Dear Trump supporter,
Recently, you’ve been reading a lot of criticism directed at your candidate from left, right, and center. I’m guessing some of this has annoyed and even angered you, in part because more of these pieces have been written about you than to you. By now, you’ve probably heard enough from the likes of Mitt Romney and the National Review editorial board for a while. After all, most normal people can only hear so much about economics, free trade, and immigration visas over the course of a month or even an entire presidential campaign.
Not that I disagree with these critics, but I do recognize that their tone has sometimes been elitist and tiresome. I don’t want to lecture or hector you, but I’m not going to condescend and sugar-coat my comments, either. Like these critics of Donald Trump, I’ve got deep concerns about him as a possible elected official because of what he’s said about his foreign and domestic policy. Even more importantly, I have basic concerns about him as a man. Let me explain.
My concerns crystalized when I recently re-watched the classic movie “Hud.” Inspired by a Larry McMurtry novel, this 1963 movie is set on a cattle ranch in north Texas, and features three generations of the Bannon family. There’s patriarch Homer Bannon played by Melvyn Douglas, his son Hud Bannon played by Paul Newman, and Homer’s grandson and Hud’s nephew Lon Bannon played by Brandon deWilde.
What It Means to Be a Good Man
It’s a brilliant movie that won three Academy Awards and was nominated for four more. If you could use a movie break during this long slog of a presidential primary campaign (and who couldn’t?) “Hud” would be a good choice.
In addition to offering great writing, acting, and cinematography, “Hud” helps us think about an age-old question that’s as vital as ever today: What is it to be a good man? Homer and Hud Bannon represent two opposing male archetypes, both trying to influence young impressionable Lon to follow after them. Homer is old-fashioned, a man of firm principles and standards. He believes in honesty, integrity, good manners, and hard work.
Homer’s honesty is tested when a government official starts to worry that his entire herd of cattle has been infected with a contagious disease. If true, it would mean destroying every cow and steer he owns. Still, he ends up doing the right thing.
Hud’s character is also revealed in this crisis. Unlike his father, whom he frequently and publicly mocks for his high principles, Hud prides himself a pragmatist. With a classic Newman smirk and glimmer, Hud boasts of his flexibility regarding the law: “I’ve always thought the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. Sometimes I lean one way and sometimes I lean the other.”
An Unprincipled Man
While the Bannnons wait for the results of the tests on their cattle to come back, Hud tries to force his father Homer to sell off all of them quickly to an unsuspecting buyer. When Homer notes this could spread a deadly epidemic throughout the country, Hud responds with a scornful snarl:
Why this whole country is run on epidemics! Where you been? Epidemics are big business–price-fixing, crooked TV shows, income tax finagling, souped-up expense accounts. How many honest men you know? You take the sinners away from the saints, you’re lucky to end up with Abraham Lincoln. So I say, let’s put our bread in some of that gravy while it is still hot.
After listening to his son’s tirade, Homer Bannon looks at him and responds with quiet firmness: “You’re an unprincipled man, Hud.”
Throughout the movie, Hud shows himself to be cynical, self-centered, disrespectful, and undisciplined. Through Newman’s performance, Hud also has a rakish charm that manages to win over some people. But his own father, Homer, sees through this facade. Homer sadly realizes that his son ultimately cares about no one but himself, and that he’s selfishly trying to get Lon to follow in his footsteps.
During a confrontation in which Hud boasts that he doesn’t give a damn what his father or anyone else thinks of him, Homer offers this dead-on analysis of his son: “You got all that charm going for you, and it makes the youngsters want to be like you. That’s the shame of it—‘cause you don’t value nothing. You don’t respect nothing. You keep no check on your appetites at all. You live just for yourself, and that makes you not fit to live with.”
Viewers come to see that Hud is no hero. Rather, he’s an anti-hero. He’s still a leading figure, but he twists or corrupts almost every traditional heroic virtue. Hud is proud of being a man without principles, of not being troubled by morality, of being determined to get what he wants no matter the costs. All this he excuses because he’s a winner—at least in his own eyes. He wins over women (including other men’s wives), he wins contests (even if he has to resort to trickery), and he tries (ultimately unsuccessfully) to win over young Lon to his worldview.
Donald Trump Is Hud Bannon
This brings us back to Trump. As journalists and columnists have tried to make sense of his recent rise, they’ve offered many historical comparisons and parallels. No two people are exactly the same, but to a striking degree, Donald Trump is the anti-hero Hud Bannon.
I’ll stay away from discussing physical similarities to Newman, although I suspect that Trump himself might try to go there. It’s what’s inside each man that’s more important. Both carry themselves as largely amoral winners. They’re cynical, thinking that holding to principles and following the rules is only for losers.
Indeed, cynicism has become essential for Trump’s campaign. Despite his grand call to make America great again, Trump feeds on the growing cynicism of many Americans right now about the economy, the Republican party, the political system, even the law itself. On the stump, he brazenly flouts any commitment to the rule of law, to truth-telling, and to general decency.
This shtick has served Trump well in the entertainment-politics hybrid he’s invented, and it’s not based on nothing. There is some reason to be cynical about economics and politics right now. But ultimately, Hud-style or Trump-style cynicism is not good for you or me or our country.
We know both from reading and just from paying attention that today’s boys and young men in particular need guidance and instruction. Those with little economic, educational, and cultural capital often face a daunting, unfriendly world. Even more than past generations, they need examples of good, moral, grounded, responsible, successful men. Especially now, they don’t need a principle-less man as president.
Think of the members of the next generation that you know, the equivalent of young impressionable Lons. They might be your children or grandchildren, your nieces or nephews, the kids in your neighborhood or at your church. What kind of America do you want them to inherit? Are your best hopes for them exemplified in men who resemble Homer Bannon or Hud Bannon?
I hope you watch “Hud” sometime during this political season. If you respond to it as I do, you’ll want to try to vote for Homer Bannon for president, realizing that his old-style quietly strong and responsible masculinity still has something to tell us and to teach us in this political season. But even with a coordinated write-in campaign, I doubt Homer has a chance. At the very least, though, please don’t vote for the candidate who reminds you of Hud.