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“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Epigram by French Critic Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr, c.1840

wister-trump

Caricature of Donald Trump by DonkeyHotey flic.kr/p/Ct4G4K

This sonnet fascinates me.  Though written about Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and couched in the more genteel idiom of the Gilded Age, it does not lack fire.  Its content and intent would be equally apt as a progressive diatribe directed at Donald Trump a hundred years later.

Not even if I possessed your twist of speech
Could I make any words (fit for use) fit you.
You've wormed yourself beyond description's reach;
Truth, if she touched you, would become untrue.

Satire has seared a host of evil fames,
Has withered emperors by her fierce lampoons;
History has lashes that have flayed the names
Of public cowards, hypocrites, poltroons.

You go immune.  Cased in your self-esteem
The next world cannot scathe you, nor can this;
No fact can stab through your complacent dream,
not present laughter, nor the future's hiss.

But if its fathers did this land control,
Dead Washington would wake and blast your soul!

Its author, Owen Wister, was a novelist perhaps best known for The Virginian.   He was a northeastern American born and bred, but like his contemporaries from New York, Theodore Roosevelt and Frederic Remington, he had a deep fascination with the wild American West.  Like Roosevelt, he was a staunch progressive, as were many Republicans at the time.  He was outraged by the pacifism and isolationism of the Democratic president as the Great War blazed across Europe, and he was quite vocal about it.

wister

Owen Wister

Then as now, the GOP was deeply divided.  At a rigged party convention in Chicago in 1912, a business-oriented conservative segment led by incumbent president Taft had wrested the presidential nomination from a progressive wing led by former president Roosevelt.  The schism that followed gave rise to the Progressive (or “Bull Moose”) Party, and led to a four-way presidential race—Taft, Wilson, Roosevelt, and socialist Eugene Debs.  The Bull Moose were remarkably effective, outpolling the GOP in the popular vote by 4.1 million to 3.5 million, and the electoral college by 88 to 8.  Wilson won that election handily with 6.3 million popular, and 435 electoral, votes, and the Bull Moose party rapidly fell apart.  The schism in the GOP probably played a role in Wilson’s 1916 victory, though; the combined popular vote totals of Roosevelt and Taft exceeded Wilson’s, and constituted an absolute popular majority.

While Republicans were more progressive on social issues than Democrats in 1916, they were decidedly more hawkish, holding “preparedness rallies” and military training camps in defiance of Wilson’s neutrality posture.  Roosevelt, who had grown into something of an insufferable gadfly since his own years in the White House, “entirely approved” of Wister’s poem, though he did find a single fault:  “The only trouble with that sonnet was that it wasn’t half severe enough.”

*****

Won’t Get Fooled Again

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fold, that’s all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
‘Cause the banners, they are flown in the next war

 ***

There’s nothing in the streets
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Are now parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
Don’t get fooled again
No, no!

Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

–Pete Townshend