“Oh, so Muhammad Ali was kind of an a****le.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone saying this, as the world was mourning the passing of this larger-than-life legend, at the age of 74.
Nevertheless, as we watched old video of Ali on the news, that’s what someone said to me, almost without thinking.
And you know what? Particularly to Joe Frazier, Ali really was merciless, cruel and just plain mean.
This all happened on the same day that I read a bunch of Irish and Irish American writers -- Colm Toibin, James Carroll, Thomas Lynch, among others -- signed a petition “unequivocally” opposing “the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the presidency of the United States.”
Over 400 writers signed the petition, including brand names like Stephen King as well award-winners like Richard Russo, Junot Diaz and Tobias Wolff.
“Because, as writers, we are particularly aware of the many ways that language can be abused in the name of power,” the petition reads.
And because “we believe that any democracy worthy of the name rests on pluralism, welcomes principled disagreement, and achieves consensus through reasoned debate.”
And “because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another.”
And “because the history of dictatorship is the history of manipulation and division, demagoguery and lies.”
In other words, they think Trump is an a****le.
Now, what am I saying here? Am I saying Ali, a poor black man who rose to stardom only to be forced to do battle with the U.S. government, is the same kind of guy as the spoiled-brat Trump? No, of course not.
But Ali was one of the first celebrities in the mass entertainment era to understand that there is no point in understatement. You can’t deny that it’s a lesson Donald Trump learned well.
More importantly, as the world mourned Ali, it was kind of difficult to remember how many people hated him.
That doesn’t mean Ali’s critics were right to hate him. But by the time Ali stood up and made so many enemies by refusing to fight in Vietnam, he had become a symbol of all that was wrong with America to a certain kind of voter. Back then, Richard Nixon called these angry, alienated voters “the silent majority.”
Meanwhile, to a different crowd, Ali became a symbol of everything that was cool. Ali -- and all of his intellectual admirers -- loved that he was willing to fight “the man.”
Norman Mailer, that ultimate arbiter of all things “radical chic,” even wrote a book about Ali.
And anyone who would go on hating Ali was just a redneck, a bigot, and a hillbilly anyway.
Of course, the years went on and Ali’s public image softened. Turns out he was right about Vietnam, and even his haters had to acknowledge his principled stand on the draft. Then he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
And so the hatred that Ali engendered by and large drifted away.
But here’s the thing. That alienated, angry “silent majority” never really went away.
They may not hate Muhammad Ali. But they found plenty of other things to get mad at.
Furthermore, they don’t care very much about what Stephen King and Colm Toibin think about politics. They don’t care that these writers believe “neither wealth nor celebrity qualifies anyone to speak for the United States, to lead its military, to maintain its alliances, or to represent its people.”
They don’t care that these writers believe “the rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities, demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response.”
The sad truth is that Trump voters don’t give a flying fig what a bunch of egghead elite writers think. The sadder truth is that these writers actually think they might change the minds of your average Trump voter.