By Verna Kale
In his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Vice President Joe Biden quoted Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms: “the world breaks every one, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Biden isn’t the first politician to show Papa some love: on the campaign trail in 2008 Barack Obama named Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls as one of the books that had most inspired him. These two works are particularly well-chosen in our time: while A Farewell to Arms questioned the senseless violence of the first world war, For Whom the Bell Tolls argued for the importance of self-sacrifice for a greater cause.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find Hemingway on the reading list of other presidents as well: Gerald Ford cited him in a proposal to Congress to expand the National Wilderness Preservation System, and Jimmy Carter name checked him in a ceremony honoring the Olympic athletes compelled to boycott the 1980 Moscow games. The largest collection of Hemingway’s manuscripts and personal papers is held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library—a testament to how highly JFK esteemed the Pulitzer- and Nobel-prize-winning writer. Fun fact: before he was governor or President, Ronald Reagan appeared in a film adaptation of Hemingway’s “The Killers.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has claimed The Bible as his favorite book, with his own bestseller, The Art of the Deal, coming in second. Presumably Trump would have only good things to say about Hemingway, whose reputation as the icon of mid-20th-century white masculinity—pretty much what Trump is talking about when he talks about “great” and “again”—is secure. A more interesting question is the reverse: what would Hemingway think of Trump?
Hemingway, known for his go-it-alone heroes, was deeply suspicious of politicians and political institutions, yet he enthusiastically participated in three wars: as a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I, he was reportedly the first non-fatal American casualty in Italy; as a journalist he covered the Spanish Civil War and used his influence to garner financial and political support for the fight against Franco; and as a war correspondent in World War II he very narrowly avoided prosecution for taking up arms alongside French resistance fighters, an action that violated the terms of his non-combatant status. Thus it would make sense to align Hemingway, politically, with today’s vocal conservatives who demand small government but are fiercely patriotic when it comes to martial affairs. (As far as marital affairs go, Hemingway had four wives—one more than Donald Trump).
It is highly unlikely, however, that Hemingway would have anything good to say about Trump’s candidacy because Hemingway was consistent on one point: his opposition of fascism. “[F]ascism is a lie told by bullies,” he wrote in a 1937 speech later reprinted in the New Masses, and Trump has drawn numerous comparisons to Mussolini, whom Hemingway criticized in writing as early as 1922. For Hemingway, who correctly predicted that a failure to stop fascism in Spain would lead to another European war, “[c]owardice … and simple selfishness” were worse than war. Cowardice, in Hemingway’s view, included “tak[ing] revenge on unarmed civilians”—something Trump has said he is willing to do.
“[W]hile we are fighting Fascism,” Hemingway warned in his preface to the 1942 anthology Men At War, we must be careful that “we do not slip into the ideas and ideals of Fascism.” These fascist ideas include thinly veiled threats against the life of one’s political rival. Hemingway is famous (and, ultimately, infamous) as a gun owner, but Trump’s suggestion that “Second Amendment people” could prevent Clinton’s inevitable appointment of progressive Supreme Court justices would not be looked upon favorably by the author who aggravated both the left and right with his condemnation of brutality on both sides of the Spanish Civil War.
Nor would Hemingway have had any use for a man who compares his perceived sacrifices to recipients of the purple heart or the gold star. An advocate for veterans, Hemingway, in “Who Murdered the Vets?,” accused the federal government of murder for its policies that left World War I veterans in extreme penury and placed them in the path of a deadly natural disaster. Trump’s record with veterans and his disregard for climate science would have earned him Hemingway’s disdain.
Over and over again the Hemingway credo “grace under pressure” has been invoked as the de facto job description of the President. Meanwhile, Trump’s response to the slightest provocation—from questions posed by journalists to the sound of a crying baby in a crowd—is to lash out, to mock, and to refuse to go on. Even his own supporters are growing impatient with how easily his antagonists can bait him. Forget your Robert Jordans or your Catherine Barkleys: the Hemingway character Trump most resembles is a minor figure in To Have and Have Not, the grain broker aboard a yacht paid for through speculation with other people’s money. He is a man with “an incapacity for either remorse or pity” who “did not think in any abstractions, but in deals, in sales, in transfers and in gifts” and he seems to be in some trouble with the IRS. To his credit, the grain broker can’t sleep at night. One is left wondering: how does Trump?
Verna Kale is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Hampden Sydney College and author of Ernest Hemingway (Reaktion Books 2016) and editor of Teaching Hemingway and Gender (Kent State University Press 2016).