What J.R.R. Tolkien can teach us about life after Trump

This made a lot of sense to me, and I loved the Lord of the Rings tie in.  Of course, I love anything to do with The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings, and have since I was teenager.  The Hobbit is the only book I ever stole from the library, and I did it because I just had to have the book & it wasn’t available in America yet.

“A great Shadow has departed.” 

With these words, Gandalf reveals to Sam the success of his and Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring, the fall of the evil Sauron, and the liberation of Middle Earth. Joyful celebration ensues, Frodo and Sam are lauded as heroes, and they all live happily ever after.

Only, not quite. Instead, the penultimate chapter of The Lord Of The Rings, “The Scouring of the Shire,” sees Frodo and his Hobbit companions return to discover that their beloved homeland has been taken over by a band of ruffians and grifters under the command of a two-bit hoodlum named “Sharkey,” later revealed to be the wizard Saruman. Fittingly, the chapter begins with Frodo and friends encountering a newly constructed wall—in fact, a “great spiked gate.” They surmount it to discover their land befouled, its quaint villages vandalized, and the inhabitants turned against one another. In their own village of Hobbiton, a hideous new mill belches black soot into the sky. 

I never cared for this chapter. Many apparently adore it, but to me, it always felt small, petty, and tacked on in the wake of the epic battles that preceded it. Frodo and company have just defeated the massed armies of Sauron—now they have to mop up a bunch of drunken club-wielding delinquents? But in the wake of the Biden-Harris triumph, I finally appreciate Tolkien’s prescience. For although our great battle is won and Donald Trump is defeated, all is far from well in our own Shire. We return to discover our public lands under siege, our infrastructure crumbling, our reputation besmirched, our social safety nets abused and in disrepair, and a pandemic raging unchecked.

Nor have we rid ourselves of the scourge of Trumpism. On the contrary, Trumpists still occupy the top positions in government and have not acceded to the lawful transfer of power. High-level elected officials remain complicit. Trump loyalists have been installed in our judiciary and our career civil service. Armed militias threaten violence. And millions of our fellow citizens have thrown their lot in with the corrupt and immoral Trump regime.

Tolkien understood that the aftermath of evil is not sudden good, but rather a long, hard, unglamorous slog towards normalcy and decency. And he understood that even this menial work would face resistance from the spiteful vanquished. “I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo,” smirks Sharkey/Saruman to Frodo upon realizing he is defeated. Compare this to Mitch McConnell upon the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court: “A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election. They won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”

McConnell may be right—indeed, he may continue to do damage even as we work to correct it—but we must undertake it just the same. And Tolkien provides us with insight into the way that work must be accomplished: with determination, but also with compassion. Frodo, as leader of the free hobbits, forbids violence against his fellow hobbits “even if they have gone over to the other side. Really gone over, I mean, not just obeying … because they are frightened.” He cautions that “it is useless to meet revenge with revenge: It will heal nothing.” Compare this to Joe Biden: “We must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”

Like Trump’s MAGA minions, Saruman’s thugs—hobbit, half orc, and human alike—demand respect but deserve none. What they do deserve, Frodo knows, is the chance to change—with consequences if they choose not to. “Do not kill him even now,” he instructs Sam after the disgraced Wizard has just attempted to stab him with a dagger. “He was great once, of a noble kind … He is fallen and his cure is beyond us, but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.” But Saruman’s pride, like Trump’s, prevents conversion. “All my hopes are ruined,” he tells Galadriel in an earlier chapter, “but I would not share yours.” And Frodo has no compunctions about driving him and his henchmen out of town—as we must have none about driving out the recalcitrant Trump and his goons if they refuse to go in peace.

When first apprised of Sauron’s fall and the success of the Quest, Sam wonders, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” In “The Scouring of the Shire,” Tolkien has Sam provide his own answer: “I shan’t call it the end,” he says, “till we’ve cleared up the mess. And that’ll take a lot of time and work.” That work is now our work. To quote Joe Biden, “The work of making this vision real is the task of our time.”  

The sooner we begin, the sooner we may say along with Sam’s old Gaffer, “All’s well that ends better!”


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