Democracy & Government

Yertle, the Commander-in-Chief

A children's classic rings true today and offers an answer to authoritarian rule.

Yertle, the Commander-in-Chief

Trump the President-elect and Yertle the Turtle. (Left: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pool via Bloomberg; Right: Still from Yertle the Turtle/YouTube)

Dr. Seuss taught me to read. My older brother brought Seuss books home to me from the local public library because I was too young to have a library card of my own.

The Cat in the Hat, Bartholomew and the OobleckHorton Hears a Who!  — all, for better or worse, played a role in my early childhood development, a phase from which I have yet to emerge, but never mind. Yet as I watched Donald Trump’s press conference on Wednesday morning, a performance reminiscent of PT Barnum — if Barnum suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder, congenital petulance and anger management issues — I was reminded of a different Dr. Seuss masterwork:

Yertle the Turtle.

Yertle, you see, is the king of the pond “on the faraway island of Sala-ma-Sond.” But not content with the size of his smallish but prosperous domain, he orders nine other turtles to climb on one another’s backs to create a new throne much higher than before so he can have a more expansive view and rule over it all.

“All mine!” Yertle cried. “Oh, the things I now rule!

I’m the king of a cow! And I’m the king of a mule!

I’m the king of a house! And, what’s more, beyond that

I’m the king of a blueberry bush and a cat!

I’m Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me!

For I am the ruler of all that I see!”

You get the picture. Except for Yertle’s Seuss-given ability to speak in anapestic tetrameter, a quality rare in turtles, our president-elect seems to share a number of his ego-driven traits, especially when he makes such grandiose pronouncements, as he did at Wednesday’s news conference, that “I will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created.”  Meanwhile, back at Sala-ma-Sond, at the bottom of the stack, a turtle named Mack mildly complains about all the weight, which causes Yertle to demand hundreds of more turtles to lift him higher still. Mack protests again:

“Your Majesty, please… I don’t like to complain,

But down here below, we are feeling great pain.

I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,

But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.

We turtles can’t stand it. Our shells will all crack!

Besides, we need food. We are starving!” groaned Mack.

Like a certain president-elect, Yertle pays no heed and orders his meek opponent to be silent: “There’s nothing, no, NOTHING, that’s higher than me!”

True, what’s happening to our country is no children’s story for sure, much as it often feels like one. In the weeks since the election, we’ve seen a vainglorious man prepare to assume the most powerful office in the world, issuing fiats by tweet, dissembling, taking credit where none is due, pursuing petty personal vendettas against movie stars and TV shows as well as any politician who dares speak against him or media that fails to present the image he demands. “Lies!” he bellows in 140 characters or less. “Fake news — a total political witch hunt!”

Confronted with evidence of outside interference with our election and as-yet-unproven allegations of possible personal, political and business improprieties related to Russia, he fusses and fumes when a true leader would take the stories head on and order an independent investigation.

The same goes for his conflicts of interest; give us something real and not just some superficial, slipcover accounting. The plan presented by his attorney at Wednesday’s press conference is, as Office of Government Ethics head Walter Shaub said, “meaningless,” as empty as many us suspect those stacks of paper and manila folders were that were piled up as props at the news conference. Andrew Griffin at Britain’s The Independent noted, “…[R]eporters were not allowed to look at any of the documents, which all were held in folders meaning that the actual paper was hidden… And the folders themselves were also entirely blank, despite Mr. Trump suggesting that each of them related to a different business that Mr. Trump was moving himself away from.”

This is what we’re headed for during the next four years: government by empty manila folder, a plethora of partially formed sentences spewing forth that are faintly related to real policy but signify nothing as a cabal of big business plutocrats take over Trump’s Cabinet and the rest of government — all at his behest.

There is one solution back there in Sala-ma-Sond. Mack, the mild-mannered, weight-bearing turtle at the bottom of Yertle’s imperial pile, “decided he’d taken enough.” He lets out a burp that shakes the turtle tower and hurtles Yertle down into the mud, ending his spurious reign:

And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free

As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

Dr. Seuss took some flak for that “maybe,” but told interviewer Jonathan Cott, “I qualified that in order to avoid sounding too didactic or like a preacher on a platform. And I wanted other persons, like yourself, to say ‘surely’ in their minds instead of my having to say it.”

Whatever the case, the point of Yertle and Mack’s tale is simple: Protest can topple a tyrant. Sometimes it has to be loud and rude. Next weekend, around the events of the inauguration, thousands and thousands will march and voices will be raised. Let these be just the beginning.

Michael Winship

Senior Writer

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship.