LET’S hear it for Donald Trump, the US President who feels he has a God-given right to interfere in the British general election.
The Toddler-in-Chief is upholding a good old American tradition with his, at best, tenuous connection with the truth.
Whether he is boasting about single-handedly killing terrorists or re-writing recent history or bullying those who can’t talk back or accusing anyone who challenges him of peddling “fake news”, he is merely following in the footsteps of such famous liars as Buffalo Bill and the “Greatest Showman” P.T. Barnum.
Britain, of course, has not been immune to self-glorification – we did not defeat Hitler alone and some of our great cities were built on the proceeds of slavery and imperial looting on a grand scale.
But there is a long-standing American willingness to embrace charlatans and chancers which goes some way to explaining how such a fraud as Trump can have bluffed his way into the White House and seems, despite impeachment moves, to be heading for a second term.
That is one of the themes of my latest history book The Wild East – Gunfights, Massacres and Race Riots Far from America’s Frontier now available on Amazon on both sides of the Atlantic.
Don’t get me wrong – I love America. I love the sweep of its history and the speed of change, and in road trips around the cowboy states I received nothing but hospitality and instant friendship.
But all great nations are built on myths – and few more so than America.
My childhood was spent watching black and white TV Westerns – and I still devour cinema Westerns – but even at a tender age I knew that the reality wasn’t so black and white.
During the post-Civil War era of the Wild West, the most dangerous place to be was in the East. That was the inevitably violent outcome of massive social upheaval – heavily armed confrontations between infant trade unionism and capitalist robber barons, murderous feuds between corrupt lawmen and the early Mafia, and race warfare which was not confined to the Deep South. These were clashes in which the US government bombed their own citizens, lynchings were condoned, the law was twisted for private ends, and fake news became the norm.
A good example set the scene for a classic Western showdown. On a dusty main, a sheriff backed by townspeople faced down a gang of heavily-armed gunslingers. Tension rose, hard words were exchanged, and someone drew first. A few minutes later 10 men were dead or dying, and several more suffered gunshot wounds. The hired guns, those that remained on their feet that is, fled. But this was not a shoot-out in the Wild West of Wyoming or Montana or South Dakota in the 1880s, or a Hollywood re-imagining of such an event. This was the West Virginia mining town of Matewan in 1920. By contrast the more celebrated gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone lasted 30 seconds and left three dead. And Matewan was not an aberration.
Or take the infamous town of Deadwood, scene of the excellent HBO TV series and the recent follow-up movie (both available on Amazon), made famous by the Doris Day movie Calamity Jane and the slaying of Wild Bill Hickok while playing cards in 1876. It was known as the most dangerous town in America, but that year there were only three other murders and within a few years it became a byword for civilised advances, installing street lighting less than four years after the harnessing of electricity.
By contrast, New York, Boston, New Orleans, Washington and Chicago were hotbeds of horse-rustling, banditry, gang warfare, riotous assembly and murderous mayhem. You would have been a lot safer in Dodge City. Eastern towns erected stone armouries not through fear of outside invasion, but to intimidate their own citizens.
One reason for the Western myth was the explosion of literacy during the 19th century. Easterners escaped the violence, disease and poverty in their own back yards by devouring romantic tales of the wild frontier where the air was clean, men were men and untold riches were said to be up for grabs, themes continued by Hollywood.
The most successful ‘dime novelist’ was Ned Buntline who wowed readers with frontier tales of the gunslingers, cowboys and Red Indians he claimed kinship with. His real name was Edward Judson, a New Yorker, a failed journalist, a bankrupt, and an alcoholic with a side-line in lecturing on the evils of demon drink for the Temperance Movement.
Such hucksters were followed by the impresario P.T. Barnum who grew rich several times over with his freak shows, museum of curiosities, snake-oil salesmanship and downright fraud. One eminent historian wrote: “Barnum was loud, brassy, full of bombast, vulgar, childish, surly just a little bit crooked – the ultimate, delightful phoney.” Remind you of anyone today?
British commentator Ben Macintyre wrote: “Both Trump and Barnum exhibit the skills of born salesmen, more concerned with profitable entertainment than strict truth. Barnum said that he did not care what people thought of him so long as they talked about him, a principle Trump lives by.”
BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION Publication: Price: £20.00 ISBN: 978-1-4456-8927-2. Hardback, 336 pages, 50 illustrations Rights: World, all languages. AMBERLEY PUBLISHING www.amberley-books.com The Wild East Gunfights, Massacres and Race Wars Far From America’s Frontier Ian Hernon.