In my Popular Fiction class at Fresno State, we have recently finished reading Walter van Tilburg Clark’s “The Ox-Bow Incident,” a Western set in Nevada in 1885. Among many other things, the novel is about how a demagogue manipulates a bunch of disgruntled men into becoming a lynch mob. At the time of its publication (1940), it was widely read as an allegory for the rise of fascism.
After we read for class the climactic fourth section of the book (in which the lynch mob ends up precipitately hanging three innocent men), I asked the students about their responses to the book thus far. Several of them blurted out, “I cried,” and “It made me cry.”
I was all prepared to deal with student questions concerning stereotypical or even racist portrayals of some of the characters in the novel. What I hadn’t counted on was that these were not the concerns that had moved my students (a diverse group) in their reading.
What had affected them was the fate of the three men wrongly presumed to be rustlers and murderers, most particularly Martin, who tells his lynch-mob accusers, “You don’t care for justice. You don’t even care whether you’ve got the right men or not. You just want your way, that’s all. You’ve lost something and somebody’s got to be punished; that’s all you know.”
As we discussed the book further, it became clear that what my students found most disturbing of all about “The Ox-Bow Incident,” was precisely how relevant to autumn 2016 the story is.
We are today all too familiar with anti-government sentiments like those voiced in the novel by former Confederate and de facto vigilante leader Major Tetley who, when urging quick and violent action with the supposed rustlers, says, “Law, as the books have it, is slow and full of holes.”
As we discussed that line, the question came up among my students as to whether Tetley is a “demagogue.” I asked my students to define that word. “A con man,” one responded.
That answer led to our discussing a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”
We wondered if perhaps a demagogue sees that statement not as a truism but as a challenge. That he’s betting on his ability to fool just enough of the people just long enough to get just enough votes to just get his way – as Tetley does in the novel, when he calls for a vote on whether the mob ought to promptly hang the “murderous rustlers” based on circumstantial evidence (Tetley’s preferred option), or wait and turn them over to the courts for trial.
That led to a conversation about how, at the time Clark was writing “Ox-Bow” (1938), Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler – by promising to “restore Italy to the glory of Rome” and “make Germany great again” – had already come to power via what had, initially, been constitutional and legal paths.
And all the time we were discussing fictional or long-dead demagogues dragging democracies down to dictatorship, almost all of us knew that the name of the demagogue we dared not mention in the “objective” space of our classroom was not Major Tetley, but Donald J. Trump, who in classic demagogic fashion has declared “I am your voice! I alone can fix the system! Punch that protester in the face, would you?” to white audiences who only know they’ve lost something and somebody’s got to be punished.
My students have good reason to cry. Trump has already wistfully opined, on several occasions, that gun rights advocates ought to shoot his main political opponent. His apologists keep saying – of his racism, his nativism, his infatuation with political violence, and his balloon-clown relationship to reality – that it’s all just a show.
They say that constitutional checks and balances will somehow magically restrain Trump, post election. That, when Trump incites his followers to toss up the nooses for hanging “truth, justice, and the American way” (as the voice-over for “Superman,” another product of 1938, used to say), he doesn’t really mean it.
We cannot hope for a crack shot with a six-gun or a superhero faster than a speeding bullet to prevent this lynching of American democracy. So long as our politics is about ballots, not bullets, it’s on all of us to save our republic from Trumpism. By not fooling ourselves with the lie that Trump is only lying. That he doesn’t mean what he says. That his show must become our reality.
Shaver Lake resident Howard V. Hendrix, the author of six science-fiction novels, has held jobs ranging from janitor to fish hatchery manager to university professor and administrator.