Asheville Daily Planet, October 2017
Professor Cyril Underfoot is a quirky old relic of academia – renowned in his field of study but locally, a nut case. Students call him “Dr. Undertree” because he doesn’t meet one-on-one in his office with female students. He never married, never came close. He has no friends, only professional colleagues. He makes (actually, funny) jokes about patriotism. He loves to watch his favorite movies again and again, still on VHS.
Underfoot is an authority on the tensions between John Locke’s ideas of government by the people and popular movements that go wrong and become dictatorships.
For all his expertise in government theory, he has never had the least interest in politics. His enjoyment lies in looking backward in history, not in following what he calls “democracy’s great obscenity.”
He did like – no, he enjoyed – Ronald Reagan as president. He said his economic policies came from “a Styrofoam tower,” but he loved Reagan’s sense of humor. He plagiarizes Reagan jokes, especially the one about the three-legged chicken.
A year ago, however, he happened to see Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the GOP convention on TV. As he listened to Trump’s promises of “law and order,” his mind was eerily drawn to Benito Mussolini’s rise in Italy in 1922.
As a result of Trump’s speech, he followed the presidential campaign with mild interest. He once said with a knowing smile: “I’ve seen you before, Donald Trump – many times, in many countries.”
Then one Wednesday in November, he followed his neat daily routine and went out for the local newspaper.
He brought his paper over where his coffee and glasses waited. His usual interest is Eastern Europe’s trend toward dictatorship. But that morning, the front page screamed, “TRUMP TRIUMPHANT!”
Underfoot’s first reaction was a chuckle. Then he broke into a long, resonant, rib-cracking laugh.
He managed to cough out the final words of “Planet of the Apes,” when Charlton Heston sees Lady Liberty half-buried in beach sand: “They really did it! Those maniacs!” And he sputtered it again: “They really did it! They really did it!”
He went to his computer immediately and subscribed to the New York Times. “This is going to be fun,” he said out loud.
Underfoot had watched during the campaign the Trump assertions that he might have to expand libel laws to let him sue newspapers and how his generals would obey his orders. Trump was in Underfoot’s wheelhouse.
Shortly before the Inauguration, Underfoot put two 8×10 photographs in a proper envelope addressed to “The President-Elect, c/o the Secret Service, Trump Tower, 725 5th Ave., New York, NY 10022.” On the back of one photo he had written, “Benito Mussolini speaking to adoring crowds.” The second photo was the iconic shot of the executed Mussolini hanging upside down on meat hooks from a gas station in Milan with howling mobs all around. Underfoot wrote on the back: “The crowds no longer adore. The speaker no longer speaks.” The return address used his full name, Ph.D., and home address. He smiled as he made a pot of coffee for the FBI when they came. They never did.
For months, Underfoot read the Times with some eagerness. From time to time, he would mutter something to his waggy-tail mutt of a dog – like in late May when Trump called for the Senate to change its rules to make legislation easier.
“Sloppie,” he said, “we both know the man is an ignoramus. He makes me laugh, sure, but there’s something more about him that keeps me stroking my beard. He lacks the political skill and discipline of Hitler or even Robert Mugabe. He’s like Viktor Orban in Hungary in his nationalism, but Orban is politically slick. Orban is somebody to worry about. Not Trump. And yet, ha-ha, here I am, still talking to you about him.”
Then last week, he sat on his deck, looking far away. He’d been reading Times columnists and investigative reporters about the Mueller investigations. “Third World, Sloppie, that’s all he is. Money, money, get power, get rich.” Then he paused. “But Third World presidents do terrible things to become dictators, don’t they?”