News and the social network have been known to make some odd bedfellows. Never has this been more in evidence than in the recent exposure of Donald J. Trump as a sex predator and the simultaneous naming of Bob Dylan as Nobel Prize recipient. For me, something clicked mentally with Dylan’s prize, spilling a comparison I’d only been vaguely aware of before.
William Zantzinger, the racist antagonist of Dylan’s The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll suddenly revealed himself with astounding clarity in the snarls and threats of the would-be president.
Unlike Zantzinger, the rich landowner who ended the life of Hattie Carroll at a Baltimore social gathering, Trump may not have actually killed anyone. But an alarming number of Zantzinger’s traits have become all too visible in the presidential nominee. Both characters are rich, white, male and entitled. Both reserve their worst treatment for women. Both react to the disempowerment of others not with pity or even guilt — but with anger. Neither knows what it is like to be on the wrong side in socioeconomic terms; neither, apparently, cares. Both are known to have cheated in business. And both have a persistent problem with race.
As Trump spirals more and more out of control, the thread between the politician and the late Mr. Zantzinger becomes increasingly mystical, almost prophetic.
Dylan has always been an artist who deals in our collective unconscious. His talent has been to use words and music to pinpoint a feeling, giving specific name and shape to something that, for most of us, lies just beyond expression. This time, coincidence, and extreme bad luck have made Dylan’s lyrics more prescient than usual.
In the account of the historical Zantzinger’s night of violence, he had already racially abused a young black woman even before turning his attentions to Hattie Carroll. The song tells how Zanzinger (Dylan alters the spelling of the name but little else), struck Carroll hard with his cane and how, when arrested on a charge of manslaughter, he showed no remorse.
Trump, likewise, has a history of discriminating against black people, making sure, for instance, his apartments could not be rented to black families. More recently he has made blanket statements calling an end to Muslim immigration into the US and stating that Mexicans are rapists. And witness the second town hall-style debate when he was unable even to engage with a question about anti-Muslim discrimination. To the questioner’s obvious horror, he turned the subject on its head, talking instead about what he as US president would expect from Muslims. The unrehearsed moments reveal most. Trump really does think like that.
Dylan’s details were culled — with some fidelity to the facts — from Maryland newspaper headlines of 1963. For Maryland society, Dylan tells us, the cause of grief is not Hattie Carrol’s death, but Zanzinger’s need for “penalty and repentance.” It’s his tragedy, in other words, not hers. Cue Dylan’s line: “Take the rag away from your face/Now ain’t the time for your tears.”
There will be a second tragedy here, Dylan tells us, but it hasn’t come yet.
That sucker punch arrives at the end of the song: “William Zanzinger with a six month sentence” followed by Dylan’s exhortation: “Bury the rag deep in your face/Now is the time for your tears.”
It’s not just that Zanzinger himself is a narcissist. It’s also that the whole of society has conspired to enable his narcissism. They are all in it together. Judge, newspapers, and every other influential person are invested to believe in a faux tragedy — that of a “respectable” (read, wealthy) young man’s fall from grace.
Zanzinger’s twenty-first mirror image, Donald J. Trump, pumped up on the self-aggrandizement of his reality TV show and on our celebrity addictions, was caught on tape cheerfully describing how famous men, like him, can grab women’s genital areas and get away with it.
Does he withdraw from the race as he should? No. Instead he gives a notably feeble apology to his family and the American people (note the order) for his crass “locker room talk.” Then, of course, he goes on the attack.
Immediately some of his evangelical supporters weigh in with the need to forgive him, even while fresh accusations come to light. Clearly nothing will make this man go away. And nothing will deter the core of his support. He is as beyond “penalty and repentance” as his fans are from clear thinking.
This is the ugliest side of entitlement. Like Dylan’s Zanzinger, the story is about much more than one reprehensible individual. It’s about the shadow side of the American dream, the dangers of unconditionally respecting wealth and status. We’re all responsible for allowing this to happen, Dylan seemed to be saying, and he was right.
The historical William Zantzinger’s life after jail showed remarkable consistency. In 1991 it was found that he had been collecting rents on black families living in shanties that he did not actually own. Once again, he avoided significant jail time in spite of obvious and proven fraud.
One thing is worth quoting for its eerie resonance. When asked in 2001 by author Howard Sounes for a comment on the Dylan song, Zantzinger replied, “I should have sued him and put him in jail.”
Sound familiar? This is the voice of a man who cannot change. Like Trump, Zantzinger’s brutality is brazen, almost boastful. And Trump, like Zantzinger, is morality an infant. Like parents who spoil a difficult child, we collectively back off and let him get away with every sin and misdemeanor.
Why would he change? Trump likely doesn’t have necessary intellectual software for reflection. Let’s just hope that final line of Dylan’s, “now is the time for your tears,” does not yield another awful parallel on November 8.