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Donald J. Swearengen
We’re all stuck in Deadwood forever.
I’ve been belatedly watching Deadwood, the Best Television Show of All Time ™. It’s pretty good! I enjoy the things I’m supposed to enjoy—excellent acting, vivid characters, the lovely rhythms of the profanity-laced dialogue, the muck-encrusted milieu of the old West so tactile you can just about smell it. Etc. It’s fun.
As the epic has unfurled, though, and as the show falls increasingly in love with its main character, I’ve been…well, less sure I want to fall in love with its main character. Because…
Al Swearengen. Isn’t he basically Trump?
Swearengen and white rule
Obviously, Swearengen isn’t literally meant to be Trump; the series aired originally from 2004 to 2006, before the orange blight afflicted our polity. The character, owner of a brothel and gambling den in Deadwood, South Dakota in the 1870s and 80s, is based on a real figure—Al Swarengen was a Deadwood businessman who trafficked women to the territory and made a fortune from bullying them into prostitution through a combination of physical and economic coercion.
The character Swearengen in Deadwood, played by Ian McShane, is a misogynist bully, an antisemite, and a mobster. He’s also a white supremacist; he wants to enrich himself by seizing the Black Hills (and their gold) from Sioux control and establishing white rule in general and his own political dominance in particular. In pursuit of personal enrichment and power, he engages in (literal) highway robbery, using native people as scapegoats, arranges numerous murders (including an unsuccessful hit on an 8-year-old), lies, bullies, and behaves in a generally disreputable and evil fashion.
You can see the parallels. Trump also lies, bullies, assaults women, tries to murder children, and uses white supremacy to advance his personal and political fortunes. He and Swearengen are both examples of America’s Christofascist capitalist synergy, in which white men can leverage institutional bigotry to subjugate women and non-white people in the name of profit.
Isn’t Swearengen competent though?
The obvious counter to “Swearengen is Trump!” is that Swearengen, in the series at least, is not a bumbling ignorant doofus.
Trump notoriously during his presidency didn’t read his intelligence reports. He’s a deeply uncurious man, who believes his own lies and conspiracy theories, and sincerely suggested at one point that you could protect yourself from Covid by injecting bleach.
Swearengen, in contrast, spends most of his time assiduously gathering information the better to lay his elaborate plans. After he recovers from a bout of kidney stones in season 2, there’s a scene with all his cronies, informants and henchpeople lined up outside his door, a visual, and visible, backlog of detail and knowledge.
When Trump was faced with a Covid plague, he tried to pretend it wasn’t happening because he didn’t want it to hurt his election chances. Swearengen in contrast tries to keep news of a smallpox infection quiet, but immediately takes steps to rally the community against the disease, sending for vaccines, organizing quarantine, providing the doctor with resources. He realizes that the plague is going to hurt his business in the short term, but also knows that handling it quickly is best for his own and the community’s long term prospects.
Swearengen is the fictional Trump
The thing about Swearengen in Deadwood, of course, is that he’s not real. The story is fiction. Trump is a real person—but his followers make up stories about him. And those stories look a lot like the stories the television showrunner David Milch tells about Swearengen.
Trump’s followers know Trump is mean and unscrupulous. They know that his language is coarse and cruel. But they shrug that off because he’s their guy—and because they see it as a sign he’ll get down in the mud and fight for them. “He’s forthright and honest,” one of Trump’s evangelical supporters insisted. A reporter who interviewed more than 50 Trump supporters said they see “a president who acts like a bully but is fighting for them.”
For Trump’s partisans, his ugly rhetoric, his violence, his cruelty, are all signifiers of ruthless competence, deployed on their behalf. He’s a bastard, but he’s their bastard—the kind who will smite their enemies, the kind who will get things done. Trump’s opponents recognize that he’s a fool and that he hates and has contempt for his own constituents. But those constituents see him as Swearengen—a man who will stop at nothing to advance the good of the (white, racist) community, in despite of the namby-pamby government “cocksuckers” and the “heathen”.
Swearengen’s philosophy is one of embattled remorselessness; a very Jordan Peterson worship of toughness and manly resilience. “The world ends when you’re dead,” he declares. “Until then you’ve got more suffering in store. Stand it like a man and give some back.” That isn’t Donald Trump, but it’s who Donald Trump, and his followers, like to cosplay as—the manly man who understands that life is hell, and refuses to bend.
There’s always somebody worse
Per the lens of “our bastard,” Deadwood also gets you to empathize with Swearengen’s through the standard peak-television trope of rolling out villains who are worse than the chosen beloved antihero. In early episodes, Swearengen is very much the evil foil to the upright ex-sheriff hero Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant). This is when Swearengen attempts to murder the 8-year-old.
But as the show moves on, we’re introduced to even more unsavory characters. A rival saloon and brothel owner, Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) is every bit as unscrupulous as Swearengen, without the charm or occasional flashes of humanity. And by the third season we’ve got millionaire George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), who is more powerful and more evil than Swearengen, and to make matters worse has no interest in Deadwood’s success.
Deadwood, in short, enlists negative partisanship on Swearengen’s behalf. Al is horrible, sure (what else can you say about a would-be child murderer!) But he’s at least on our side, as opposed to Joe Biden, or Hillary Clinton, or whichever big government meddler the Democrats are wheeling out to undermine the virtuous (white, Christian) community. Our bad guy is better than their bad guy—and, indeed, when ruthlessness is necessary for victory, you can even end up admiring your bad guy’s very badness as a virtue, even as you hate the opponent for those very same negative qualities.
The city on a hill
I’m not arguing here that Deadwood is an immoral or problematic show, or that people should feel some kind of way about liking Swearengen. I think Deadwood is good, and I like Swearengen!
What I am arguing, though, is that Deadwood, through Swearengen, encourages you to embrace and root for an American myth which is still very much extent. The vision of unscrupulous men doing what it takes to defend and expand the boundaries of virtuous, white civilization retains a powerful appeal for a lot of people—and the appeal doesn’t really diminish even when everyone more or less knows that the “virtuous” part and the “civilization” part are both nonsense. Unscrupulousness can even become its own authenticity and its own virtue, when deployed on behalf of an identity group you see as yorse.
Does Deadwood know how it’s manipulating you? Are you supposed to love to hate Swearengen, or are you meant to hate to love him? Probably a little of both, with perhaps different emphases at different points in the show’s run. In any case, if you have ever wondered, “How can anyone love Trump?” the answer is, I think, “The same way that Deadwood fans love Swearengen.” Americans heart cowboys, not despite the violence and cruelty and genocide, but because of it. Which is why we’re still living in Deadwood, with the muddy streets presided over by a familiar, if more orange, figure, fingering his knife.
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