What a 1940 Novel Can Teach Us About Fighting Trump

We cannot be passive in the face of great peril.


A version of this story ran in the February 2017 issue.

Illustration by Adam Maida

If you want to understand the moral circumstances that Americans face in the dawning Trump era, you could do worse than The Ox-Bow Incident, a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. The book was published in 1940 and a film version starring Henry Fonda was released in 1943. It’s no coincidence that these were the years of the fight against fascism.

The story, set in 1885, is this: A pair of cowboys, Gil Carter (played by Henry Fonda in the movie) and Art Croft (played by Harry Morgan), ride into the town of Bridger’s Wells, Nevada, just as word is received that a popular local cowpoke has been murdered. The sheriff is, of course, out of town. A posse led by a strongman glory-seeker ignores the pleadings of the town’s shopkeeper-with-a-conscience and rides out to the Ox-Bow, a bend in a river, looking for vengeance. Carter and Croft go along.

We expect the story to develop into a conventional “horse opera” in which heroic Western individuality prevails over evil. But author Clark and director William Wellman are all about confounding expectations. And they don’t flinch.

The posse finds three men asleep at a campsite. The surprised campers plead their innocence. Though Carter, Croft, the shopkeeper and a few others protest meekly, the posse is not persuaded. None of the uneasy ones, despite moral misgivings, summon the courage to stop what happens next.

The mob hangs the three men. Later, it’s discovered that the alleged murder victim is very much alive. The hanged men were innocent after all.

This bare-bones account doesn’t adequately convey the dark theme. The film, reviewer Manny Farber wrote, “shows the failure of liberal men, inspired by justice, when they are opposed by irrational and powerful men of anger.”

Wallace Stegner, in his introduction to the Modern Library edition of Clark’s novel, calls the story “a probing of the whole blind ethics of an essentially false, imperfectly formed, excessively masculine society.”

America has entered an Ox-Bow moment. Trump was dangerous as a candidate and he’ll be dangerous as president. This is not politics as usual. He has already named a white nationalist agitator, Steve Bannon, to a top advisory role. His ugly scapegoating of large segments of society as well as his public brags of sexually assaulting women tell us what he thinks of a majority of Americans.

Trump publicly pushed his rally goers to violence against protesters. His assertion, as president-elect, that a president “can’t have a conflict of interest” when asked about his business ties to foreign governments also signals the uncharted territory we have entered.

Trump has Republican majorities in the House and Senate. He will get at least one Supreme Court appointment. At the state level, allies like Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick promise to march in lockstep with the new regime. Texas is one of 25 states in which the Republican Party controls the state House, the state Senate and the governor’s office.

It’s in this context that Americans and their elected representatives need to think deeply about how to respond to what is already a crisis of American democracy. This is not the time for officials to comply with Republican demands so they can get meager pork barrel rewards for the folks back home. Monuments to their service — streets named for them, buildings with their names upon them — are beside the point.

Here in Texas, a stubborn lawmaker risks (gasp!) making Texas Monthly’s list of 10 worst legislators if he or she regularly stands on principle to the point of obstruction. But collegiality and a kind of value-free, mediator’s neutrality are poor measures of legislative success. Generally, they do little more than improve one’s re-election chances. No, without consideration of the moral substance of efforts or achievements, such scales are justice-free.

In his novel, Clark writes that the rumored murder victim possesses “a gentle, permanent reality that was in him like his bones or his heart, that made him seem like an everlasting part of things.” A sentimentalist might refer to America’s “greatness” in just such an anthropomorphic way.

Like the power-mad leader of the posse in The Ox-Bow Incident, Trump tells us that national greatness has been destroyed. But that’s a lie, and we don’t have to wait for the end of this terrifying tale to know it. One hopes that real American greatness, the kind we celebrate in the usual tales of the mythic Old West where true hearts always prevail, will arrive just in time. But that’s not how the world works.

Clark’s story is a cautionary tale about passivity in the face of evil. We all know how hard it is to put it on the line, even when the line is in schoolyard chalk and the risk is minor. When faced with ostracism, ridicule from pundits or physical threats, the temptation to do nothing can be almost too much to overcome.

Here we are at the Ox-Bow. The consequences of passive compromise are not hard to see.

At the end of the book, Carter, the character played by Fonda in the film, has some tough words for himself. “I’ve thought of all the excuses. I told myself I was the emissary of peace and truth, and that I must go as such. … I was righteous and heroic and calm and reasonable.” It was, Gil says, “all a great, cowardly lie.”

We have the advantage here, though. Unlike Carter, we know ahead of time what’s coming. The rest of the story is up to us.