Donald Trump As Peter Pan: The Power Of The Elemental
On May 20, 2016, Politico’s Steven Shepard explored Why Donald Trump’s poll numbers are surging:
“The main reason for Trump’s surge over the past few weeks? He is earning increasingly larger shares of the Republican vote….”
Shepard provides a meticulous analysis of the polling data as to the what, but curiously absent is the why. Here, in part, is mine: Donald Trump’s striking resemblance to Peter Pan.
Not the Peter Pan of “The Peter Pan Syndrome.” That’s a phrase coined in 1983 by the pop psychologist Dan Kiley in his eponymous best seller subtitled “Men Who Have Never Grown Up.”
Rather I allude to the novel Peter Pan by James M. Barrie who endows his iconic hero with a more nuanced, more complex, and frankly more endearing set of attributes many of which are shared by Donald Trump.
And lest it go unnoticed, Peter Pan is a hero — a strange, unexpected, inexplicable, fantastic hero. So too, perhaps, is Donald Trump.
Above all, Peter Pan is elemental, as is Donald Trump. Both possess the “primitive and inescapable character of a force of nature.” Elementals can be positively confounding to grownups like Bill Kristol and Erick Erickson who often find their behavior scandalous.
The electorate seems charmed. Donald Trump is casting an enchantment over the voters very like the enchantment Peter Pan cast over the Darling children.
What power has the Elemental?
Might we learn something from Peter Pan?
Peter Pan begins:
All children, except one, grow up.
Meet Peter, who has returned to the Darling house in search of his lost shadow. Note that Peter, often careless, is not malicious:
Tink said that the shadow was in the big box. She meant the chest of drawers, and Peter jumped at the drawers, scattering their contents to the floor with both hands, as kings toss ha’pence to the crowd. In a moment he had recovered his shadow, and in his delight he forgot that he had shut Tinker Bell up in the drawer.
Trump, too, presents a startlingly cavalier attitude, not a malignant and abandoned heart.
Peter was strangely naive at times:
If he thought at all, but I don’t believe he ever thought, it was that he and his shadow, when brought near each other, would join like drops of water; and when they did not he was appalled. He tried to stick it on with soap from the bathroom, but that also failed. A shudder passed through Peter, and he sat on the floor and cried.
His sobs woke Wendy, and she sat up in bed. She was not alarmed to see a stranger crying on the nursery floor; she was only pleasantly interested.
‘Boy,’ she said courteously, ‘why are you crying?’
On the other hand, he could be most winningly gracious:
Peter could be exceedingly polite also, having learned the grand manner at fairy ceremonies, and he rose and bowed to her beautifully. She was much pleased, and bowed beautifully to him from the bed.
Wendy’s reaction brings to mind Megyn Kelly, so crudely – “blood, wherever” — attacked by Donald Trump. Yet she later returned his bow.
Peter Pan is resourceful, if sometimes impractical:
‘It [his shadow] has come off?’
Then Wendy saw the shadow on the floor, looking so draggled, and she was frightfully sorry for Peter. ‘How awful!’ she said, but she could not help smiling when she saw that he had been trying to stick it on with soap. How exactly like a boy!
Trump has suggested preposterous solutions to real problems: building a wall between America and Mexico, erecting punitive tariff barriers, deporting a number of people larger than the population of Ohio, a tax cut that would have increased the national debt by $10 trillion.
Peter Pan is conceited:
Peter, boylike, was indifferent to appearances, and he was now jumping about in the wildest glee. Alas, he had already forgotten that he owed his bliss to Wendy. He thought he had attached the shadow himself. ‘How clever I am,’ he crowed rapturously, ‘oh, the cleverness of me!’
It is humiliating to have to confess that this conceit of Peter was one of his most fascinating qualities.
One of the things that confounds the elite political commentariat is the effect of Donald Trump’s conceit on his popularity. His conceit proves one of his most “fascinating qualities.” How humiliating, indeed, it is to confess.
Peter’s self-awareness and affectionate nature possess profound charm:
‘Wendy,’ he said, ‘don’t withdraw. I can’t help crowing, Wendy, when I’m pleased with myself.’ Still she would not look up, though she was listening eagerly. ‘Wendy,’ he continued in a voice that no woman has ever yet been able to resist….
Donald Trump, too, as I elsewhere have argued, is more “lovable galoot” than lout.
Peter Pan was naïve to the point of otherworldly:
‘I think it’s perfectly sweet of you,’ [Wendy] declared, ‘and I’ll get up again,’ and she sat with him on the side of the bed. She also said she would give him a kiss if he liked, but Peter did not know what she meant, and he held out his hand expectantly.
‘Surely you know what a kiss is?’ she asked, aghast.
‘I shall know when you give it to me,’ he replied stiffly, and not to hurt his feelings she gave him a thimble.
One wonders how the sometimes otherworldly Donald Trump can be so unfamiliar with some of the simplest customs of the world in which he otherwise is so worldly-wise.
Why did Peter resolve never to grow up?
‘It was because I heard father and mother,’ he explained in a low voice, ‘talking about what I was to be when I became a man.’ He was extraordinarily agitated now. ‘I don’t want ever to be a man,’ he said with passion. ‘I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. So I ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived a long long time among the fairies.’
Trump has a long history of taking astounding risks and engaging in heart-stopping acts of derring-do all the while having fun.
Let those whose memories may have faded now recall exactly why Peter was lurking outside the Darlings’ window:
Wendy understood, and she was just slightly disappointed when he admitted that he came to the nursery window not to see her but to listen to stories.
‘You see, I don’t know any stories. None of the lost boys knows any stories.’
‘How perfectly awful,’ Wendy said.
‘Do you know,” Peter asked ‘why swallows build in the eaves of houses? It is to listen to the stories.’
As I previously revealed here, one of Trump’s most compelling qualities is his shrewd use of Story.
And Peter was ruthless yet not without gallantry:
‘There’s a pirate asleep in the pampas just beneath us,’ Peter told him. ‘If you like, we’ll go down and kill him.’
‘I don’t see him,’ John said after a long pause.
‘Suppose,’ John said, a little huskily, ‘he were to wake up.’
Peter spoke indignantly. ‘You don’t think I would kill him while he was sleeping! I would wake him first, and then kill him. That’s the way I always do.’
One recalls the courtliness with which Trump praises vanquished political rivals.
There are many parallels to be drawn between the elemental Peter Pan and the elemental Donald Trump. These do not provide a basis to for the conclusion that Donald Trump is equipped to be president.
America is not Neverland. Still, a close reading of Peter Pan suggests why Donald Trump’s popularity is surging.
Originally posted on Forbes.