The “Skin of Our Teeth” Long Island discussion group, after detailing nightmares that they attributed to President Trump’s dangerous and treasonous conduct, began to explore what hope there was for Trump, particularly referencing Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize depiction of horrors, hate and violence.
Associating Trump with “treason” may seem strong, but Michael Rothkopf’s powerful book [“Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald J. Trump] was written before the 2020 election. The discussion group thinks it is more relevant now than ever, especially after the terror attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
Since November, Trump has perpetrated what even the Wall Street Journal calls “The Big Lie” – placing American democracy in jeopardy as he ignored repeated realities from varied sources at home and abroad. Even the very right-leaning New York Post had a headline to Trump that said “Stop the Insanity” of claiming that the 2020 election was stolen.
Just recently, PBS TV Frontline documentaries produced “Trump’s American Carnage,” a depiction of how “from his first day as president to his last, Trump stoked division, violence and insurrection.”
One can see why the “Skin of Our Teeth” group remained scared when Frontline emphasized Trump’s “siege on his enemies, the media, even the leadership of his own party, who for years ignored the warning signs of what was to come.”
A lively discourse emerged among our literate neighbors who contended that awful as things were in his play of violence, Thornton Wilder left space (narrow as the “skin of our teeth”) to survive, and to move in better directions.
Most of the Long Island discussants held the oft-expressed view: “I’d like to see Trump in hell, but I’ll settle to see him in jail.”
The theme of “saved” can be considered in various respects. Not at all a focus was the view of religious salvation, because Trump seemed ignorant and unconcerned about matters described by the late, distinguished Long Island historian, John Marcus, in his book “Heaven, Hell and History.” It is the case that Trump frequently said he was the best president in American history, even surpassing Lincoln (while many historians, such as Douglas Brinkley, Michael Beschloss, say he was the worst).
Many religious evangelicals had supported Trump, notwithstanding his own lack of religiosity. Evangelicals argued that despite Trump’s vast sinful conduct, he, like others, was capable of redemption. Moreover, evangelicals recognized that Trump had the political power to deliver policies they relished (think especially of a succession of very conservative, lifetime federal judges).
Without a doubt, history will be even more severe in its judgments of Trump. But now, as legal actions are being pursued against Trump in at least six lawsuits and 20 investigations, the prospects of his going to jail are rising.
It is in that regard that Wilder’s “Skin” is summoned to gauge what could be done to spare Trump the ignominy of jail and place him on a more positive pathway. Needless to say, most people who despise Trump don’t want any special efforts to ease his way forward; too many of them continue to have Trump nightmares.
But here is where some surprising redemptive views emerge from Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” George and his wife accept their son Henry even though he has done horrible things. Remorse and redemption are paths positive if Henry first “puts order in himself” and ceases “hogging everything for yourself” (a Trump role model?!).
Most of all, “The Skin of Our Teeth” can be seen as making a case for “a special parole for Trump” so that he receives counseling and rehabilitation instead of jail.
That approach is inspired by George Antrobus in one of the most powerful and memorable scenes in all of theater history: After he returns to his home following the horrors of chaos and of physical and emotional devastation, he says to his wife: “Maggie! I didn’t dare ask you: My books! They haven’t been lost have they?”
No, she says, but some are “tattered.” George starts turning pages as though they are religious relics. He refers to the books as “voices to guide us and mistakes to warn us.” With these, George says, “we have a chance to build new worlds.”
Donald Trump has never been interested in history or disciplined learning. But now, as prison looms, he can be saved with a sincere commitment of remorse and study of the beacons that Lincoln, Jefferson and others said defined America’s deepest values.
In addition to Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” Trump’s reading list will include Jill Lepore’s “These Truths,” and Alan Jacobs’ recent volume, “Breaking Bread With the Dead.” Trump can be part of a study group so that he gains a real sense of “what made America great.” As he learns more, he has an obligation to expand civic awareness for the millions of people he has misled.