Ninety-seven years ago next Wednesday—on July 26 1920 to be specific—cultural critic and journalist, H.L. Mencken, wrote a column that appeared in The Baltimore Sun. Entitled “Bayard and Lionheart,” that piece included this oft-quoted sentence:
“On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of this land will reach their heart’s content at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Many observers—myself including—associate Mencken’s reference with Donald Trump.
Was Mencken prescient, a clairvoyant? One thing is certain: Mencken—who stopped writing in the late 1940’s and died in 1956—was being … well … Mencken.
An inveterate critic, Mencken took on everything that mattered and anyone who counted. An iconoclast of epic proportions, he delighted in holding a mirror to society. With scorn and malice intended, he especially liked to target politics. It was theatre to Mencken, and that’s how he saw the Presidential race in 1920—the frame of reference for that now-famous column.
It was a contest between eventual winner, Warren Harding, and Democratic challenger, the long since-forgotten David Cox. Mencken viewed Harding as a man “with the face of a moving-picture actor … and the intelligence of a respectable agricultural implement dealer.” He saw Cox as a person “with a gift for bamboozing the boobs.”
While Mencken treated politicians unmercifully, some of his most pointed criticism was reserved for the American public and the institution of democracy. Mencken held both in contempt—not so much in theory as in practice. He detested the relative inability of upstanding people to be elected to office.
“In the face of singular passion for conformity, the dread of novelty and originality,” Mencken wrote, “it is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life. He may slide into office once or twice, but sooner or later he is bound to be held up, examined, and incontinently kicked out. That leaves the field to the intellectual jelly-fish and inner tubes.” (Gender-restrained language is from the original.)
Mencken believed that citizens would eventually screw up democracy. “As democracy is perfected,” he wrote, “the office (of the Presidency) represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.”
It was Mencken at his hyperbolic best. But make no mistake about it: Mencken wasn’t bombastic. Instead—in shrill voice and with dagger-like pen—he offered strident commentary about America’s sociopolitical life.
And he had plenty to write about.
America a century ago was grappling with its destiny—about whether to enter the World War, about what America should be to the world, and—most fundamentally—about who we were as American people.
Immigration was a big issue. By 1910 15% of those living in the States had emigrated from other lands. About 40% of those living in New York City—the epicenter of immigration entry—were either foreign-born or first-generation Americans. America struggled with other forms of diversity, too—of African Americans as free people and of women seeking to be full-fledged citizens.
In all of this churn, activists were noteworthy in the fight for America’s identify and direction. There were larger-than-life Progressives, like Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, and Alice Paul. They pleaded for suffrage (and won) and urged America to stay out of World War I (and lost).
Back then it wasn’t a matter of “Making America Great Again.” It was about what it meant for America to be great—should America seek that path. A divided America struggled mightily with that question.
President Woodrow Wilson struggled, too. He eventually became known as—and relished being called—“President of the World.” It was for the role he played in and after World War I, including championing The League of Nations.
But Wilson largely failed in his role of president for America—for all Americans, especially. A racist, he barred African Americans from serving in major government roles (they weren’t capable). He sat silently during “The Red Summer” of 1919 when African Americans were terrorized and killed after returning from the War in Europe.
Wilson also stifled public voice by way of his “heavy-handed repression of wartime dissent,” as George Scialabba put it. Congress passed an onerous law, The Sedition Act of 1918, a declaration that demanded loyalty … or else. Say or do something that your neighbor found concerning and you’d get visited by authorities, and then fined and/or jailed if found guilty. The Sedition Act supplemented The Espionage Act, which Congress had passed a year earlier. You get the picture.
Given this context, then, it’s not difficult to understand why Mencken wrote what he wrote—inimical, acerbic style notwithstanding. He shined a spotlight on the hypocrisies and the hypocrites of the day, focusing on political leaders and institutions he felt weren’t living up to espoused democratic ideals.
He lashed out at everyday people and portrayed them as incapable, often stupid, because he thought (for the most part) they were. “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,” he wrote in 1926.
Would he draw the same conclusion today? Probably. He’d look at the proliferation of social media, witness the corporatization of mass media, observe how little people read, see how Americans get their daily news, and listen to what they have to say. He’d look at The White House, see Trump, and … then, well … rest his case.
What was the cure? Mencken was especially perturbed by the public’s limited ability to think, analyze, and reason. The public was easily duped, he surmised, ripe for the taking by masterful artists of hoodwinking: The Bamboozlers, Con Artists, Charlatans, Fakes, Frauds, and Pretenders. If critical thinking (in such short supply) is an inoculant against tyranny, Mencken might say, then doesn’t it makes sense that tyranny could spread easily?
But thinking critically wasn’t enough for Mencken. Cynicism—first and foremost–was his hand signature. He took nothing for granted—certainly nothing that politicians said or claimed. Mencken questioned answers above all else. So cynical was Mencken that he might have been a disciple of Antisthenes, Diogenes, and Ceres — a Cynic (upper-case C) in the Greek sense of the term.
Several years ago British philosopher, Julian Baggini, elaborated on the contemporary expression of that ancient orientation. His understanding fits my interpretation of Mencken. “Proper cynicism is not a matter of personality, but of intellectual attitude,” Baggini wrote. “Their goal (the Greeks that is) was to blow away the fog and confusion and see reality with lucidity and clarity. The contemporary cynic (of which Mencken is an example) desires the same. The questioning and doubt is not an end in itself, but a means of cutting through the crap and seeing things as they really are.”
That’s no easy task—either in Mencken’s time or in today’s world with Alternative Facts and Narrative Truth.
Where do I settle? Even though Mencken wrote his famous words nearly a century ago it feels as though time has stood still. We struggle with many of the same issues—diversity and immigration, to name just two. Even a matter that we thought had been settled—America’s role in the world—seems to have shifted.
You can argue against Mencken, quibble with him, if you must. But I find it difficult to conclude anything other than this: Mencken got it right.