As Donald Trump ends his first chaotic year in office, Peter Sahlins of the University of California Berkeley and author of the recently published 1668: The Year of the Animal in France reflects on the relationship between animals and political power.
Trump should have gotten a dog. Imagine how different the world would be if he had followed the example of French president Emmanuel Macron, who, after forming his government this summer, officially adopted a rescue animal from a local pound, First Dog Nemo, a Labrador Griffin cross, then tweeted about it.
Of course, things did not go too well at the Elysée Palace last fall, when Nemo found a (gilded) fireplace to pee on, upending a ministerial meeting. But Jupiter (as the French president is known) made effective media use of the animal, against the backdrop of national strikes across France, winning at least one news cycle by his humor, humanity, and compassion with a (disobedient) companion species.
In the United States, every president before Trump, with the exception of James Polk (1845-49) — himself a “dark horse candidate” but who kept stables of horses and dogs on his vast properties in in Tennessee and elsewhere — kept pets, principally dogs, to frolic on the White House Lawn.
The White House has welcomed a continuously renewed menagerie over the last two centuries, hundreds of presidential pets dominated by more than a score of known breeds of dogs, and dozens of other mongrels. Dogs have proven themselves especially photogenic since Warren Harding’s (1921-23) Laddie Boy, an Airedale terrier; and have grown ever more popular since John F. Kennedy’s French poodle Gaullie (1961-63) and the eight other dogs of his short administration.
Although the denizens of the presidential zoo have included horses, ponies, parrots, songbirds, cats, hamsters, rabbits, turtles, roosters, and occasionally bears and tigers (think Theodore Roosevelt’s [1901-1909] menagerie, reflecting both imperial and agrarian identities), it has been the dog, canis lupus familiaris, whose scent marks the office of the American presidency, whether occupied by a Republican or Democrat, just as it has in modern France.
Why the dog? Symbol of loyalty, in the traditions of premodern Europe and Asia, did the dog connote the loyalty and obedience of “subjects” and, in the modern age, the unconditional love of the citizen? Perhaps. But the dog is also the civilized and domesticated wolf, and the wolf remains the enduring figure of governance. The ancient political trope, homini lupus homini, man is wolf to man, is an aphorism known to political philosophy since the Latin poet Plautus, and reprised by Hobbes and others arguing for a strong authority to contain and control the passions of subjects, themselves driven by their self interested animal natures. At the same time, the violent and predatory nature of political authority – its wolf-like extralegality, following Derrida — found a necessary counterpoint in the containment of violence symbolized by keeping dogs, a tradition that continues in America with presidential pets that domesticate the animality of power itself.
Five hundred years ago, Machiavelli wrote how the Prince “must emulate both the fox and the lion, because a lion cannot defy a snare, while a fox cannot defy a pack of wolves.” Note the violent and predatory qualities of the animal prince in the rough-and-tumble world of Renaissance politics. But in a modern democratic society, the leader’s force must be tempered not only by the respect of institutions and the separation of powers. It must also be domesticated, symbolized by the family pet. Think (longingly) about Barack Obama and his beloved Labradoodle Bo, and of course his broader first human-animal family, as signal images of love and compassion that constrained and civilized the everyday violence of rule.
It turns out, of course, that the Trump administration has been very hard on animals themselves. In late August, Trump promised NRA-backed legislation that would roll back protections on the hunting of bear and wolf cubs, and would prohibit the National Parks Service regulating fishing of all kinds on federal lands. And already last February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) removed public access to research and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act. Those seeking information are now required to file a Freedom of Information Act, a blow to the animals, but also to animal studies. And looking forward, untold numbers of animals are going to suffer, along with the humans, in Trump’s proposed budget cuts of $26.7 billion in 66 programs.
General John Kelly was brought in last summer to bring order and discipline to the animality of Trump’s governance, leaving Trump feeling like a “caged animal,” as a close source described him. He should have insisted that Trump keep a dog. It’s now too late for one to appear at the Trump White House – but young Baron and a beagle might have done much to soften the man’s image, to counter his cruelty and bullying, his sexism and racism, and even his ties to white supremacists. (True that Hitler famously kept German shepherds, but that’s a complicated story about redrawing the boundaries of the human in the Third Reich, including nonhuman animals and dogs within a broad category of humanity that excluded Jews and others). Under Trump, while he lasts, it’s more likely to be a tiger gifted by Putin than humankind’s favorite companion species that ends up cavorting, uncaged, on the White House lawn.
Peter Sahlins is a professor of history at UC Berkeley and the author of the recently published 1668: The Year of the Animal in France (Zone Books).