By Beth Linder Carr
President Trump was just in London, and if he looked up when he got there, he would have been face to grimacing face with a 20-foot tall baby blimp facsimile of himself, cell phone gripped in one hand, shock of bright yellow hair curling up over his orange head.
It may have been the bright white diaper the president saw first, depending on how the wind was blowing, but either way, he would have recognized a caricature of himself. London activist Max Wakefield, one of the organizers of the protest, said, “The only way that you can make any impact with Donald Trump is to mock him, because you can’t engage him in any kind of argument—it never gets anywhere.”
Mockery as a form of protest is nothing new. In fact, this event has reminded me of another significant moment when—in an allegorical retelling, at least—a tyrannical leader suffers such extreme embarrassment that he cedes his power and then retreats. German children’s author Willi Fährmann wrote Der überaus starke Willibald (The Super Strong Willibald) in 1983—nearly 40 years after the end of World War II—as a way to help young German readers understand how easily a democracy might slide into tyranny. A high school German teacher for many years, I used this book, hoping to impart the same lesson to my young American students.
As the story opens, a colony of mice are living together in a big beautiful house, hiding during the day when the human giants appear, but frolicking at night, with full run of the place. They’ve elected a president, making decisions by vote of their tails. When Lillimaus, an albino, discovers one day that the kitchen door to the garden is ajar, she sounds the alarm.
In the meantime, a strong young mouse named Willibald, proud of his particularly long and powerful tail, has been circling the globe in the library, running and balancing and achieving 33 revolutions. At the news of the open door, he seizes the chance to declare that the colony is in danger, that the cat who’s lurking just outside could get in. What they all need in an emergency, he proclaims, is quick action, not long-winded discussions and time-consuming elections, and so—with the help of a few thug mice—he declares himself leader, along with his advisers Hermannmaus and Mäusejosef.
After separating the mice into different parts of the house; after insulting them and beating down any opposition; after working them long hours at pointless and dangerous tasks, resulting in two deaths; after failing to deliver on his many promises of plentiful food, Willibald makes a fatal error. Lillimaus has taught herself to read in her library banishment, and his hubris keeps him from believing her when she reads the text on a mousetrap.
The whole colony has lined up to take a small bite of the bacon bait, Willibald first, ignorant of the danger. Raging, he asks: “Who’s the boss here, anyway?” upon which the slight brush of his tail against the trap causes it to come crashing down, cutting his beautiful tail in half.
As Willibald hops around in his frenzied, half-tailed state, first one mouse giggles, then another laughs outright, until the whole group is laughing so hard that tears run down their faces. No one listens to Mäusejosef when he attempts to reassert control. “The cat!” Willibald retreats, humiliated, more clown in a mouse circus than all-powerful leader.
In the end, Fährmann shows an inept, cruel and hateful tyrant losing his power through humiliation, and through the efforts of a few brave mice who educate themselves and continue to question his unreasonable and oppressive rule.
Just like with Willibald, Trump’s attacks on anyone who opposes or disagrees with him, in often heartless and cruel ways, require a response. Our outrage only fuels a fiery reaction in return, and, as Max Wakefield has said, reasonable and measured argument doesn’t seem to get through to him.
Wakefield also cites other reasons for the blimp protest, including the detention of immigrant children in the United States and Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. The stakes are even higher, though, and Wakefield makes clear that their protest message reaches beyond just Trump, saying: “Behind all of the humor and the creativity is a really serious message for us…This isn’t just about Trump, this is about the rise of far-right politics that dehumanizes people in order to get into power.”
In my view, we have few options left in our attempts to trump Trump: Deny him the attention he craves and/or ramp up the mockery. Baby Trump, the blimp, floated above Parliament for two hours during Adult Trump’s visit and we can only speculate about what he really thought of it.
To be sure, mocking the President of the United States flies in the face of the call to show respect for the dignity of the office, but Trump is not the first, nor will he be the last, to be the target of bitingly critical satire. He may just be the most deserving of this mockery, though, and most likely one of the few who isn’t able to take the joke.
Who knows—maybe, like in Fährmann’s book, if we maintain our focus, continue to rely on our creativity, and call him out often enough, he’ll be shamed into finally getting the message. Listen to these wise words of Lillimaus, whom the mice nominate to be the new boss after Willibald has slunk into his hole in shame: “We don’t need a boss who claims to always know best and is the only one with a voice…We all need to relearn how to think for ourselves. And we need to be better than before, much better.”
Fährmann hones in on an even larger point: “They’ve certainly learned one thing: No one would ever dare to call himself the boss again, to claim power over the rest. He would be laughed out of the house.”
Dear London: Keep that blimp up, and carry on. And Dear America: Let’s laugh him out of our house, the big white one.
Beth Linder Carr teaches English and theater at Sierra High School, where for 25 years she taught German as well. She is also a MFA student in Creative Writing (nonfiction) at Fresno State, about to begin her third year.