In 1992’s “Last of the Mohicans,” a haughty British officer asks Hawkeye — played by Daniel Day-Lewis — if he calls himself a “loyal subject to the Crown.”
Hawkeye replies evenly, “I don’t call myself subject to much at all.”
It’s a short line and, in print, doesn’t appear particularly dramatic, but it’s stuck with me, largely because actor Day-Lewis so fully inhabited the character, a template for the classic American hero — the tough frontiersman who lives by his wits and skill as a hunter and warrior.
The film, based on James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, is set in 1757 — nearly 20 years before the Revolution. But in Hawkeye we see the future of restless America, breaking from the hated king and relentlessly pushing West.
Cooper’s books may not be read much today, but the mythic hero he created lives on in the work of countless writers. Even the name of the lead character of “M*A*S*H” — a surgeon of all things — pays tribute to Cooper’s Hawkeye.
It’s easy to understand why. Many — make that most — American men like to think of themselves as living up to that ideal: tough, smart, decent, fair, handy in a fight and not “subject to much at all.”
That’s why recent celebrations of the passage of the tax bill by our president and his Cabinet proved so strange and troubling — and so profoundly un-American.
Yes, the bill’s a travesty for many reasons. Among them: giving billionaires a tax break while American citizens are suffering and dying in Puerto Rico and handing corporations a huge windfall while Congress struggles to cover health insurance for children.
And, of course, the ghastly spectacle of our supposed public servants voting to enrich themselves and their posterity; the public be damned. Still, one could argue that none of those things, however awful, is especially un-American.
But what followed was.
With the Cabinet gathered around, President Trump pointedly asked Vice President Pence, “Mike, would you like to say a few words?”
Not too subtly, Mr. Trump was playing the king — demanding to be praised — with Mr. Pence his courtier.
Mr. Pence performed as required, offering two minutes of obsequious praise that, in a democracy, should have embarrassed both the receiver and the giver. There was no sign that was the case.
Mr. Pence thanked Mr. Trump three times, tossing in, for good measure, how “deeply humbled” he was to be in his presence.
Among the more bizarre statements, Mr. Pence said that Mr. Trump “had restored American credibility on the world stage.” The lopsided UN vote last month on Mr. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would suggest otherwise.
As a news clip of foreign government officials, it would have been hilarious. As the actual meeting of a United State president and his Cabinet, it was deeply humiliating — or should have been — for Americans to watch.
And that was only the beginning. At a later gathering, congressional leaders competed to see who could best toady up to our would-be king.
House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke of Mr. Trump’s “exquisite leadership.” That brought to mind Trump’s punching down on the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, who was only advocating for her hurricane-stricken constituents, and for his attacks on Gold Star families, including the pregnant widow of a fallen soldier.
Rep. Diane Beck, a Tennessee Republican, gushed, “I want to say thank you to Mr. President — thank you, President Trump, for allowing us to have you as our president and to make America great again.”
Mr. Trump has allowed us to have him as our president? Perhaps he’ll allow us to name Donald Jr. as his heir to the throne.
But Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, whom I used to consider a sensible conservative, was not to be outdone: “I have to say that this is one of the great privileges of my life to stand here on the White House lawn with the president of the United States, who I love and appreciate so much. … We’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen not only in generations, but maybe ever.”
Wow. After a year of turnover, turmoil and scandal, Mr. Trump is replacing Lincoln — Lincoln! — as the greatest Republican hero. I was stunned.
I shouldn’t have been. Lincoln believed in government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Our un-American Republican leaders — not a Hawkeye among them — would prefer to bow before a king.
Don Flood (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a political columnist who divides his time between Grasonville and Lewes, Del.