It's been 60 years almost to the day (Jan. 29) since the death of H. L. Mencken, Baltimore's venerated iconoclast, whose contributions to a vast catalog of journalism and literature distinguished him as one of the great thinkers and pundits of the 20th century. But his commentaries of so long ago endure with astonishing relevance today. And nowhere are they more relevant than in the present campaign for the presidency of the United States and the theater of the absurd in which it's being conducted.
Others have noted as much. A few days ago, the Washington Post invoked Mencken in an editorial expressing alarm about the popular support for Donald Trump with the Baltimore Sage's observation that "no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Around the same time, The Hill, a popular Washington political publication, criticizing Mr. Trump's fear-mongering, invoked Mencken's observation that "the aim of politics is to keep the populace alarmed by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins."
Mencken would have been wickedly delighted by Mr. Trump as he was by William Jennings Bryan, the most prominent populist blow-hard of his era, though Bryan's attitudes were progressive and more similar to Bernie Sanders' than Mr. Trump's in this election. But in character, Bryan, a late 19th century congressman, later three-time Democrat candidate for president, was far more like Mr. Trump. His appeal to the religious right was sealed in his opposition to the teaching of Darwinism and his appearance on the side of the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee, where Mencken was one of the most prominent chroniclers.
Bryan collapsed and died shortly after the trial, and Mencken refused to let him rest in peace: "Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker," he wrote in the Baltimore Evening Sun. "The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment's notice. ... Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest."
Sound like somebody we know? Mr. Trump? Possibly, but in their desperation to defeat him, so many of the others have become just like him.
Mencken would have found grist for his mill in all of the candidates from both parties in this election cycle. On Feb. 15, 1922 he published "A Boob Dictionary" (Online here: www.baltimoresun.com/boob-story.html) Boob, accordingly, "being an American abbreviation of the English booby, from which many derivatives have been fashioned — for example booboisie and boobery to designate the boob middle class and the whole body of boobs; boob-bumper, a popular statesman or theologian; boob-trap, a device for enlisting the idealism of the boobery; and boob-baiter, one who shocks and horrifies the boobs, e.g. a Bolshevik, royalist, atheist, backward-looker or antinomian."
In this election cycle's crowd, a boob-bumper might have been former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
A boob-baiter would more likely be any immigrant, or any politician advocating on behalf of immigrants or even a sensible immigration policy.
Here are a few others from Mencken's lexicon followed by some modern applications:
Booberang, n. — "Something that has an effect differing from its apparent purpose; a political promise; a plank in a political platform." This would apply to either party's platform in the forthcoming election.
Boobotoxemia, n. — "A pathological condition caused by reading the newspapers." In today's world that would be a condition caused by listening to and watching cable news. (To do this one needs a Booboscope, n., "An instrument for observing boobs from a distance." In other words, a television.)
Booberize v. — "To make a thing fit or safe for the eyes of the boobery." For example, talking points; to take a question and appear to be answering it when in fact the question is being ignored; or the utterances of Marco Rubio against President Barack Obama no matter what the question is.
Boobast n. — "Boob rant: Liberty, equality, fraternity." Either of the two Democrat candidates, who actually believe in all three, but also any of the Republicans who say they do but really don't.
Booberund n. — "An association of nations for the purpose of getting the boys into the trenches and the lock off the United States Treasury." For example, NATO. But also the gaggle of candidates clamoring for "boots on the ground" in the fight to defeat the jihadist pestilence that has accumulated in the Middle East thanks largely to the last Republican administration, the boobs who first put American boots on the ground in Iraq.
Boobistocracy, n. — "The chief boobs of a country. The elite of the boobery." That would be the Bush family or the Clintons. Take your pick.
As for the debates, especially the most recent Republican slugfest, a couple of Mencken observations come to mind: One, that "Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage," and the other that "a national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and couple of hangings thrown in."
So, where are we headed? In the end, here's a Mencken view that's held true since the beginning of the great American experiment: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard."
G. Jefferson Price III is a former Middle East correspondent and foreign editor of The Baltimore Sun. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.