Want to Understand Trump? Read Faulkner!

sf84 Trump Image

In my line of work as a college literature teacher, I don’t encounter fellow citizens who are followers of Donald Trump. Therefore, I have had to rely on characters from fiction to help get me into the mind of the Trump voter. I’ll got out on a  limb to suggest that Mississippian Jason Compson, one of the central characters in William Faulkner’s 1928 masterpiece The Sound and the Fury, is a person who would be whopping it up at a Trump rally.

The Sound and the Fury is a primarily a tale of family dysfunction. The Compson family is not a safe refuge but a mine field of conflicting needs and emotions. It’s a complicated story told in four sections. The first three sections are interior monologues; each displays the inner life of one the three Compson boys, Jason being the middle brother. Each has a complicated relationship with their older sister, the promiscuous Candace (Caddie); her presence in the novel is large but it is always refracted through the memories of her brothers. The fourth section, devoted to the Easter Sunday duties of Dilsey, a faithful black housekeeper, departs from the psychological realism of the sections that precede it to offer an optimistic image of devoted endurance that many readers find offsets the bleak Compson family history.

Jason is a man of grievances, most directed at his family whose once noble lineage has been in decline for a number of decades, even through the years of 1920s prosperity.

His alcoholic father, now deceased, has sold off the large family pasture to enable Jason’s  older brother Quentin to attend Harvard, where, one day in 1910,  he commits suicide, tarnishing the family name and spoiling any chance for its rehabilitation. His younger brother Benjy is a 33 year old mentally challenged child who pines after the departed Caddie, a surrogate for the emotionally unavailable mother, Caroline. Caroline is a hypochondriac who rarely descends from her second floor bedroom-sanctuary. His niece, named after his sister, is as wild as her mother was. The mother fell for a hypocritical and rich suitor, divorced her husband after the birth of her daughter, rarely returns to the homestead, and regularly sends her daughter some money which Jason stealthily confiscates. Jason spends the better part of Holy Saturday in pursuit of his runaway niece who has run off with a circus performer. Jason feels that he bears many insults and that he endures many undeserved grievances. He’s played by the rules, or so he thinks, but feels few of the rewards. He is the Fury of the novel’s title.

His volcanic diatribe is not directed at his family alone. His animosity is pointed toward others both near and far. Here is where his characters offers us a look into the mind of the Trump follower, perhaps some of the South Carolinians who gave him 33% of the vote in the state’s February 19th primary.

The racist Jason is surrounded by a number of house servants (Dilsey’s progeny) who he believes are incompetent parasites. Luster, Dilsey’s opportunistic grandson and Beny’s caretaker, is a particular source of irritation because he represents a new generation of blacks in the Jim Crow South who will be far less docile than his pious grandmother, the daughter of slaves.The toxic mixture of Jason’s character contains not only racism but anti-Semitism. He’s a descendant of the Know Nothing Party that flourished in the middle of the 19th century as opponents to immigration in general and Catholic immigration in particular. Jason rails against the distant Jewish bankers who he and many other rural citizens believe manipulate the grain and cotton markets.

In the year of the novel’s publication, the voters of Louisiana elected as governor the radical populist Huey Long who promised “a chicken in every pot” and a restoration of Southern pride, six decades after the ignominious Civil War defeat. [To some extent Long is more like Sanders; his battles against the money interests, especially the Standard Oil Trust, prefigures Sanders attack on the banks.] Despite the wide differences in the backgrounds of “The Kingfish” and “The Donald,” both exploit the anxieties and stoke the anger of the dispossessed, mostly white males who feel their world slipping away. In Jason’s mythology, he’s being sandwiched by distant and uncaring elites and by an all-too-present inferior class. Another source of aggravation for the misogynistic Jason, thrust into the role of family patriarch, is his inability to control the sexual desire of his sister and niece.

Even though Jason is just as much fizzle as fury (there is something comic about his Archie Bunker-like ineffectual rage), his rant is a reminder that deep class, race and gender conflicts in American life have been with us for most of our history. While Faulkner was not the first to limn such a character — see Huck Finn’s father for the template — he anticipated by more than a third of a century the central thesis of Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Some Trumpians believe that the politician gives them new license to be politically incorrect; few readers of The Sound and the Fury will find the aggrieved Jason attractive, despite Faulkner’s apparently non-judgmental presentation of Jason’s inner life.

Perhaps I have done a disservice to the Trump advocates, but I can’t get out of my head an image:  Jason Compson, with a “Make American Great Again” cap on his head, letting out a holler when Trump takes the stage.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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