Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Wisdom from Two Masters

How’s the Apocalypse working for you? My only surprise is the celerity with which it has unfolded; with such speed, the waters must have risen around Noah’s Ark during the Deluge. But I am taken aback by the surprised alarums of our clown dynasty and eminent members of the media who are shocked—shocked!—at the avalanche of lies emanating from the White House.

What did we expect? Anyone who has dealt with a used car salesman or with a drummer selling swamp land in Florida knows Trump. Any woman who has had to fend off unwanted advances from a leering “gentleman crook” who mutters “Now don’t get scared, lady, I ain’t gonna crack you on the bean!” recognizes the type.[1]

To admirers of Dashiell Hammett, the Trump Apocalypse is not a surprise. As an operative for Pinkerton’s detective agency, Hammett came in contact with the Underworld of North American society. His novels portray crooks, thieves, murderers, pick-pockets, swindlers, forgers and assorted criminals with all the precision of a chronicler who has experienced what he writes about.


(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A passage from Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man (1934), teaches us about the sort of pernicious mendacity that we are being subjected to. Nick Charles, Hammett’s retired detective, gives advice to the police about handling a particularly difficult suspect being questioned:

“The chief thing,” I advised them, “is not to let her tire you out. When you catch her in a lie, she admits it and gives you another lie to take its place and, when you catch her in that one, admits it and gives you still another, and so on. Most people … get discouraged after you’ve caught them in the third or fourth straight lie and fall back on either the truth or silence, but not Mimi. She keeps trying and you’ve got to be careful or you’ll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you’re tired of disbelieving her.”[2]

Only one difference exists between the President’s approach and Mimi Wynant’s: Trump won’t admit to his lies. This complicates the difficulty (all those who are calling for a rapid impeachment, please note). Here is Hammett, warning about the problems facing the conviction of certain criminals:

Of all the nationalities haled into the criminal courts, the Greek [a stereotype of the early 1920s] is the most difficult to convict. He simply denies everything, no matter how conclusive the proof may be; and nothing so impresses a jury as a bare statement of fact, regardless of the fact’s inherent improbability or obvious absurdity in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.[3]


Illustration from the first edition of “Little Dorrit” by Charles Dickens. Illustrator: Hablot Knight Browne, 1857. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Then there is the media’s puzzlement regarding Trump’s popularity. For clarity on this subject matter—as well as clarity on many other matters—we must go to the “artist-enchanter, the master beloved by masters.”[4] In Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, Mrs. Clennam has spent decades in a dark household, confined to her bedroom. Upon discovering that a dark secret from the past will be revealed to her adopted son, she stands up from her wheelchair and runs out of her house. Crossing London Bridge on her way to the Marshalsea debtor’s prison where her son resides, she “became surrounded by astonishment,” experiencing the dislocation produced by an unknown city after so many years of confinement:

Busy people … slackened their pace and turned their heads; companions pausing and standing aside, whispered one another to look at this spectral woman who was coming by; and the sweep of the figure as it passed seemed to create a vortex, drawing the most idle and most curious after it…. She found herself surrounded by an eager glare of faces.

“Why are you encircling me?” she asked, trembling.

None of those who were nearest answered; but from the outer ring there arose a shrill cry of “‘Cause you’re mad!”

There, in a nutshell, is what we’re dealing with.



“Noah’s Ark” by Edward Hicks, oil on canvas, 1846. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

[1] Dashiell Hammett, “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” in Crime Stories and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 2001), 908.

[2] Dashiell Hammett, Five Complete Novels (New York: Wings Books, 1962), 684.

[3] Hammett, “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” 906.

[4] Bernard Shaw writing about Mozart, in “To Arthur Bingham Walkley,” Man and Superman (New York: Penguin Books, 1957), xi.

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