There’s a reflexive moral convulsion that comes from the prospect of speaking ill of the recently deceased. The memory of the dead is something of a sacrosanctity, that, if impinged upon, affords the transgressor with a degree of social disdain. Hunter S. Thompson did not care for this consequence, however, when he penned his scathing obituary of Richard Nixon in 1994. The late, great American journalist even doubled down in an interview three years later when he exclaimed, “…speak no evil of the dead. Well, why not? What the fuck?”
Thompson was an outrageous man with a foaming appetite for cocaine, guns, alcohol and peril in the pursuit of literary substance. (He spent a year riding and living with the notorious biker gang, The Hell’s Angels in the mid-sixties as research for the eponymously titled book). His hardened debauchery coupled with a general zest for risk and journalistic rigor no doubt fomented his unflinching capacity for post-mortem criticism. So it was that, in the wake of Nixon’s death, published within the pages of the Rolling Stone, Thompson condemned the man in no uncertain terms.
He labelled Nixon a “political monster straight out of Grendel”, “hubris-crazed”, an “evil man -- evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it.” He even went on to suggest the proper logistics that should have characterized his final ceremony:
“If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president.”
Thompson held no remorse for his words, in fact, he thought Nixon’s obituary to be one of his finest works. The inspiration, he said, and the compulsion to tender a work that met “the majesty of the event”, came from his reading of 19th century journalist, H. L. Mencken’s obituary of William Jennings Bryan, the 41st U.S. Secretary of State. At the time, Mencken’s obituary “ranked as the most savage and unnatural thing ever said on the death of a famous or any other person”, Thompson said.
There’s obviously a domain for the posthumous journalistic excoriation of the life and legacy of American politicians. And it’s a domain that will, in all likelihood, revel in the induction of the current president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.
More than common knowledge, it is a truism that Trump has his detractors, speaking and writing vociferously of the man’s political impotence and moral deficiencies. And one can’t help but anticipate, especially in light of his recent COVID-19 diagnosis, what these detractors will say of the totality of his life once he shuffles off this mortal coil.
Will they talk of his staggering mendacity? The tremendous volume in which he shot off false and misleading claims? (30,573 such claims at the conclusion of his presidency, according to The Washington Post database). Or, more pointedly, how his most frequently uttered falsehood was that he presided over the best economy in the history of the United States?
Will his obituary read of his hesitation to forthrightly condemn the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who rallied in Charlottesville leading to the death of a counter-protester?
Will it speak of his family separation policy? His deterrent of stripping children from their parents who illegally crossed the southern border – a deterrent rebuked by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as an “unconscionable” act of child abuse?
Or how his supporters so easily overlooked the psychological assessment offered by psychotherapist, John D. Gartner, former educator at John Hopkins University Medical School, who said that “Donald Trump is dangerously mentally ill and temperamentally incapable of being president”? (Though Gartner isn’t the only mental health professional to have spoken out against Trump’s obvious psychological inadequacies).
It’s likely that all these points, and more – much more – will be enumerated to varying degrees amongst the bevy of unrelenting obituaries that will inevitably come to be written about the man. But will any of these obituaries brim with the same poetic vitriol, journalistic brilliance, and all-round literary sublimity that made timeless Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary of Nixon, or H. L. Mencken’s farewell of Bryan?
In my estimation, the front-runner most poised to meet “the majesty of the event” resolves to David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, a man whose finger is as on the pulse of American and global politics as anyone you would ever meet, and, whose detest for Trump has been evident from day one.
It was the 9th of November 2016, the day after the U.S. presidential election, when Remnick published his take on the soon-to-be presidency of Donald Trump. The article, he titled, “An American Tragedy”, read of its introduction as follows:
“The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.”
Remnick is an exquisite writer who bears an intimacy to the fumbles and foibles of the president that is second to none. And when it comes time to compose Trump’s posthumous polemic, “the record will show”, like Thompson said of his own work on Nixon, that Remnick “kicked him repeatedly long before he went down.”
For now, I am waiting in anticipation of what will hopefully be received as one of the great works of American literature, a definitive chronicle of Trump’s pitiful political legacy and a scornful disquisition of the man’s monumental narcissism, unbridled mendacity and his overtly gruesome personality.