On Lies, Bullying, and America’s Greatness: “the true horror of lost status”

When Nora experiences her existential epiphany and decides to be no longer a doll in Torvald Helmer’s house, it is Torvald’s response that has always fascinated me.

“Oh, you think and talk like a heedless child,” Torvald responds before becoming desperate: “But can’t we live here like brother and sister–?”

A Norwegian playwright dramatizing well over a century ago the sexism and misogyny inherent in social norms such as marriage—what could this possibly have to do with the U.S. in 2016?

Torvald, in fact, is a dramatization of what Toni Morrison recognizes in the rise of Trumplandia; Morrison’s confrontation of racism speaks as well to sexism: “These sacrifices, made by supposedly tough white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status.”

We see in Torvald the embodiment of “the true horror of lost status.”

Teaching A Doll’s House was challenging in the rural conservative South, but so was asking my students to confront Thomas Jefferson, whose letters reveal a past president of the U.S. who rejected:

The immaculate conception of Jesus, His deification, the creation of the world by Him, His miraculous powers, His resurrection and visible ascension, His corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc. (letter to William Short, 31 October 1819) [1]

These central beliefs of Christians, Jefferson labeled “artificial systems,” and my students were usually stunned because their upbringing had mostly idealized the Founding Fathers as traditional Christians who formed the U.S. as a Christian nation.

The general public is often as misinformed about presidential elections, which have historically been nasty. Jefferson was often vilified in his presidential campaigns, but we can imagine that he could have never been elected president if his beliefs noted above had been common knowledge.

The irony, of course, is that few could value Jesus as a mere human as they could as a fabricated son of God—just as the public must believe political leaders are larger and even better than real life.

The rise of Trump revealed many who refused to acknowledge the truth about Trump but readily embraced provably false claims about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

And while tracing from the Founding Fathers to Trump may seem a stretch, we should consider a much more recent harbinger of the U.S. fascination with lies, bullying, and the false narrative of U.S. greatness—Lance Armstrong.

w-lance-veterans-in-lajitas1

“Former U.S. President George W. Bush, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, and U.S. Army Major Sergeant Major Chris Self (from left to right, above) held a press conference this morning in Lajitas.” (Source: The Big Bend Gazette, 27 April 2011)

Few examples better represent right-wing mainstream U.S. politics, superficial patriotism, and total bullshit than Bush’s man-crush on Armstrong—one of the most discredited and dishonest athletes in the history of competitive sport.

Armstrong’s success as a professional cyclist—in a European sport—stretched all credulity, but his very long scam worked because he wrapped himself in the flag and became U.S. Greatness, which again ironically once the truth was exposed, like Trump, is the perfect commentary on U.S. Greatness as total bullshit.

But Armstrong as harbinger of Trump is more than the lies; Armstrong was a bully of a magnitude only equaled by Trump himself.

Trump and Armstrong are bullies who are exclusively self-serving, who have destroyed innocent people’s lives and will continue to do if given any opportunity.

Armstrong won as a doper, a fake, just as Trump is a false success, a sham of a business man, a con artist.

And they use every means necessary to maintain their false statuses—Armstrong manipulating his cancer survival and the cancer community in ways that are as disgusting as Trump manipulating poor and working-class whites through nods and winks to racism, xenophobia, and sexism.

The U.S. has a long and troubling history of clinging to lies, but now we seem equally enamored with bullies.

Armstrong and Trump are who we are—all lies and bullying—and it is deplorable.

At the end of Ibsen’s play, Nora confesses, “I don’t believe any longer in wonderful things happening.”

However, we are left with Torvald unwavering, “But I will believe in it.”

And again, this play lays before us the delusion of false belief, comforted by privilege.

Might we be able to do better?


[1] See also Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs and The Religious Opinions of Thomas Jefferson, J. Lesslie Hall.

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