ON THIS, the 113th birthday of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, children’s literature scholar Philip Nel can’t help but see current political resonance within the late author’s incisive rhyming tales.
Because President Trump campaigned by pitching his message with fourth-grade level language, in fact, Nel thinks Seussian wisdom can provide illumination.
“There are many parallels between Seuss’s characters and Trump,” says Nel, an English professor at Kansas State University who wrote “Dr. Seuss: American Icon.” “Indeed, Trump is in many respects a caricature straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.”
During Trump’s campaign, Nel gave talks that made specific comparisons, including between Candidate Trump and elements of the Cat in the Hat.
“He refuses to play by the rules, and disdains the advice of the political establishment, represented by the Fish in Seuss’s story” — the Fish is skeptical of the Cat’s grand plans — “but he’s very entertaining,” says Nel, whose forthcoming book is “Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books.”
“He knows some new tricks — a lot of good tricks, he says,” Nel continues. “Perhaps he should not be here, but — wait — he’s going to show us another good game that he knows? And it’s going to be amazing, fantastic, tremendous, hugely classy? The Trump, like the Cat, is disruptive and exciting.
“However, as Americans — and the world — have been learning … an unpredictable clown can be fun to watch, but he’s dangerous to put in charge,” says Nel, who count himself among Trump’s critics.
The English scholar sees aspects of Trump in numerous Seuss books, including the mob-rallying kangaroo in “Horton Hears a Who!”; the businessman Sylvester McMonkey McBean, who profits off the prejudices of the Star-Belly “Sneetches”; and the small-hearted baddie who overlooks Whoville in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” as Nel calls the 45th president “an unreformed Grinch.”
But now that we’re living under a Trump administration, perhaps the most apt book, Nel says, is 1958’s “Yertle the Turtle,” which Seuss wrote as an anti-fascist parable.
This presidency is reminiscent of “the failed monarch Yertle the Turtle, the despotic reptile who loves to brag about all he owns: ‘I’m king of the butterflies! King of the air! / Ah, me! What a throne! What a wonderful chair!’ ” Nel says of the story set in a swampy pond. “If Trump delivered one of his ‘I’m really rich’ speeches in anapestic verse, he would sound just like Yertle.”
Geisel had worked as a political cartoonist during World War II, opposing through satire the “America first” isolationist sentiment. He had drawn against the perils of fascism. Trump is no Hitler, Nel says, but the “Yertle” lessons still apply as a cautionary tale, he notes.
In “Yertle,” the tyrannical terrapin ruler is obsessed with the dimensions of his kingdom, literally building his empire upon the backs of his subjects — including the resisting Mack, who sits at the bottom of Yertle’s turtle tower.
“Mack represents those who resist — a leader of the resistance because his burp causes ripples throughout that stack of turtles — ripples that ultimately unseat the despotic king,” Nel tells The Post’s Comic Riffs.
“I’d be reluctant to identify [Mack] with any one figure, because the opposition is very grass-roots,” he continues. “It’s coming from the people. … Mack’s power is that he’s ordinary.”
“That plain little turtle below in the stack / That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack / Decided he’d taken enough. And he had. / And that plain little lad got a little bit mad.
“And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing. / He burped! / And his burp shook the throne of the king.”
“That plain little” is not someone who holds elected office,” Nel says. “He’s one of the people. He’s all of us who oppose tyrants — be they turtles or Trump.”
During the presidential campaign, Jimmy Kimmel imagined a Trump children’s book written in Seussian rhyme: