As a teenager, I admired Muhammad Ali. He was, well, bodacious, and in the 1970s that seemed an exciting, brash, anti-establishment possibility.
Ali was much more than a great boxer. He is seen, rightly, as a cultural figure of real importance. At the most obvious level, he represented the African-American shift from the struggle for civil rights to an assertion of cultural independence and self-worth. His conversion to the Nation of Islam in 1965 made Cassius Clay into Mohammed Ali, a name change that declared existential independence from white-dominated America.
But Ali was also a man of the 1960s, and that is why he eventually became such a loved figure in our still white-dominated culture. In 1966, Ali refused to be drafted. This led to his conviction for draft evasion, his expulsion from professional boxing, and a long series of appeals. (The conviction was overturned in 1971, and he then resumed his boxing career.)
As a draft resister, Ali was very much part of the white world of youthful rebellion against the Establishment. He was reviled by the Archie Bunkers of that era, but he became a progressive hero, providing white liberals with a twofer—in celebrating him, they could be anti-war and anti-discrimination.
More important, however, was Ali's genius for self-display. He strutted, bragged, boasted, taunted, and insulted, sometimes in rhyme. This fit into the larger spirit of the era. It was a time when young people spat on cops, gave the finger, and complimented themselves on “letting it all hang out.” Ali was thus a performer of what many, perhaps most, Americans then desired: more room for self-expression in what was felt to be an oppressive cultural system.
In this regard, Ali played a classic role for African-American men, that of the trickster. This figure in traditional folklore disobeys normal conventions and rules for behavior, releasing some of the tension of a life disciplined by strict social norms. He played this part in our cultural economy with real virtuosity—and, I think, with a high degree of self-awareness.
Which is why we tolerated, even celebrated, the sheer meanness of his taunts and insults. Was there a black fighter he faced whom he didn't call an “Uncle Tom”? Ali denigrated Joe Frazier, a stolid, decent man. He mocked George Foreman. He treated those who challenged him as stupid, ignorant pawns. He did not admit mistakes or apologize, but doubled down and intensified his attacks.
After Ali's death last week, I found myself thinking of Donald Trump. Trump has a strikingly similar style, often insulting and mocking those who challenge him. He too treats others as stupid, ignorant pawns of the even more stupid and ignorant people in power. Trump can be brutal and blunt. Were he a black man, he too would be seen as bodacious, and perhaps celebrated as a latter-day trickster, as Chris Rock is.
All this came to me with especial clarity when I recalled Ali's slap at Sonny Liston, which was followed up by self-admiration. Before his bout with Liston, he said, “He can't be heavyweight champion because he's too ugly. The world champion should be pretty—like me.” As news commentators subject to his ire know, Trump follows in Ali's tradition, without rap rhymes, perhaps, but not without a genius for denigration, insult, and self-regarding braggadocio.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.