Trump Is the Star of These Bizarre Victorian Novels – POLITICO Magazine
The first thing to know about Baron Trump is that he can’t stop talking about his brain. While meeting with the Russian government, he talks about his glorious gray matter. As foreign women fall for him, he mentions his superior intelligence before casting them off. He once sued his tutors, alleging that they owed him money for everything he had taught them. He won.
This Trump does not exist, except in the dusty stacks of a library, digital archive or Reddit thread near you. He’s not a member of the first family, but instead the entirely fictional protagonist of a series of somewhat satirical Victorian novels for kids.
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In July, a flock of internet detectives discovered the books. The Travels and Adventures of Little Baron Trump and His Wonderful Dog Bulger was published in 1889, and quickly forgotten thereafter, as was its sequel, Baron Trump’s Marvelous Underground Adventure. They are not timeless, and were quickly overshadowed by more compelling contemporary entries in the fanciful-travel-stories-for-children genre, like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Wizard of Oz. Their author, lawyer Ingersoll Lockwood, appears in history mostly for his role in a financial tangle that occurred in the aftermath of an elderly woman’s death on the railroad tracks near Philadelphia.
The most pertinent detail for modern readers, of course, is that his books are Trump-adjacent, a coincidence that somehow led a few web denizens to conclude that they were not a mere curiosity, but compelling proof that our president might just be a time traveler.
In these books, the young German protagonist, Wilhelm Heinrich Sebastian Von Troomp, better known as Baron Trump, travels around and under the globe with his dog Bulger, meeting residents of as-of-yet undiscovered lands before arriving back home at Castle Trump. Trump is precocious, restless, and prone to get in trouble, with a brain so big that his head has grown to twice the normal size—a fact that, as we have seen, he mentions often. No one tells Trump that his belief that he looks great in traditional Chinese garb—his uniform for both volumes—is unwarranted.
Lockwood’s books are spring break meets Carmen Sandiego meets Jabberwocky; at the start of each story, Trump sets out eager to find new civilizations—and manages to get distracted by more than one lady along the way. One of the first places he visits in Travels and Adventures is the land of the toothless and nearly weightless Wind Eaters, who inflate to beach-ball size after a meal. They are generous hosts until Trump starts a fire. The intrigued Wind Eaters draw near, and promptly explode after the air they have ingested expands thanks to the flames. As Captain Go-Whizz, “a sort of leader among them,” chases the murderer, the dog Bulger bites one of the Wind Eaters until he deflates like a punctured balloon. The pair eventually escape, leaving the briefly betrothed Princess Pouf-fah without a mate, and Chief Ztwish-Ztwish and Queen Phew-yoo with many a funeral to plan.
This sequence of events—anthropological study, jilting, disaster, escape—is repeated for much of the two books, like when Trump meets the Man Hoppers, who have biker calves and puny T-rex arms, and soon runs away from their crying princess after first acquiring a book with centuries of priceless knowledge. A variation on this plot recurs when Trump visits the Round Bodies. (Perhaps a wandering life such as his was inevitable; as the book explains, he was born in the land of the Melodious Sneezers, whose alphabets consists of achoos of different length and tone.) Marvelous Underground Adventure is a slight twist on the theme, as all the societies are found deep below the dirt in Russia: the land of Transparent Folk, the ant people, and the Happy Forgetters, who dread remembering anything and will, like history, forget Baron Trump soon after he goes above ground.
Suzan Alteri, curator of the Baldwin Collection of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida, could only say that the titles are “really strange. I can’t think of a better word than that.” They are not well-known in the world of children’s books. Alteri hadn’t heard of them until I asked her for a comment.
One Baron Trump reviewer wrote in 1891, “The author labors through three hundred pages of fantastic and grotesque narrative, now and then striking a spark of wit; but the sparks emit little light and no warmth, and one has to fumble for the story.” That’s, if anything, too generous: There are plenty of things that were better left forgotten in the 19th century that people are determined to keep alive in 2017. Baron Trump seems to be one of them.
And yet these strange little travelogues were unearthed, for the sole reason that they, like everything else that manages to inhale our attention spans lately, are about a Trump. Although his name almost mirrors the youngest of the Trump children (in Lockwood’s book, “Baron” is, of course, a title) the character seems eerily like an archetype modeled off the oldest of the clan, or at least an approximation of what he sees in the mirror. “The simple-minded peasantry,” the narrator notes in Marvelous Underground Adventure, “came to look upon him as half-bigwig and half-magician.” The young protagonist lives in a building called Trump—and did we mention that he is so smart that one might assume he went to Wharton? Like the real Trump, our fictional hero is skilled at inspiring nearly every person he meets to greet him with a personalized insult—including Little Man Lump, Little Man All Head, Man Tongs, Flip-Flop, Sir Pendulum Legs, stunted misshapen thing, and great-great-great-great grandson of a barbarian. The fictional Trump, too, greatly prefers familiar comfort foods to trying cuisine from elsewhere. The similarities do not extend much further; this Trump does not mind shaking hands and is willing to sleep somewhere other than Castle Trump.
But because nothing can simply be a coincidence nowadays, these weird tomes quickly became evidence to some wags that our president might be a time traveler. “There’s a very distinct chance,” one YouTube vlogger explained before unfurling his theory this summer, “that I am losing my goddamn mind right now. This cannot be real.” What if, he wondered, Nicola Tesla had shared time travel research with Trump’s MIT-grad uncle, setting off a chain of events that led to both the 2016 election and the publication of these books? “Although the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming, I still believe this is complete horseshit.” one commenter noted. Nevertheless, the video has more than 46,000 views.
More proof was found on Reddit, where a user noticed that the villain in the Super Mario Bros. movie looks strangely like Donald Trump, and that he tries to “take over Earth by merging their parallel dimension with ours.” Biff Tannen, the casino-owning, bimbo-loving villain in the Back to the Future movies, of all things, acts like our current president. Add it all up, and it either equals time travel or definitive proof that evidence for anything can be found on the internet.
This is not the first time time travel and the presidency have been precariously linked. Last year, a man who claimed to be a time traveler, Seattle lawyer Andrew Basiago, made an improbable and little-noted White House bid. (He will allegedly win either the presidency or the vice-presidency before 2024.) Philosopher John Hospers, who won one electoral vote in 1972, once posed the question, “Is it logically possible to go back in time—say, to 3000 B.C., and help the Egyptians build the pyramids? We must be very careful about this one.” In 2003, an op-ed writer in Asheville wondered if George W. Bush was the first time-traveling president, and in 1989 Spy magazine even jokingly noted that there was something fishy about how Donald Trump, “a man of obviously limited abilities, became fabulously wealthy buying real estate in just the right places at just the right time.” Someone took the time to self-publish a book on Amazon about an alternate reality in which Al Gore won the presidency—and is a time traveler. Obsessing over the intricacies of messing with history is not limited to chief executives. For the July 1941 issue of Weird Tales, former Massachusetts state Senator Roger Sherman Hoar wrote a short story titled, “I Killed Hitler,” in which the narrator travels back to 1899 with the help of a mysterious swami and strangles young Adolph, only to find himself transformed into the dictator when he returns to the present.
President Donald Trump, who tends to describe the world in lazy and ominous vagueness that allows people to give one sentence an endless number of interpretations, has been accused of predicting both 9/11 and the current tensions with North Korea. His Twitter feed seems to bend the rules of physics to its will, each of his tweets opposed by an equal and opposite sentiment from the recent past. It is freakishly easy to discover a Trump tweet for any occasion, many have noted, as if @realdonaldtrump were a visitor from the future sent to warn us about the real Donald Trump.
The connections go deeper, as they are wont to do in the dust bunnies under the cabinet of good conspiracy theories. Ingersoll also wrote a satirical novella titled 1900: Or the Last President, which begins on a Tuesday in November, “a terrible night for the great city of New York.” Anarchists and socialists have laid siege to a hotel on Fifth Avenue, screaming, “death to the rich man.” In a few months, the president appoints a man named Pence to the cabinet. America seems to be crumbling.
As the internet dug into the digitized underworld of out-of-print novels, the plot seemed to thicken. What if the author possessed the technology to jump through history, instead of our president? What if Lockwood were a modern-day Nostradamus? (He would be joining a veritable pantheon of prognosticators; a Google search of “modern-day Nostradamus” shows that Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, Bill O’Reilly and—yep—Donald Trump share this distinction.)
For others, the books are just an opportunity to “troll on a level we’ve never seen before,” as pro-Trump filmmaker Leigh Scott put it on an Indiegogo fundraising appeal. He has been trying to raise money to make a movie of the Lockwood’s novels, turning “Baron Trump into a fantasy icon like Harry Potter, Dorothy Gale or Alice,” and making the first “motion picture meme,” potentially subbing out the Lockwood books’ phrenology mentions with a guest appearance from Pepe the Frog. His least compelling argument for the Little Baron Trump movie is his belief that Hollywood would jump at the opportunity to option a book in the public domain about Little Chelsea Clinton, a theory that makes considerably less sense than the idea that Donald Trump is a time traveler.
There are, of course, simpler explanations for this sort of historical déjà vu. As Joseph Mazur writes in Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence, “coincidences are omnipresent.” Only a few years after the Baron Trump books came out, a novella called Futility told the story of an unsinkable sinking ocean liner called the Titan. Jules Verne wrote about space cannons being launched in Florida nearly 100 years before the Kennedy Space Center was built. Some people are convinced that Tom Clancy predicted 9/11. And regarding Donald Trump, it truly isn’t that hard to find coincidences that you could interpret as foreshadowing 2017 in the 19th century. I spent less than five minutes searching “Donald Trump” in the Library of Congress’s newspaper archive and found a headline from 1897 that read, “President Trump Will Preside.”
The cherry-picked Lockwood titles might seem revelatory, but when seen among the rest of his work, he doesn’t look terribly prescient. Does the author’s decision to start a club called Union of the Titans, with a membership limited to men taller than 6’2”, reveal that he knew that several presidents, including the current one, would qualify? No, it does not. It is not clear what his many thoughts about George Washington’s lack of a love life say about the present. The Wonderful Deeds and Doings of Little Giant Boab and his Talking Raven Tabib and the Extraordinary Experiences of Little Captain Doppelkopp also do not seem to say much about the future.
Besides, books always reveal far more about the place they were born than whatever future might await them. “We tend to think of these books as coming out of nowhere,” Alteri says, “but they relate to the history of the time.” The Baron Trump books would not exist without the children made hungry for adventure stories by the publication of Alice in Wonderland in 1865, or a country starting to look outward and meet new cultures, before deciding its own was supreme. The reviews of the book see them as a charming, fun-size version of Baron Munchausen’s adventures, which explains Trump’s title, his destination of Russia and the strangeness of the territories he visits. Lockwood’s short story The Last President is steeped in paranoia over the gold standard and fears about what would happen to a country still cleft by civil war. If anything, Lockwood’s works are disquieting because their mood of anxiety and reprisal of old battles feels so familiar.
You don’t need to believe in time travel to worry about that, though. Our own incarnation of Trump taught us that lesson all on his own.