Why did you listen to that man, that man’s a balloon
“Friend of Mine,” The National
Some day soon, we will be able to look back at 2016 through the more nuanced lens of history, and part of that re-creation must include the recurring praise “He was willing to speak his mind.”
A coincidence of history, in fact, has brought us this refrain for two men: Donald Trump and the recently deceased Muhammad Ali.
Right-wing apologist and commentator Cal Thomas has equated Trump and Ali, mostly as an attempt to mask Trump’s racism and all-around bigotry as part of his political appeal:
If there is one explanation for Donald Trump’s success it is this: Unlike most Republicans, he fights back. He may not have the late Muhammad Ali’s finesse, but he sees himself as more than capable of dealing a “knockout” punch to Hillary Clinton in November. That ought to be the goal of any GOP presidential nominee.
Even among Ali’s most ardent supporters—former combatants in boxing, major sports figures, friends, and relatives—Ali’s brashness, bravado is highlighted as a central reason for his greatness (praise that sounds a great deal like why supporters of Trump explain his appeal as a presidential candidate):
“Ali was one of the first athletes to speak his mind, and that opened the door for the many who do so today. … He freed us all in that way.” The man who sang those praises for Ali was Derek Jeter, the retired Yankee shortstop who never uttered a controversial, or even particularly interesting, statement his entire career. And why would he? His sponsors — Nike, Gatorade, Ford, Movado, Gillette, Visa — would not look kindly on, or write checks to, a rabble-rouser.
In a country where free speech is mostly protected, “speaking one’s mind” doesn’t really rise to the level of why we should praise anyone.
To be blunt, any fool can speak her/his mind—and Trump is showing us how this can generate great wealth and popularity.
Although this is an urgent distinction now, I hope with the passing of time, we can come to see that bravado is not a simple thing.
Trump’s bravado is all show; he is a balloon—air puffing up a thin veneer. As a business man—his signature bloviating about Success!—he came from wealth and privilege (not self-made, our greatest myth in the U.S.), has run multiple businesses into bankruptcy (a cowardly way to function for such a bully), and would have earned far more money investing instead of his business ventures.
Trump is all false bravado. His bluster is irony.
Trump is a shell game best represented by his Trump University. In short, he is the personification of everything that is wrong with capitalism.
Muhammad Ali is the bravado of substance. When he told us he was pretty, he was pretty. When he told us he was The Greatest, he was The Greatest.
Ali was more genuine, more successful, and more dignified in one thirty-minute interview than Trump has been in his entire cartoon life:
But even at that, Muhammad Ali is not a major figure in human history because of his bravado—not because he was willing to speak his mind.
Again, any fool can do that.
Muhammad Ali is The Greatest because of what he said, and the moral stand that he took at great personal sacrifice.
Muhammad Ali was on the right side of racism and militarism (Vietnam specifically) when few others were, and he was willing to take that action even as a significantly marginalized human in a country begrudgingly confronting its de jure racism.
Muhammad Ali lived his ethics before himself, and we must not allow his public persona, a purposeful mask of his making, to distract us from his substance.
Trump is all Self, to the detriment of others, any others. He is a buffoon, as his ridiculous hair, facial gestures, and clown suits literally reveal to us.
Bravado is neither inherently good or bad. But we must resist to praise anyone for “speaking her/his mind.”
Trump’s hollow bravado is an embarrassment to humanity, and it is upon us now to embrace with ample apologies the genuine bravado of Muhammad Ali who never rose to perfection but lived on the right side of history regardless of the costs to his own Self.