Trump’s Democratic Understanding of ‘Gone With the Wind’

In this past Friday’s event in Colorado Springs, President Trump unsurprisingly dropped another tidbit of information that was certain to occupy the next 72 hours of breathless media attention—he suggested the Academy got it right in 1940 when it showered accolades on Selznick’s film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. As Ann Althouse noted before it happened, it was predictable that the president’s detractors would key in on the conventional wisdom that film is nothing more than nostalgia for the antebellum era of slavery in the South. Within hours the Washington Post delivered that malign interpretation. 

Yet I offer the suggestion that the film’s misremembered ending slyly distracts from the theme hiding in plain sight in the film’s title—a theme that fits far more comfortably in Trumpian politics.

Each semester when I teach portions of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America I find my American government students wrestling to understand the philosophical claim he makes about inheritance laws being immensely powerful weapons of democracy. He goes so far as to claim that once laws smashing primogeniture and equally dividing lands are put into place, the legislator can lean back and rest for centuries as these machines of equality do their work on the economics and mores of society.

The students instantly grasp the arithmetical function of land being divided ever-smaller between children from generation to generation. Yet when Tocqueville explains that “the death of each property owner brings a revolution in property; not only do goods change masters, but they change, so to speak, nature” in a way that “acts on the very souls of property owners” I find myself needing a reference point for these young democratic citizens separated by so many centuries and miles from Tocqueville’s old regime. 

Though only one or two of them raise their hands when I ask if they have seen “Gone with the Wind,” most of them believe they know the answer to “What is the famous ending of the film?” Hands shoot up like weeds, “Frankly my dear…” well you know the rest. They are a relatively safe sample of broader American opinion on this point—and also quite incorrect.

The real end is the booming voice of Scarlett’s father echoing “Tara! Tara!” A line that confused me deeply when I was a child watching reruns of the film on network television’s Saturday afternoon matinee. “Who is Tara? Is she another male character with a female name like Ashley that I somehow missed?” Perhaps my ignorance should be forgiven. In what Tocqueville considers only a pseudo-aristocracy, American plantations do not always carry names clearly associated with a family. Shakespeare’s Gloucester, York, Exeter, Salisbury, and Westmorland do. These characters exemplify Tocqueville’s explanation that “The family represents the land, the land represents the family, it perpetuates its name, its origin, its glory, its power, its virtues. It is an imperishable witness to the past and a precious pledge of existence to come.”

But the audience of 1940 understood (and so should we understand) that the O’Hara name will be lost faster than even the name of Tara. The music indicates a happy ending. Scarlett remembers that as long as she still has Tara, she has survived to find meaning in “another day!” But Rhett, Lincoln, the audience, and Donald Trump know better. Tara, like slavery, is now gone with the wind. In their place are amendments enshrining the Declaration of Independence’s principle of equality in a more perfect U.S. Constitution—the resolution of the Founding’s glaring cognitive dissonance as outlined superbly in the underrated novel Marie: Or Slavery in the United States written by Tocqueville’s traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont.

Is Scarlett a fool for hoping she can restore Tara? In her defense, her daughter Bonnie is dead and she has no heir. For a time perhaps she can hold on to some semblance of family meaning in Tara’s soil, but those who come after her will have no choice but to divide and sell it as Tocqueville predicts. More reasonably, the extremely intelligent Scarlett will come to this conclusion on her own as soon as she arrives back at Tara.

I’d like to think she divides and sells Tara off herself. The great landed property never to be remade, until perhaps the era of large corporate farm operations. She takes the money, invests in Hamiltonian-styled manufactures programs in the Reconstruction Era and then makes shrewd property investments because she understands the art of the deal. Or perhaps Scarlett hones her ability to tell the stories that matter and becomes a renowned author like Margaret Mitchell. Scarlett loses Tara, but becomes the full-fledged American democratic citizen that Tocqueville and Lincoln describe.

If indeed “Gone with the Wind” becomes tagged as a #trumpfilm the astute observer should not miss the point that Lincoln, Mitchell, and Selznik certainly did not miss—there is no going home in America to a house of slavery. Nor will the house ever be divided again. Tocqueville knew that slaves are not serfs, plantation owners are not patrons, and to paraphrase a friend, “aristocracy never got off the boat in America.” 

The president’s 2020 campaign will attempt to convince voters that he still stands for the project of returning power and democratic politics to citizens over oligarchs and bureaucrats. He must convince them he is in the business of reforming people like the slave-owning Scarlett, who think it their right to run the lives of others, into independent business owner/operator O’Hara who succeeds by uplifting others in the race of life. If the president’s detractors only see him as attracted to the film’s first act I imagine his reaction will be, “Frankly my dear . . . ” Well, you know.

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