On the Tuesday before Inauguration Day, a fake news cycle briefly claimed that the poem “Pibroch for the Domhnall,” by Joseph Charles MacKenzie, would be the official poetry selection for Donald Trump’s inaugural ceremony.
The poem — which seems to have been written to praise Trump, but was not composed at his request nor ever intended to be read at his inauguration — celebrates Trump’s Scottish ancestry, denounces Barack Obama as a “tyrant,” and anticipates the ways Trump will reform the country, from taming corruption, to reviving the economy, to vanquishing political correctness on college campuses, to banishing “hapless old harridans flapping their traps” who “teach women to look and behave like us chaps.”
Perhaps most memorable is the poem’s refrain—“Come out for the Domhnall, the best of MacLeod!”— which Mackenzie explained should be recited in unison by the entire inaugural crowd. Although the recitation didn’t happen, at the inauguration or elsewhere, and although we’re now several news cycles past this one, it’s worth returning to that imagined communal voice and listening to it carefully. In its phony Scottish accent we can hear the sound of a distinctly American racism, one that has a history and a future beyond Trump’s inauguration itself.
A pibroch, as Mackenzie informed readers in a headnote, is a Highland bagpipe tune, and the poem’s most prominent feature (besides its politics) is its effort to address the contemporary moment in something like a traditional Scottish form. To give just a few examples, the “Pibroch” refers to Trump using the Gaelic name “Domhnall,” it is sprinkled with faux-dialect phrases like “bonnie young lasses” and “braw gallant man,” and it attempts the rolling meter associated with traditional ballads.
Several news sources fell for the trick and played up the ethnic affiliations the poem trumpets. The initial reporting by the British newspaper The Independent dutifully catalogued Trump’s Scottish roots (his mother, Mary Anne McLeod, was born on the Isle of Lewis in 1912) and quoted him saying “I feel Scottish” when he visited his mother’s childhood home in 2008 (it didn’t mention any of the ongoing battles surrounding Trump’s development projects in Scotland, however). Yet the point isn’t whether or not Trump is Scottish. In its combination of antiquated formalism and current events, strangely enough, the poem actually does say something intensely relevant about today’s political climate.
Occasional poems always speak through collective address. The text may be the words of one person, but the voice that expresses them is meant to belong to everyone. In a CNN interview published the day after the inauguration, the former poet laureate Rita Dove lamented poetry’s absence from the proceedings. “What is meaningful about a poem being read at any event where a nation or a community is gathered is that a poem will make us feel like we are coming together,” Dove argued. “You feel like an individual but you are also part of a community.” While other commenters made similar points, Dove is especially eloquent about the ways in which an event like the inauguration conflates an actual crowd with an imagined community, “a nation.”
Poems and songs are especially potent in moments like this, because in the act of recitation they seem to enable people to enter a communal voice, which can channel individual emotions into a national sensibility that still feels personal. Think of the “Marseillaise” scene in Casablanca, for example, or the outrage that followed Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Kaepernick’s act exposed the lie at the heart of any “national” anthem: this voice does not speak for everyone, and to assume that it does is to assume a position of privilege, which in the United States has typically been a white privilege. In conjuring communal voices, poems conjure race, too, and the seeming weirdness of an inaugural poem that speaks with a Scottish brogue locates “Pibroch for the Domhnall” in an extended tradition of U.S. poetry.
For competing versions of Scottish poetry have a complicated history in American racial politics. Robert Burns was widely celebrated in the nineteenth century as a poet of progressive social movements. He was Frederick Douglass’s favorite author, for instance, and a major influence on abolitionist writers like John Greenleaf Whittier. In his poem “Burns,” Whittier reflected on first reading Burns’s works by using language that evoked the recently published Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “With clearer eyes I saw the worth / Of life among the lowly.” Whittier wrote many poems that protested against slavery in a modified form of the Habbie, or Burns Stanza, as in “A Summons”: “Oh for your ancient freedom, pure and holy, / For the deliverance of a groaning earth, / For the wronged captive, bleeding crushed, and lowly, / Let it go forth!”
Burns was considered a populist writer, and songs written to sound like his work linked antislavery with the concerns of ordinary Americans, in opposition to an unelected elite represented as manipulating the government to favor moneyed interests. In another example, the author and former slave William Wells Brown revised Burns’s poem “For A’ That and A’ That” to transform a claim about social equality—“A man’s a man for a’ that”—into a more pointed statement of human equality: “The slave’s a man for a’ that.” In a different moment of Afro-Scottish identification, Douglass selected his last name (he was born Frederick Bailey) from Walter Scott’s Scottish Highland epic The Lady of the Lake, which a friend in New Bedford was reading while Douglass sheltered there after escaping from slavery.
While ideas of Scottish minstrelsy lent themselves to antislavery politics, however, misty ideals about the lost world of the Scottish highlands also came to serve the purposes of white supremacy. Mark Twain was only half joking when he accused Scott of causing the Civil War; the Cavalier and Highlander mystique informed the self-understanding of many Southerners in the mid-nineteenth century.
After the war, the lost cause of the Scottish Jacobites became a model for reimagining a different “Lost Cause.” Most infamously, the author Thomas Dixon, Jr., linked the “young South” to the “reincarnated souls of the Clansmen of Old Scotland,” because both groups, in his view, were heroic, local minorities, committed to distinctive ways of life, who fought back against overbearing, tyrannical foes invading from afar to destroy their communities. The ghosts of the Highland clansmen thus inspired the ex-Confederate Klansmen (consistently characterized by Dixon as “Scotch-Irish”) who are the heroes of his novel The Clansman. When Dixon stole a scene from Scott’s Lady of the Lake, in which the rebelling Clan Alpine sends a burning cross over the Highlands to call their warriors together, and remade the “fiery cross”—“the ancient symbol of an unconquered race”—into a signal calling the defenders of the Old South to wage war against Reconstruction scalawags, an enduring icon of racial terrorism entered American culture. D.W. Griffith would fix the burning cross in the popular imagination a few years later in his film adaptation of Dixon’s novel, The Birth of a Nation, which revitalized the Ku Klux Klan — right at the same time that Mary Anne Macleod, Trump’s mother, was growing up in Lewis.
When the “Pibroch” obliquely names Obama a “tyrant,” it therefore links into the same rhetoric that demonized Abraham Lincoln and the Reconstruction governments that attempted to implement racial equality after the Civil War. And when it calls on “the Domhnall” to “guard our frontier, / Lest a murderous horde, for whom hell is the norm, / Should threaten our lives and our nation deform,” it conjures the same images that have exercised the nativist American mind throughout the past century.
The pseudo-medievalism of the “Pibroch for the Domhnall” thus generates a fantasy of white ethnic nationalism, one that registers its claims and its grievances in the fictive tones of a Highland clannishness pitted against everyone who fails to “cheer from the crowd.” In urging all those “robbed [of] your manhood” to “Get up and walk free,” and vowing that “The scion of Torquil, and best of MacLeod” will “never forget us, we men of the crowd,” the poem sings a very old song indeed. Since the ability to channel such expressions of white grievance propelled Trump to the presidency, this poem may be far cannier than it seemed at first. What better invocation of an imagined past and a redemptive future than the promise to make America great again? However easy or satisfying it may feel to mock this poem, then, there is nothing funny about what its composition says, and the Highland call that summons its readers will require all of us to pay very close attention if we don’t want its vision of the future to become real.
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