mob psychology.
But mild though it is, it does teach us a lesson: The Mob can be us.
James R. Cowles
PS -- I wrote this column from my in-laws' house in Hilo, Hawaii, on the Big Island. Diane and I are now, as this is written, spending overnight in a hotel in Kona, and will drive to the airport for the flight back to Seattle tomorrow. So it is odd that it took this long for the following to occur to me: there is one place on the planet that, in my experience, is free of lipophobic body bigotry: the culture of Hawaii. Yes, of course, there are individual lipophobes and body bigots in Hawaii, but not very many, if my experience is typical. Hawaiian culture says the idea of swimming, snorkeling, surfing, paddle-boarding, or just lolling on the beach is to have fun,, not to impress anyone with your physique. So in Hawaii I never hesitate to take my shirt off and go to the beach in just swim trunks -- something I would categorically never do in more body-bigoted venues like, e.g., southern California. In Hawaii, it doesn't matter how you look -- again, in terms of the culture as a whole -- but that you just have a good time. Whatever concern there is about body size / type centers on physical health, not one's worth as a person. In more body-bigoted places, I point to Hawaii, and say "Go and do thou likewise".
Donald Trump: Michael Vadon ... Flickr ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Waist measurements: Mikael Häggström ... CC by SA 3.0
Kira Nerusskaya: David Shankbone ... GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Vivian Malone entering the University of Alabama: Library of Congress ... public domain