What Donald Trump's favorite poem tells us about Donald Trump

Near the beginning of a speech at the end of July, Donald Trump asked a hall full of people at the Air & Space Museum in Denver: “Now, you know, should we read ‘The Snake?’” The room erupted with cheers. Trump, playing coy, asked again: “Should we? Does anyone know ‘The Snake?’” This was met with more cheers. Ever shameless, Trump asked again, “should we do it?” Still more cheers. Trump asked a couple more times, to more cheers, if anyone knows “The Snake.” The routine was like a one-hit wonder rock musician at a festival, playing the first strains of the only song anyone wants to hear before stopping and playing something else: a wet, sloppy tease to keep the audience’s attention.

“Let me put it differently,” Trump asked, “who has not heard it?” Still more cheers. “A lot of people. OK. Before we do that — we will do it — I have to tell you…” And then Donald Trump proceeded to not read “The Snake.” In fact, he engaged in an hour-long meandering one-sided conversation about everything on his mind, from Hillary Clinton’s convention speech to how popular Donald Trump is to how much Donald Trump loves John Elway.

Finally, about an hour or so later, Trump abruptly dammed up his stream of consciousness and offered a preamble:

People like this — people like it. This was actually a song written by Al Wilson quite a while ago. This really pertains to what we talk about what we talk about illegal immigration. Let me do this. I read it a couple of times and people love it. It is called "The Snake." this pertains to people coming across the border and people coming in from Syria.

And then, Donald Trump read the lyrics to a song without accompanying music. Which is to say, Donald Trump read a poem. To a rapt crowd of thousands, Donald Trump read the poem that has become his signature campaign move, the coup de grace for most of his speeches. That the poem is based on one of Aesop’s fables is even more staggering, giving the whole experience the air of a children’s storytime, or a bedtime story from a particularly boisterous uncle.

“The Snake” begins with a “tender-hearted woman” who finds “a poor half-frozen snake.” She sees that “his pretty colored skin had been all frosted with the dew.” She decides to take him in, which introduces the song’s chorus:

"Take me in tender woman

Take me in, for heaven's sake

Take me in, tender woman, " sighed the snake

The woman does, offering the snake a “comforter of silk” and “some honey and some milk.” Later that day, she finds that the snake has recovered. She happily embraces the snake but, inevitably, “instead of saying thanks,” the snake gives the woman “a vicious bite.”

"I saved you, " cried the woman

"And you've bitten me, but why?

You know your bite is poisonous and now I'm going to die"

"Oh shut up, silly woman, " said the reptile with a grin

"You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in!”

The crowd, it must be said, ate it up. Trump read the poem with all the gusto of a children’s theater performer, slowing down his performance to amp up the suspense, bellowing the woman’s lines with all the aggrieved hurt he could muster. And the crowd went nuts over the poem, stomping and cheering and just generally yelling their damn heads off. It provided an emotional climax for the show — Trump left the stage soon after finishing “The Snake” — and it acted as a sort of lens through which the evening’s hatred and xenophobia and racism could be focused and made clear. Those howls of approval? That’s the sound of thousands of hateful worldviews being confirmed all at once by a single work of art.

As with any story about Donald Trump, we have to set aside a moment here to separate what he says from the truth. “The Snake” was released by Al Wilson in 1968, but Al Wilson did not write the song. It was written by a Chicago singer and activist (and one-time Communist Party member) named Oscar Brown, Jr. Brown passed away over a decade ago, but his family has repeatedly asked Trump to stop using the lyrics in his speeches. Lara Weber at the Chicago Tribune writes:

"We don't want him using these lyrics," said Brown's daughter, Maggie Brown, also a distinguished singer. "If Dad were alive, he would've ripped (Trump) with a great poem in rebuttal. Not only a poem and a song, but an essay and everything else."

This is surely a level of hell: you spend your entire life fighting for social and racial justice and then the most openly racist presidential candidate in several generations treats the lyrics of one of your songs like the “Free Bird” encore at a Skynyrd show. The fact that Trump gets the authorship of the lyrics wrong every time is simply one last thumb in the eye after a horrifying act of artistic appropriation.

Recently, Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who worked on Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, pointed out that the key to understanding Trump is this: when he tosses around insults, he is really talking about himself. With this insight in mind, you can see all Trump’s insecurities swirl to the surface in his attacks: he’s called Hillary Clinton “a lose [sic] cannon with extraordinarily bad judgement [sic] & insticts [sic],” he’s labeled Elizabeth Warren a “racist,” said President Obama “doesn’t have a clue,” and he loves to call the press “dishonest.” It’s like he’s performing advanced psychotherapy on himself by projecting his self-loathing onto the world.

And so with that discovery in mind, consider what Trump might find so compelling about “The Snake.” Audiences seem to interpret the poem as a charge against kindness. Trump supporters like to say that we can no longer afford to accept immigrants because our generosity has been taken advantage of again and again. The implication is that we need to get our house in order before we open our doors again. But that’s a misreading of “The Snake.” Instead, “The Snake” is about believing against all evidence to the contrary that someone’s nature will change in different circumstances.

For the last few months, Republican leaders have tried to assure the electorate that Trump would pivot during the election, that he would start calming down and presenting as a more reasonable candidate when we got closer to the general election. Trump himself has said that he would act presidential if he won the election. We have repeatedly been told — by Trump’s family at the Republican National Convention, by Trump himself, by Trump’s running mate — that we are not seeing the real Donald Trump.

But what Trump is telling us with “The Snake” is that he is the snake in that story, and that he will never stop spreading his poison. Trump’s whole pitch is that he’s been an asshole his entire life, and that he’s willing to be the asshole on our behalf for a change. He’s proud of his bankruptcies, his tax-dodging, his dishonorable business practices. Many of his followers argue that he’s just the kind of monster we need to even the playing field with international competitors. But in his speeches, Trump himself keeps urging us to believe the evidence before our eyes: we know damn well he is a snake, so why would we take him in?