In their ongoing attempt to make sense of the world, the ancient Greeks told of hateful half-human beasts called Harpies. These mythical monsters, with the body of a bird and the head of a woman, lived up to their etymology (“harpazo” ([ἁρπάζω] to snatch or carry off; to seize, overpower…plunder) by stealing cherished items from individuals — or the individuals themselves — and so defiling or destroying them, they became untouchable. The contamination was lethal.
If this sounds like the sadism of mobster families and horror movies, you get the picture.
Or maybe you’re thinking of Donald J. Trump.
We are not the first humans who faced a monster who has polluted our lives.
Several millennia ago, the Harpies descended on a hapless king named Phineus. His disrespect for Zeus, the god-in-chief, had already cost Phineus his eyesight and the mixed blessing of a long life. Then Zeus compounded the punishment by having the Harpies swoop down on Phineus’s dining table and either remove or befoul every delicacy, sometimes plucking them from his mouth with their sharp beaks and claws. Phineus himself described the torment: “And if they ever do leave me a morsel of food, it gives off a powerful stench that is putrid and intolerable. No mortal could bear to come near it even for a moment…” The inedible scraps of his meals would reek every single day.
The starvation of Phineus helped Greeks understand that life is difficult, that humans cannot control everything. And that you should never mess with the gods, even though they might be capricious, with little more than ego and self-indulgence as motivation. In our own time, the tale of King Phineus helps illuminate the dark thievery of Donald Trump, even as he upended the legacy of that other noted Greek royal, King Midas. Everything Midas touched turned to gold; everything in Trump’s orbit turned to crap.
In the five and a half years since he confused presidential politics with beauty queen pageantry – escalating down (down!) to his campaign launch on a cheesy chariot – his assault on everything we hold dear stained both the foundations and the frivolities of our nation. Widely acknowledged as the worst president in our history, Trump left an unprecedented toxic mess in public health, foreign policy and economic recovery. And oh yes, truth. Everything from our educational system to our global reputation needs a deep-scum removal. And that doesn’t even touch on the actual cleansing of the desecrated US Capitol.
Activist and author Amy Siskind broadened the scope in a recent tweet: “Serious question: can you think of a single person who came into Trump’s orbit in the past four years – either to work for him personally or in the Trump regime – who came out in a better position than when they came in? I can’t think of one. Many were destroyed.”
Serious question: can you think of a single person who came into Trump’s orbit in the past four years – either to work for him personally or in the Trump regime – who came out in a better position than when they came in? I can’t think of one. Many were destroyed.
— Amy Siskind 🏳️🌈 (@Amy_Siskind) January 14, 2021
Trump’s political vandalism and moral vacuum also created more mundane casualties – everyday objects and familiar touchstones once taken for granted as part of our culture. While trashing his own brand, he’s ruined so many of ours.
Start with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – once a widely respected symbol of excellence, judiciously awarded for meritorious contributions to national security, world peace or “cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Among the distinguished pre-Trump recipients: diplomat Ralph Bunche, humanitarian Helen Keller, astronaut Neil Armstrong and tennis pro Arthur Ashe. Trump handed out the medals like Halloween candy to liars like Michael Flynn and bigots like Rush Limbaugh.
It took an actual Patriot to reject such tarnished prizes. Coach Bill Belicheck refused his Medal of Freedom after Trump inspired and egged on the Capitol Assault. No such principles deterred golfers Annika Sörenstam and Gary Player. They cozied up to the seditionist-in-chief while the whiff of tear gas hung over the corridors outside the Senate and House chambers.
Another golfer, the late, great Babe Didrikson Zaharias, couldn’t turn Trump down. Her medal was awarded posthumously. Sports columnist Christine Brennan of USA Today guessed at her reaction: “[I]t’s hard to believe the strong, legendary, groundbreaking Babe would have allowed herself to have anything to do with that awful man.”
As for the game of golf itself, well, really? Even the PGA knew the score, withdrawing its 2022 Championship from Trump’s New Jersey golf course. Golf Magazine Senior Writer Alan Shipnuck shot a literary hole-in-one (despite a touch of ageism) when he tweeted, “In addition to everything else, Trump is the worse (sic) possible ambassador for golf: an obese old guy slouched in a cart playing only at gauche private clubs w/faux waterfalls. Whether it’s today’s Medal of Freedom ceremony or the ’22 PGA Ch., aligning w/Trump is a stain on the game.”
In addition to everything else, Trump is the worst possible ambassador for golf: an obese old guy slouched in a cart playing only at gauche private clubs w/faux waterfalls. Whether it’s today’s Medal of Freedom ceremony or the ’22 PGA Ch., aligning w/Trump is a stain on the game. https://t.co/QX1ZRHh6lP
— Alan Shipnuck (@AlanShipnuck) January 7, 2021
So many stains, so much that reeks. Equally destined for the dustbin of infamy by association: Sharpies (they enabled his signature on all those executive orders, and his big meteorological lie); red baseball hats (and all MAGA merch); Big Macs (lunch of choice for himself, cheapskate meal for football champs at the White House); escalators (see above). For at least the immediate future, each is either laughably or disgustingly off limits. One can only hope that the White House Tennis Pavilion will be razed, and the Rose Garden restored, before we have to utter their names again.
No such luck for some of the other words and phrases and punctuation tics abused by President Word Salad. Currently unusable: Words spelled out in capital letters. Exclamation points. Currently unutterable: All superlatives. A bunch of nouns: Hoax. Sir (when spoken by teary-eyed he-men addressing #45). Too many adjectives and other descriptors: Beautiful. Nice (and not so nice to me). Like nothing (or no one) you’ve ever seen before. Fake. Sad. Huge. As my friend the humorist and TV writer Nell Scovell adds, “How one man could ruin so many monosyllabic words is both sad and huge.”
Also down the drain: the color orange, temporarily erased from my spectrum. And how about this lede from Reuters, reporting that Deutsche Bank “is looking for ways to end its relationship with President Donald Trump…as it tires of the negative publicity stemming from the ties…”
Trump itself — the name, the word — is an even trickier taboo. I’ve managed some control over the gaudy letters on the façade of an apartment building near my own by training my eyes not to see them. I can actually look out my window and enjoy the view without interruption. But I can’t help wondering how bridge players might carry on without using the word Trump. Although, to be fair, I have no intention of giving up my “No Trump” cocktail napkins.
As for the Donald part, here’s a recent Tweet from comedian Paula Poundstone:
Donald Duck has asked to be called just “Duck.”
— Paula Poundstone (@paulapoundstone) January 15, 2021
Like many others who look to history and literature for insights about our current problems, I’ve long sought the perfect metaphor for Trump’s destructive nature. At first I landed on the 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, a chilling prophecy of the danger of allowing Trump to undermine our social compact and unleash the collective ids of violence.
Alas, those demons remain unchecked today.
Then I turned to science (yes, I know) in an attempt to give meaning to the chaos of Trump’s messy administration. But Trump had no method in his madness. Chaos wrecks everything.
Which led me, as if often does, back to ancient Greece. Classical scholar Mary Lefkowitz, Professor Emerita at Wellesley College, again reminds me of the wisdom of those early observers of our world. “They express the cruelty and violence of existence,” she tells me. “They understood a lot of very true things about the world: the insecurity of life and how even the gods are not certain all the time what they are doing.” As for the Harpies: “The idea that these creatures come down and snatch everything and leave everything a mess is a good analogy for Donald Trump.”
So is their demise. On the verge of starvation, King Phineus appealed to some visiting good guys, and they prevailed upon Boreas, the god of the North Wind, to whoosh the Harpies far, far away. So the swift-flying bird-women, with a final shriek, were banished by an even stronger wind.
In other words, even the most revolting blowhards can be outblown by a bigger gust. Bring on the winds of change.