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Lord of the Flies and the US Presidential Campaign

This post has been updated here.

Lord of the Flies was written over 60 years ago, published in 1954, long before the advent of 24-hour news, social media commentary, and readers as news-producers. But the enduring messages of Golding’s seminal novel have made it a touchstone of the complexities of the human condition, and in political news reporting it remains as relevant as it was in the period in which it was first conceived and circulated.

I have written elsewhere about how the novel was used as a symbol of the actions of those involved in the UK riots in 2011, with particular regard to young people, but this year 2016 we have seen an increase in mentions of Lord of the Flies as an analogy for some events in the US election campaigns, especially those involving Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for President. Commentators across a range of media, with a variety of political leanings, have compared aspects and ideas from Lord of the Flies to the impact of Trump’s candidacy. I explore a selection of these here.

Trump at High School

Almost predictably, Ted Levine, Trump’s classmate at New York Military Academy, described the school as a ‘little Lord of the Flies’ in an article in 2015. Over the years, Lord of the Flies has become an adjective to label any situation involving children and young people in conflict and dispute, and so Levine’s description is not unusual in that regard. One of my favourite examples of this comes from Golding’s daughter Judy, who recalls collecting her son from a birthday party, and the host parent, unaware of Judy’s father’s identity, described it as like something out of Lord of the Flies! Despite Levine’s statement, Trump’s classmates were mostly positive about Trump’s accomplishments at school and stated that he wasn’t a particularly aggressive student.

The Campaigns

P J O’Rourke, writing a polemic in The Daily Beast, endorses Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton for President but certainly with no degree of praise. He describes her as ‘the second worst thing to happen to America’. But, he continues, the worst thing for America would be Trump as President: ‘Better the devil you know than the Lord of the Flies on his own 757′.

The ‘Lord of the Flies’ is, of course, the literal translation of Beelzebub, another name for the devil in the Christian religion. In the novel, the Lord of the Flies is embodied in the pig’s head with whom Simon seems to communicate, and is further personified as the imagined beast of the boys’ nightmares. It is likely that O’Rourke is referring to the novel as well as the devil here, and this marks the start of a number of articles referencing Lord of the Flies in relation to Trump’s candidacy, and to the support he has thus far been given in his campaign.

On June 17th Scott Schafer wrote that some members of the Republican Party have been considering an attempt to ‘derail’ Trump’s campaign. According to Schafer, a Party campaign insider described the plotting as ‘a total Lord of the Flies scenario. Nobody’s in charge. They’re just looking at how to exploit the holes before us’.

In a blistering attack on Trump in The Huffington Post, ‘Lord of the Lies’, Lynn Sherr claims Trump is ‘ripped from the pages of Lord of the Flies, the 1954 novel that illuminated raw and terrible truths about human nature’. Sherr sees Trump reflected in the character of Jack, the ‘silver-tongued […] dictator’, who ‘slyly raises the threat of a non-existent monster to panic the others into war’. She compares Jack’s assertion ‘Bollocks to the rules!’ to a speech made by Trump in which he declared ‘I don’t care about rules, folks’. Regardless of politics, Sherr reads the novel intelligently and stresses its longevity: the ‘cast of Lord of the Flies so brilliantly illuminates those elemental instincts buried in all of us, and what happens when the id is unleashed’.

Monica Bauer, in The Huffington Post, takes a slightly different approach. She reads Trump’s supporters as reminiscent of the savage crowd of boys in Lord of the Flies. She writes that Golding is warning against ‘the tribal urge to join a gang of one sort or another, to be able to revel in the joy of the hunt and the excitement of creating, and then punishing, enemies’. Bauer believes that Trump’s supporters display a similar level of behaviour and that the ‘happy haters’ at the rallies ‘have been given permission by a leader who revels in the sheer joy of pushing other people around’. Just like O’Rourke, Bauer also calls Trump the ‘Lord of the Flies’ and states that ‘he’s the boy leading the pack, dancing around the fire, pumping up the worst impulses in the human race’.

Afterthoughts

The outcome of the US Presidential election 2016 is still unknown, but come November will we see further comparisons with Golding’s novel in news reporting? Lord of the Flies was written after the devastation of the Second World War, and amidst the threat of nuclear attack, increased surveillance, and fear of totalitarianism. The characters of Ralph, Jack, Piggy and Simon, so fully and individually realised, are timeless archetypes of civilisation. Lord of the Flies continues to hold such allegorical power, and continues to act as a stark warning against the same fears of societal breakdown that still exist today.