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Donald Trump and the Homeric Epithet…

July 28, 2017


I was reading an article last night, quite an old article, by Steven Lowenstam, published in 1981 in Pacific Coast Philology, about various controversies regarding the supposed inappropriateness of various Homeric epithets in ancient literature.  When little periphrastic epithets are habitually affixed to characters, does this habituation excuse narrative moments when the epithet is no longer appropriate?  Are such epithets to be excused on metrical grounds?  Or do habitual epithets take on strategic ironic significance when wielded in a jarring context?

And, of course, mulling over such questions I found myself thinking of Donald Trump.  An epithet is a powerful weapon.  An epithet is stronger than adjective, because its habitual, repetitive, almost liturgical connection with a noun is so strong that it represents not some transient accidental feature of the noun, or a particular example of a noun, but something substantial and ontologically true of that person or place.  A Homeric hero is incomplete without his epithet.

Just as you can’t think of a Homeric dawn without thinking of it being rosy-fingered, so you can’t think of certain people without epithets that not only help define them – but also complete them.

I have a very old friend, with (deservedly) far more twitter followers than me who has, for a couple of years now, signed off on twitter every evening now with the message to Donald Trump “Night night, you disgusting halfwit. xx”.  This constant repetition has a Homeric function.  Repetition does not deaden Trump’s disgusting halfwittery but merely reinforces it.  Adjectival variety is all well and good, but there’s a mnemonic as well as a rhythmic satisfaction to the epithet, repeated and familiar.

My own epithet for Trump is a bit more unwieldy.  In prose and conversation I prefer “Disgusting and delusional race-baiting sex criminal”.  Sometimes (for rhythmic and metrical reasons) I contract this to “delusional race-baiting sex criminal” on the basis that there’s a slight tautology implied in the suggestion that a race-baiting sex criminal needs to be called disgusting.  But “disgusting and delusional race-baiting sex criminal” ticks all the necessary categories for me.  Muscle memory enables me to type it out in a jiffy.

I have, however, a problem.

It’s a problem of political consistency – a problem involving a nagging liberal need to be seen to be “playing fair”.

The Right uses the same technique of fastening adjectives so closely to nouns that they become part of the noun.  Nothing depresses me more than the habitual use of terms like “metropolitan elite” or “liberal elite”.   The attempt to demonstrate that liberals are elitist – not by argument or evidence but by constant juxtaposition of terms concerns me greatly.  I’ve argued very strongly that there is, rather, ample evidence to suggest that elites are anything but liberal and (most) liberals are far from elitist.

But can I enjoy the deploying habitual epithets myself when deploring the occasions when epithets are thrown at people I care about and respect?

Well – I think the fair and reasonable thing is to subject rhetorical propositions to regular scrutiny.  Those railing against liberal elites needs to keep justifying the constant conjunction of “liberal” with “elite”.  It’s an constant conjunction that cannot and should not go unchallenged.

Likewise, if I want to keep invoking Donald Trump, disgusting and delusional race-baiting sex criminal – then I’m under a reciprocal obligation to keep explaining and justifying the epithet.  So here goes.

1.  Disgusting.   Trump can’t talk to boy scouts without being profoundly inappropriate.  He can’t talk to anyone he works with without resort to endless threats and obscenities.  His constant sexualising of women is relentless, horrible, and well documented on film.  I can stick with disgusting.

2.  Delusional.  Trump’s lies as registered by every tracking device known to computer science are off the scale.  His speeches are so full of falsehoods that they’d shame anyone capable of shame.  He breaks promises he had previously claimed were carved out of adamant with no hint of a blush.  He constantly contradicts previous statements he’s made.  This is only possible if you have no concept of truth – no concept on external standard of reality to which you’re accountable.  To lie like Trump, you have to believe that the only definition of “truth”  is “that which benefits me and my immediate family at any particular time.”
I can stick with delusional.


3. Race-baiting.  For Trump’s nonsense to succeed, he needs to keep people frightened.  Fear of immigrant peoples, incomers, foreigners in general, has been central to his ongoing campaigning technique.  Note that he’s never talked about job creation – only “bringing jobs back”.  He wants to instill the message that if you’re out of work then it’s because some foreigner has stolen your job and only Donald Trump can get it back for you.   Whether or not he’s “personally” racist is almost irrelevant – he thrives from racist fears and sponsors them.
I can stick with race-baiting.

4.  Sex criminal.   Trump’s first wife accused him of the serious crime of marital rape.  Then she withdrew just the word “rape”.  In other words – “Donald Trump had violent abusive unwanted sex with me but after hours being pressured by lawyers I’ve withdrawn the word “rape”.”  She might not call him a rapist but everyone else in the world should.  He’s boasted of his sexual assaults on film.  He’s called it “locker-room talk” – but these were not just rude jokes but proud assertions of disgusting things he’s actually done.   Many women have made accusations of sexual assault against Trump that corroborate his own proud confession.  He’s promised to sue these women, but of course he doesn’t – because he knows he can’t withstand real evidence being presented in a court setting.  He won’t sue anyone for being a sex criminal.  Of course, as a billionaire, he’s not really subject to Rule of Law, but that doesn’t alter the fact that almost anyone else would have served/will still be serving a long prison sentence for their sexual assaults.
I can stick with sex criminal.

So, there you have it – disgusting and delusional race-baiting sex criminal – justified point by point and ready to be re-assembled as a handy mnemonic epithet.

Wide-ruling Agamemnon.
Lion-Hearted Achilles.
Disgusting and Delusional Race-Baiting Sex Criminal Donald Trump.



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One Comment
  1. I prefer the original: short-fingered vulgarian.

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