Donald the Dentist: Healing and pain in the US election

Sunday afternoon films were very much a part of life when we were growing up. As with sport, which was so much more special than today by reason of there being less of it, films were a treat to be savoured. In those hard to imagine far off days of just two or three channels, the mix of comedies, cowboys, war films and musicals on BBC were a shared and formative experience for many people.

My dad had a special love of the old black and white films of his childhood, and so it was that Laurel and Hardy, Al Jolson, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and The Marx Brothers films were held in the highest regard. But nothing quite matched his approval of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, ideally together in, say, the ‘Road’ movies but also on their own. One particular favourite was ‘The Paleface’, a Bob Hope and Jane Russell film from 1948.

I’ve been reminded of the film in contemplating the 2016 presidential election over recent months, not because Hope resembles Trump and Russell is a doppelganger for Clinton, but because Peter ‘Painless’ Potter, Hope’s character is both a dentist and gun-slinging hero — although, this being a comedy, one of those two roles is not actually true. The film is both magnificent and ridiculous and I won’t spoil the plot but, in a bizarre way, there are elements of the story that highlight fundamental issues in this election.

Pain disturbs us. Some may handle it better than others and some have conditions which mean they can’t actually feel pain, but for most of us, pain informs us, focuses our mind and distracts us from doing other things; it can also change our behaviour and lead to thinking which would be quite irrational at other times. When I had a bad toothache six months ago, for example, it was hard to eat or sleep, driving became difficult and conversation almost impossible; all I could think of was the pain and how to get a dentist to sort it out. In all honesty, painkillers and a dentist loomed so large in my mind that there was scarcely room for anything else. The eventual solution to my badly cracked tooth was to have it removed, leaving a large and distracting hole but, thankfully, without the pain. It cost me a couple of hundred pounds in the end but it was worth every penny. The arrival of ‘Painless’ Peter Potter in a wild western cowboy town would have been greeted with some relief, especially as he had some chloroform with him.

Jane Russel and Bob Hope from ‘The Paleface’ (1948)

There are other fears, though, and Potter plays this role, too. As human beings we need to feel safe and there are many threats to our peace of mind and our way of life in the world, although they are not what they once were, of course. We don’t tend to have wild animals circling us at night, Vikings sailing up our rivers nor are there hordes of Goths and Vandals rampaging across the plains towards our settlements. This does not mean that our primeval fears have gone, though, and I’m sure this one of the reasons for why horror and zombie films are so popular.

When those threats did appear at the door, there was a need for a person or group or an army or a system that could offer protection. It is fundamental to the whole hierarchy of power around the world as the strong gave protection to the weak in times of danger — and became richer in the process. Our entire social systems are based on fear and protection, and many politicians will still emphasise that the first duty of government is to defend and protect the country and its people.

Film and literature is full of stories where, in the face of great danger, one hero or a small team, battles against the odds to keep the people safe. James Bond is a franchise based on this and there are innumerable other examples of such action heroes. I prefer the old cowboy films, to be honest, with classics like ‘Shane’, ‘High Noon’ and ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (the remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic ‘Seven Samurai’) being particular favourites of this genre. The true heroes simply move on, taking no reward but, in many cases, the people have to pay for what they have received.

In literature, one obvious example of a lone figure saving a town but then demanding his fee is ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’. Whatever the true origins of the story, the principles are the same as always: there is great fear from a terrible threat which sees the people demand action; a stranger comes on the scene, promises a solution and a deal is made; the pain will be taken away, the fear relieved as the ‘messianic’ figure acts; ‘We will pay whatever it takes — just make us happy again!’; he does the job and demands the price. The pattern is the same, whether it is for a dentist (high fees but thankfully regulated), a pied piper or a gun-slinger (both of which may be dangerous but can reach a satisfactory outcome if you pay up promptly).

The Pied Piper: no rats but at what cost?

In the USA at the moment, there is widespread anxiety, a feeling of pain, a sense of loss and a fear of the future, some of it real and a lot of it imagined. And many people are looking for a dentist, a defender, a superhero. It’s all perfectly logical.

But will it be Hillary or Donald?

Hillary Clinton represents the establishment, the tried and tested treatments which, in the eyes of many people, have failed to ease the pain — and, have in fact, actually raised more dangers, more anxieties. For many voters, they have had treatments from her or people very similar to her in the past and they promise a lot but deliver nothing.

So why not try Donald Trump? He may be a ‘quack’ according to the establishment, the already rich, those who don’t feel the pain, but can he be any worse than Hillary and her prescription stuff?

When I look at my junk email, I get an extraordinary range of offers for medicines and treatments; I am sure I am not alone in this. Today, I received one that told me about thirteen guaranteed healing used by Jesus in the Bible and I could buy them all for $49.99. And there was one for a copper wristband to treat arthritis in five minutes and an ancient tea potion for memory loss. Pain is big business and, when the logical methods fail, there are plenty of alternative ‘solutions’ available.

The people of the USA feel pain from unemployment, debt, terrorism, falling wages. For several decades, mainstream politicians have promised healing, guaranteed relief, and they have not been able to deliver. The Republicans and the Democrats are long-established parties but they are part of the establishment and, therefore, as much a part of the problem as being part of the solution. Both campaigns have seen major divisions within the parties and neither candidate really convinces all of their own supporters; why should anyone believe the old stories, the tried and tested and failed treatments?

Snake Oil Policies: you make a profit if people buy them

And so, when it comes down to it, why not try the odd solution? Donald Trump promises everything in bizarre and clichéd soundbites, immediate relief at no cost; he is a version of ‘Painless’ Peter Potter. He may offer the political equivalent of dramatic weight-loss without either exercise or a change of diet but his promise of high rewards and low costs clearly appeals to many people.

When people have a tooth ache, they think only of the dentist.

These are strange but logical times.