President Trump claims he's proud of his Scottish heritage, but his affection for his Motherland is clearly not reciprocated by many of the locals. So, in a week packed with Burns Suppers, it's fun to imagine Melania slipping a copy of 'Burns' Collected Works' and Catherine Carswell's warts and all biography onto his nightstand in the hope that he might better understand what it takes to become a true Scottish icon. Given that what follows is pure speculation, we'll ignore the fact that Trump is a famous non-reader of everything from newspapers to top-secret national security briefings.
In Burns, Trump will immediately see a kindred spirit in his pursuit of the opposite sex and a history of not taking no for an answer. While Trump had to ride out the 'pussy tape' scandal to be elected president, Burns – in the pre-#MeToo era of the late 18th century – was a lot more open about his attempts to bed women over their objections, as shown again and again in the bawdy songs of the 'Merry Muses of Caledonia'. Trump will also sympathise that neither man escaped their sexual appetites unscathed. Both have been publicly labelled 'fornicators', but Trump might be disappointed that Burns didn't utilise an ecclesiastical Cohen-type fixer to prevent him being harangued on the 'cutty stool' at the front of the Kirk. He might also have advised Burns to spend a few shillings to entice Jean Armour and others to sign ye olde non-disclosure agreements.
Trump might also be impressed by Burns' reverence for America. In his poem 'Ode for General Washington's Birthday', Burns lauds the ability of the Founding Fathers to cast off British imperial rule and contrasts their sense of purpose with the weakness of the 18th-century Scottish ruling class.
But come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columbia's offspring, brave as free,
In danger's hour still flaming in the van:
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man.
And as we all know, there's nothing Trump likes more than giving weak and feckless Europeans a hard time. You can easily see him transposing Burns' veneration of Washington as a God-like figure who represents strength, liberty, and freedom straight onto his own populist, strongman persona. But Trump wouldn't be alone in recognising Burns as a natural American. In 1859, during the Burns centenary celebrations at the Cooper Union in New York, social reformer Henry Ward Beecher gave a toast to Burns in which he said:
It is fitting that the anniversaries of Burns should be celebrated in this land of freedom and democracy, for he sprung from the people, remained to the end one of the people, and his heart was ever with the democratic institutions of the United States.
Trump may even have the emotional intelligence to recognise that he and Burns share anxiety about the precarious nature of their stations in life. 'To a Mouse' opens with the mundane act of Burns ploughing up a field mouse's nest but ends with Burns envying the mouse for living in the moment, unencumbered by the anxieties of the past and fears for the future. Trump might agree that 'the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley', even when those schemes have been carefully shaped via secret meetings in Prague with a bunch of Russians.
Like Burns, Trump worries about things he's done but cannot change, and is certainly fearful of things to come. Despite his bluster, he realises that Special Ploughman Robert Mueller is gunning his prosecutorial tractor in the parking lot of the Justice Department, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now making herself comfortable at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue 'nursing her wrath to keep it warm'.
The president will certainly be gratified to learn that 'Burns' Collected Works' doesn't actually include 'A Scot's Lament fur her American Fellows (oan their election of a tangerine gabshite walloper)'. This poem recently won a competition organised by the Dunedin Burns Club in New Zealand and contains a particularly evocative Burns-like description of the current president:
His mooth wis pursed up like an arse, his Tangoed coupon glowin' like a skelped backside.
But as imaginary Trump reads deeper into the life and works of Scotland's true favourite son, his enthusiasm for Burns could begin to wane as he understands Burns' disdain for liars and hypocrites as expressed in poems like 'Holy Willie's Prayer'. He'll also bristle at the patently absurd notion that 'Man to Man, the world o'er, shall brothers be for a' that', and conclude that this sort of international mutual respect can easily be snuffed out by withdrawing from international treaties and building a big beautiful wall with Mexico.
Increasingly annoyed by Burns' liberal rhetoric, Trump might pause temporarily to applaud the beginning of rule #10 of the Tarbolton Bachelors' Club (probably written by Burns himself), which states that every member 'must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex'. But having gleefully ticked that box, Trump will then absolutely reject the constraint that:
No haughty, self-conceited person, who looks upon himself as superior to the rest of the Club, and especially no mean spirited, worldly mortal, whose only will is to heap up money shall be admitted.
So there goes the membership of Mar-a-Lago, Bedminster, and every other Trump club that betrays just a smidgen of self-conceit by having Trump's picture on every conceivable piece of wall space and golden taps in every bathroom.
Ultimately, our imaginary presidential reader is likely to identify with the aspects of Burns that he sees in himself, like the sexual pest and the nationalist. Subtlety not being his strong suit, Trump won't embrace the contradictions of Burns also being an internationalist, an idealist, and the type of true romantic that Melania probably dreamed of growing up in Slovenia. Trump certainly won't recognise himself in Burns' 'Parcel of Rogues in a Nation', which currently lends itself to an easy parody:
What force or guile could not subdue through many Cold War ages
Is wrought now by a coward few, for hirling traitor's wages (and some attractive real estate opportunities in Moscow)
The Russian bombs we could disdain, secure in valour's station;
But Russian tweets have been our bane – such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
Since this is fantasy, Trump might just pause to glance up at a portrait in the White House state dining room and vow to emulate another Republican president who took the time to truly understand and appreciate Burns. Although Abraham Lincoln was born 13 years after Burns' death, he was a true fanboy. His 1859 official presidential campaign biography includes a section that reads:
When practicing law before his election to Congress, a copy of Burns was his inseparable companion on the circuit; and this he read so constantly that it is said he now has by heart every line of his favourite poet.
In 1859, Lincoln himself proposed the Immortal Memory at the Burns Supper in Springfield Illinois, but unfortunately there's no record of what he said. In January 1865, as the civil war raged towards its conclusion, Lincoln was asked to once again propose a toast to Burns in Washington DC. This time he declined, but he responded to the invitation with a handwritten note that said:
I cannot frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcendent genius. Thinking of what he has said, I cannot say anything that is worth saying.
Having taken his oath of office on the Lincoln bible, Trump could benefit from going beyond that symbolism and immersing himself in how Lincoln's humanity, empathy, tolerance, and general worldview were shaped by the writings of a humble farmer's son from Alloway.
So, as Trump skulks around the White House watching Fox News and hate tweeting his increasingly threadbare policy agenda, just maybe his gaze will fall on the books Melania has left for him. He'll start flicking through the pages and, inspired by the nationalist undertones of 'Address to a Haggis', he'll grab a pen and dash off his own 'Address to a Big Mac', to celebrate America's anti-elitist consumerism. He may even draft an executive order allowing real haggis to once again be consumed in the US, because for some bizarre reason, the Food and Drug Administration don't consider sheep's lungs fit for human consumption.
Beyond the fantasy, the reality is that the one thing Trump could do with a pen that would make him instantly popular in Scotland is sign his own resignation letter. In the absence of that, an ability to recite' Tam O' Shanter' from memory might at least ingratiate him a little more. But in the process, he might also recognise that, although he can still revel in his surprise election victory, when it comes to the day-to-day job of being president:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white-then melts for ever.
Happy Burns Night Mr President!