True to type? Donald Trump and Ben Corbin

In the present situation, it seems particularly important that we avoid the danger of ‘exceptionalism’, of elevating individuals to some sort of mythic status, whether that is identified as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, simply because that is how they see themselves. There is, for example, nothing exceptional about Donald Trump seen in the context of American history.

Re-reading Barry Lopez’ beautiful evocation of America’s relationship to wolves – Of Wolves and Men – I came across his account of the activities of Ben Corbin, frontier roustabout, sometime wolf bounty killer, and author of the privately printed booklet The Wolf Hunter’s Guide (1901).

Lopez points out that this publication actually had nothing original to say about hunting wolves, but peddled a great deal of populist rhetoric ‘about the Bible, free trade, the privilege of living in a democracy, and the foulness of the wolf’s ways’ (p. 184). Lopez’ earlier account of the social type to which Corbin belonged suggested that, if one substituted the ‘Other’ of choice in today’s America – African Americans, “socialists”, migrants, paddlers of “fake news”, experts, anarchists, looters, the “weak” – for the wolf, this all has a strangely familiar ring. The booklet clearly panders directly to the sentiments of a sizeable section of the American population at the time of its publication. However, it is also sounds curiously familiar, being ‘full of bad biology and and fantastical calculations’ (ibid), all subject to Corbin’s belief that: ‘everything had to be assigned an economic value’. (p. 185).

Corbin lived at a time when, since there were neither legal nor social controls as to what he could do to wolves, he did as he liked. Today Trump has said that he could go out and commit murder and he would get away with it, presumably simply because, like Corbin, of who he believes himself to be. Namely, a self-declared exceptionalism supposedly based on a lifetime’s work and the belief that an exceptional man should be properly rewarded for telling others what he has learned. It seems to me significant that, when Corbin revelled in the attention he gained in the city of Bismarck by showing the citizens ‘the fruits of his labours’, he describes the experience as equal to that given to ‘a politician with a bag of gold in one hand and the constitution in the other’. (ibid.)

Lopez describes Corbin as a man whose lifestyle was enabled by men who paid him to do what they ‘were ashamed to do themselves’, namely eliminate the Other that, against all the evidence, had become the ultimate scapegoat. As a result, men like Corbin came to see themselves as folk heroes, men of deliverance, and essential to the wealth and wellbeing of the nation. Men who, in order to maintain that status, as the fantasy on which it depended became less and less sustainable, had to further demonise the Other, despite knowing ‘it was all nonsense’. ((p.186).

Wolf hunting, the elimination of the ultimate Other was, in Corbin’s time, one way of trying to get rich quick; one that used indiscriminate strychnine poisoning to achieve its ends but was described as “lots of fun”. (ibid). Since the wolf-hunter’s lack of practical knowledge about his victims’ way of life made him ‘vulnerable to criticism from anyone who knew better’, he cultivated the habit of bluffing when questioned too closely and was highly contemptuous of those who wanted to gain a better understand.

Obviously there are a myriad differences between Corbin and Trump. My point is simply that, as a type, Trump is by no means original. He is merely a throw-back to a mentality that educated, environmentally-concerned, Americans would very much prefer not to have to be reminded of.