Columns

The Assault on Greatness

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Watching a series of movies and biopics dealing with extraordinary individuals, one notes a ubiquitous and disconcerting tendency to debunk or diminish their rare achievements and remarkable characters. It is almost as if a spirit of envy or resentment is implicit in what purports to be a celebration or, at the very least, a neutral account of their accomplishments.

For example, the Netflix blockbuster The Crown delivers an entirely unflattering portrait of Britain’s brilliant and most effective prime minister since Churchill, Margaret Thatcher. It was Thatcher’s clarity and determination—her “intimidating personality and her complete mastery of the business in hand,” as David Cannadine writes in Margaret Thatcher: A Life and Legacy—that rescued the country from economic decrepitude and socialist darkness. In the Netflix version, however, she is portrayed as awkward, stumbling, and anti-working class, an unsympathetic and rigid right-winger.

Churchill, himself, in the 2017 film Darkest Hour, fares little better. The impression we get is that of a sometimes confused, insecure, blustering and at times comic character rather than a man of exemplary courage, masterful oratory and heroic stature who saved his country from ignominious defeat. Melodrama and sentiment usurp sublimity of achievement. Similarly, in the 2009 film Creation, Charles Darwin’s quarrels with the Church, domestic tribulations and inner torment receive pride of place over his world-historical discoveries that altered the course of an entire civilization.

Musical genius also comes in for the inevitable takedown. The 1994 biopic Immortal Beloved presents a caricature of the magisterial Beethoven, who romps about in fits of unhinged fury, childish indignation, indiscriminate cruelty and accusatory viciousness. The splendor of his attainment is largely discounted. The film is busy, as The Guardian put it, “beating Beethoven into Meat Loaf.” Ten years earlier, Amadeus depicted Mozart as a pixilated runt given to scatology rather than one of the greatest composers who ever lived. One recalls John Dryden’s wonderful poem Absalom and Achitophel, where he writes: “Great wits are sure to madness near allied/And thin partitions do their bounds divide.” True enough. Eccentricity runs in the family of greatness, but abject absurdity and puerile reductiveness do not.

It is not only that we cannot see the forest for the trees; our vision is so low to the ground that we cannot see the trees for the underbrush. The contemporary intent is to attach minds of ivory to feet of clay, strong wills to weak inclinations, and sterling qualities to commonplace attributes. Greatness grates. Or in Johnathan Swift’s terms from Gulliver’s Travels, we need to shrink the Brobdingnagian down to the size of the Lilliputian.

Today, we see this species of libelous truncation carried out by the media, the political echelon and a significant portion of the electorate against Donald Trump, one of the truly great presidents in the national pantheon. Obviously, Trump did not possess the gravity of Lincoln or the folksy humor of Reagan. But presidents should be judged by their deeds. 

This was a president who did not accept a salary, whose love of America was undeniable, and who strove might and main to Make America Great Again. He created a prosperous economy, brought jobs and industries back to the homeland, slashed the unemployment rate to its lowest figure in the last fifty years, lifted between 6 and 7 million people off food stamps, oversaw record stock market gains, eliminated strangling business regulations and bureaucratic overreach, gave tax relief for the middle class, cut the capital gains tax, rebuilt the military, renegotiated trade deals in America’s interests, established energy independence, imposed tariffs to protect vital industries, brought high-speed broadband infrastructure to rural America, lowered the price of vehicles, passed the Navigable Waters Protection Rule providing relief to farmers, modernized the Department of Agriculture’s biotechnology sector, brought the Space force into being as the sixth branch of the U.S. Armed Services, and much much more

The fact that Trump accomplished what he did in four short years despite the veritable barrage of political obstructions, slander, disinformation, fraudulent investigations, frivolous impeachments, media mendacity and mantic contempt—in effect, a campaign orchestrated by a rabid group of ideologues to discredit and literally belittle him—beggars belief. 

Trump built towers; his enemies dug trenches. Trump’s “fall” is a sign of an era which cannot admit and admire that which eclipses it. Trump was and is a creator but, living in a picayune age, he paid for it in the coin of defamation and diminishment. “All creators agree,” writes Paul Johnson in Creators, “that it is a painful and often terrifying experience to be endured rather than relished, and preferable only to not being a creator at all.” Those who savor attacking the great, or finding ways to bring them down to their level, are precisely that: not creators at all. They are petty cavilers. 

One day someone will make a biopic of Donald Trump and we can be sure that his faults and foibles, his more embarrassing moments, and his presumably divisive conduct will be foregrounded at the expense of his complexities, struggles and manifold accomplishments.

Trump was a great president and he will suffer for it.