Donald Trump and the extermination of memory

luxor.jpg"It's dead. It's gone. It's no longer - you shouldn't even mention. It's gone."--President Donald Trump, speaking of former Democratic President Barack Obama's signature 2010 healthcare law, quoted by Reuters, 10/16/17


Many years ago, during a visit to Egypt, I was struck by a peculiar kind of defacement on a number of tomb and temple walls and free-standing statuary: the visage of a pharaoh had been systematically attacked, scraped, chipped, and chiseled away so that the features were nearly unrecognizable. It was clear that the disfigurement had nothing to do with tomb robbers, random vandalism, or the ravages of time. It was plainly a deliberate effort directed by somebody, carried out by others, to eradicate all visible traces of this particular Egyptian monarch. But who was the disgraced leader? Who presumed to erase that history? And why?

ozy.jpgScholars tell us the object of the disfigurement was Hatshepsut, one of a small handful of female Egyptian pharaohs, a powerful woman who ruled successfully for perhaps 22 years in the 15th century B.C.E. She was reportedly described by one of America's early preeminent Egyptologists as "the first great woman in history of whom we are informed." The dynastic politics were intricate: As the daughter, and half-sister and wife, of two previous pharaohs, she succeeded her late half-brother and husband Thutmose II to the throne, nominally serving as co-regent until her young stepson Thutmose III was old enough to assume the leadership. A strong and successful leader in her own right, she mysteriously died while still only in her fifties.

For unknown reasons, the defacements were carried out at the behest of her stepson and pharaonic successor late in his reign. As to why, scholarly opinion is divided. Was it to restore the popular perception of a traditional all-male royal lineage? Was it a belated effort by Thutmose III to escape the shadow of his stepmother's regime and establish his own identity and public reputation? Or was it a jealous attempt by an insecure ruler to promote his own legacy by expunging that of his predecessor, along with her image, presence and personal accomplishments, from the official histories and popular consciousness?

Much later, the ancient Romans would institutionalize the practice, known today in Modern Latin as damnatio memoriae, the "condemnation of memory"--where by formal decree any individual who had fallen far enough out of favor with the regime would be written and chiseled out of existence, erased from historical records and forbidden to be spoken of. They would not merely be forgotten; it would be as if they'd never been born.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, who first came to national prominence by literally trying to negate President Obama's American citizenship. A more emotionally insecure, psychologically unstable and intellectually ill-equipped leader would be hard to imagine anywhere; but compared to his self-effacing, graceful, and elegantly refined predecessor, Trump could only suffer even more. Think Gregory Hines followed by a dancing hippo, or a symphony concert followed by a tractor pull.

You knew that President Obama's legendary demolition job on The Donald at the 2011 White House Correspondent's Dinner would be neither forgiven, nor forgotten. In fact, many people look to it as the catalyst for the kind of primal retaliation you might expect from a marauding warlord or a Visigoth sacking Rome, not a 21st century American presidential candidate vying to lead the Free World. And now Trump--never one to let bygones be bygones--seems to be pursuing his own personal damnatio memoriae against the nation's first black president out of pure spite.

Just a small sample: Back in June, NBC's Meet the Press saw Trump's pullout from the Paris climate accord primarily as an effort to undo Obama's legacy; likewise the Huffington Post with Trump's reversal of Obama's relaxed Cuban policy; Newsweek recently called Trump "obsessed" with Obama; Time magazine recently commented on how Trump has "taken aim" at Obama's legacy in health care and the Iranian nuclear pact; CNN's Anderson Cooper said on his show that he'd never "seen a president so seemingly bent on reversing, negating, even obliterating his predecessor's signature accomplishments"; NYT columnist Charles M. Blow wrote recently that "Trump can't hold a candle to Obama, so he's taking a tiki torch to Obama's legacy."

Despite the evidence mounting before us, it's still hard to believe that Donald Trump, The Man Who Would Be King, truly intends to define his presidency primarily as the negation of everything Barack Obama stood for. So let us return to ancient Egypt, and the words (by Percy Bysshe Shelley) of Ramesses II, who ruled some 200 years after Hatshepsut, inscribed on a fragment of a pedestal found in the desert:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

How sad it will be when Trump learns at last that the only monument he can build to himself will survive merely as mute testament to his own embittered and small-minded failure--and that he, too will be one whom history, and perhaps even poetry, will similarly record as emblematic of hubris, impermanance, and ultimately, irrelevance.


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