As a student of history, the more I delved into the past, the less I believed in the common notion that history repeats itself. However, recently I’ve had a change of heart. Recently, I’ve undertaken a deep dive into certain eras of American history for a project that I am working on and the more I read, the more I see our current society in the past. It is akin to the realization upon growing into adulthood just how similar one is to their parents and grandparents. We are not the same people but sometimes share a similar set of tendencies and personalities, just shaped by different eras.
After researching 19th century blackface minstrelsy, one of the most important foundations of modern American popular culture, something became very clear to me — President Donald Trump is a coon! To be more accurate, President Trump plays the part of the “Zip Coon” in the modern day minstrel show that is American politics.
Minstrelsy as a form of theater has existed alongside a tradition of white actors acting in blackface (most notably in productions of Shakespeare’s Othello) in the United States. The actors routinely interacted with the crowd and due to the seating arrangements, the masses ended up in the bottom rows of the theater. This dynamic made the conditions ripe for minstrelsy’s transformation into an art form for the “common man”.
Two early characters that best embodied the ethos and values of black face were Jim Crow and the Zip Coon. Many are familiar with the name Jim Crow, but Zip Coon may not ring a bell.
Initially, the character of Jim Crow was modeled upon the established set of tropes intended to denigrate the Irish. Though xenophobia was on full display, there was a level of admiration for such a character that many of the proto-working class identified with. He was a fast talking masculine man that spoke big of himself yet dressed in rags. The inherent irony in his character was that it was visibly obvious that he was, for lack of a better term, full of shit. But, he was authentic and popular for such qualities.
The Jim Crow we know today was the result of his creator Thomas Rice deciding to blacken his face and bring his character to a new level of absurdity by depicting what was widely believed to be the lowest of the low of Northern society — the poor, uneducated, free black.
The Zip Coon was a character originally created by George Washington Dixon as a grotesque parody of an aristocrat. Everything about him was exaggerated. He was a money hungry social climber. He was a poor man’s vision of an aristocrat. This was a thinly veiled jab at the growing middle class, who had greatly benefited from the changes in society.
The middle class has historically functioned as cultural police since the days of the Puritans. They were increasingly frustrated with the lower class and this frustration was an ongoing point of contention as the middle class constantly tried to cleanse society of the lewd and unholy rabble.
The Zip Coon turned the tables and now the middle class was the source of ire and derision. The Zip Coon was used to rile up the anger of the crowd. He was a character that was designed to draw boos and jeers from the common people.
There are parallels between the dispossession of the working class through de-industrialization and the dispossession of artisans and craft workers and other forms of trained manual labor due to industrialization. In both cases the white working class, whose identity was tied to the dignity and patriotism ascribed to their work had that self-image shattered. Much of what was seen as a vital contribution to the country was now being assigned to the dustbin of history. In these blackface characters, I believe the white working class identified themselves in the “niggers” they believed them to be.
Our modern politicians have sought to take advantage of this dispossession that the working class has faced. We have had fast talking good ol’ American boys such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Each was relatable and seemingly authentic. One was an actor, another was a smooth-talking Southerner and the third somehow was able to trade his aristocratic northeastern, Ivy League upbringing for a pair of cowboy boots and a Texas ten gallon hat.
They seemed more like people you would go drinking with at a bar rather than discuss the intricacies of serious policy. But after being swindled time and time again by these politicians, politics entered into the realm of the surreal, things began to resemble the absurdities of the minstrel show that once entertained the masses of the 19th century.
With the decline in popularity of these modern Jim Crows, a new type of politician would emerge that would send us into the true realm of the farcical.
Cue Donald Trump, the businessman well known for the enormity of his personality, which was only matched by his spectacular failures in his business ventures. He was a well-known conman, boorish in attitude, and clad in overlarge suits that would more resemble a zoot suit than the attire of a politician. In sum, he was a poor man’s machination of a modern aristocrat. He played to the anger of the working class whipping up his supporters into frenzies at his rallies.
He elicited cheers, jeers, and boos, and blamed the cultural policing middle class and coastal elites as the true culprit in the decline of the America they once knew. Trump is our modern Zip Coon on the grand stage of minstrelsy that has become of American politics.
I never thought I would buy into the cliché that history repeats itself, but in this particular case, President Trump may well be on his way to extending his current run as the Zip Coon for another four years.
Gotta give the people what they want, right?