Mike Fink. Ever heard of him? How about Davy Crockett? You’re probably familiar with him. March 2016 marked the 180th anniversary of The Alamo, the moment in which Crockett the man died and Crockett the legend began.
Trump’s been compared with Crockett a few times already this election season, mostly for his coonskin cap-like feather cut (see BureacracyBuster’s Blog, The Daily Kos, and rhymes of history for other examples).
But Mike Fink’s story is also relevant, and not only because he was a sidekick in the 1950s Disney version of the Crockett legend.
Fink was legendary as a keelboatman on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at the beginning of the 19th century who had moved on to water transit after gaining notoriety as a marksman for his work scouting and shooting native Americans in the battles around Fort Pitt. Standing 6’3” and weighing 180 pounds, Fink was notorious both for playing practical jokes and for his willingness to fight anyone who wasn’t amused. Fink’s flair for self-aggrandizement is evident in his claim that he could “out-run, out-hop, throw-down, drag out, and lick any man in the country” (Here’s a similar if updated claim from Trump). Typical of the frontiersman storytelling tradition of the American southwest, the targets of Fink’s humor tended to be people of color and others deemed weak or vulnerable. When he didn’t like the looks of a heel on one African American man, he shot it off, and explained to the judge that he’d done the man a favor, as now the victim’s descendants would be able to wear “the neatest kind of boot.” Another story describes Fink as disliking the look of one native American’s scalp-lock. He shot that off, too. When the man tried to retaliate, so the story goes, Fink killed him and his tribesmen. “A laugh a minute,” as historian Stephen Whitfield drily observed of Fink’s vulgar and callous approach to his antics and his storytelling about them.
Crockett (1786- 1836), also at least as much showman as hunter on the frontier, shared a similar approach to humor at the expense of people of color. Like Fink, he also fought against native Americans in the early 1800s in his home state of Tennessee. Crockett, who claimed he was “half horse, half alligator” and could “fight like the devil,” once said that he could “swallow” an African American man “whole without choking – if you butter his head and pin his ears back” (he didn’t use the phrase African American in his description).
We’re all familiar with Trump’s bombast, but what’s been intriguing is the way that people who are new to the Trump table are getting many opportunities to say what they like about him, and that is, for some, serving as a challenge to what those in the mainstream of politics and the press have said about him. He’s a “fighter” and “he says the right things as far as business,“ supporters told U.S. News and World Report. His lack of verbal finesse is part of his appeal, as “he’s going to tell us exactly the way it is without all that legalese,” another supporter said. And if the news and popular culture don’t seem supportive, that’s fine, for as another noted, “I like the way he just takes the press and beats them about the head.” These kinds of statements imply that there is an openness to recasting Trump the billionaire as a hard-scrabble everyman, romanticizing his propensity for the fight and shrugging that untruthful statements are merely showmanship, such as his claim that 27% (rather than the actual less than 1%) of the world’s Muslims are “really very militant about going after things.” If he can be repackaged as not really meaning those hyperbolic statements, perhaps he can be found more palatable among a larger American audience than he now has. And that, of course, would be a grave concern. It’s only March now, but the Trump legend could still be rewritten in time for the long summer months in the lead up to the general election. And why does that matter? For some insights, let’s return to the legends of Davy Crockett and Mike Fink, and why it is that you may not know Mike Fink at all – and why your impression of Davy Crockett may be quite different than the man I introduced above.
Crockett’s good ol’ frontier-style storytelling of bullying got downplayed when Disney cleaned up his image for their 1950’s tv program. But the first step toward Crockett’s makeover came about with the performance of James Kirke Paulding’s 1831 play The Lion of the West which, along with journalists’ tall tales, were transforming Crockett into what was arguably the first mythical folk hero of the American West. Later in the 19th century, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows further cemented the image of the Indian-fighting, independently-minded buckskin clad sharpshooter of the frontier as positive and even kid-friendly. But Crockett the folk hero took a distinctive turn with Fess Parker’s 1954 portrayal of Crockett in the Disneyland series that was later made into two feature films aired frequently in the 1950s and 1960s. Gone were the bigoted, cruel, and racist remarks played for laughs, and in their place was a Crockett who was courageous, fair and kind. It was with this Crockett that Disney struck gold in merchandising sales, having established the largest children’s television product tie-in craze up until that point in history.
Some debated the positive portrayal of Crockett in the Disney series and questioned the program’s historical accuracy, but there is little doubt that the show found widespread support and cemented Crockett as America’s most legendary frontiersman.
Crockett’s image, as well as Fink’s, was not without its critics even in their own day. It was Mark Twain who first famously put this kind of humor into a critical frame, satirically warning the readers of Huckleberry Finn (1885) that those “attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Twain wrote of these frontiersmen that they had “a vulgar mind, a puerile wit, a cruel disposition – and the spirit of treachery,” according to historian Whitfield. Much like the unwanted con artists who tagged along with and were finally tricked by Tom and Huck.
Now, what does this have to do with Trump? It depends. With 24/7 media, it may be difficult for Trump’s supporters to cobble together a shiny new image of Trump as a man of courage and kindness in the manner that Crockett’s image was transformed over a century and a half.
But I’d like to encourage us to keep a sharp shootin’ eye out, just in case. We could see the emergence of a Disneyfied, G-rated version of the uncouth, speaks-his-mind and takes-no-prisoners hero that is currently laying claim to the hearts and minds of many a wild American. I’d look for this turn starting in about early summer if not earlier. And we may need many witty ripostes on par with Mark Twain in order to present a different and plausible critique
Otherwise, as campaign organizers are no doubt starting to realize, Trump’s legacy is bound to be closer to that of the forgettable Mike Fink than of Davy Crockett.