Modesty and braggadocio have long competed in the way men present themselves publicly in America. But seldom has one man so completely personified one of those traits as does Donald Trump. He represents the elevation of unabashed egotism in national politics.
The Founding Fathers would certainly be nonplussed by his braying style. Back then, the rules were clear: Though a man might think surpassingly well of himself, those sentiments were best kept private.
Many burned to be president, but a hopeful had to cloak ambition in a pose of reluctant willingness to accept the top job if called upon by his countrymen. That was the case even if, say, one’s agents, outriders, and allies were actively plotting his political path to the nomination.
Over time, candidacies evolved from that affectation of studied indifference to front-porch campaigns, in which a hopeful would meet visitors and give speeches in his hometown, and then to the full-bore across-the-country pursuit of the presidency that we see today.
But even in the era of the modern campaign, a certain personal modesty has been de rigueur. John Kennedy was reluctant to talk about his wartime valor, quipping that his celebrated efforts to save his crew came about because “they sank my boat.” Bob Dole was similarly laconic about his combat bravery and injuries. George H.W. Bush perhaps best summed up the sensibilities of that generation when he noted that his mother had always told him not to brag about himself.
In 2008 and 2012, Republicans had great sport mocking Barack Obama as “the one,” an orator whose sense of grandeur was exceeded only by the mythic status his supporters accorded him. But Obama’s self-regard can’t hold a candle to the wildfire of self-reverence displayed by the current GOP front-runner.
Trump, to hear Trump tell it, is a business and political nonpareil, a man whose great intelligence, business acumen, and deal-making abilities are enough to solve this nation’s problems.
He fits into the well-established tradition of the American braggart, a tradition with roots in rough rivermen and frontier figures like keel boater Mike Fink and Davy Crockett.
In stories that merged man and myth, Fink’s rodomontade ran along these lines: “I’m a Salt River Roarer! I’m a ring-tailed squealer! . . . I’m the very infant that refused his milk before its eyes were open, and called out for a bottle of old Rye!”
Crockett, who actually served in Congress, made tall tales part of his frontiersman campaign persona.
Mark Twain brought that boastful tradition to humorous life in the Mississippi riverboat men who brag better than they brawl.
“Whoo-oop! . . . I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on the mother’s side!” one proclaims, only to have the second answer with his own fanciful claims to fame.
We saw the same exuberant self-aggrandizing in Muhammad Ali’s joyous, youthful boast that he was “the greatest thing that ever lived . . . the king of the world.”
But in all those examples, there was an implicit wink and a nod, an element of humor underlying the vainglory.
For all his showmanship, Trump seems to be serious in his inflated self-appraisal. After all, he’s basing his presidential candidacy on his outsized claims about his abilities.
And that’s precisely what makes it all so amusing.