The Sunday Magazine

Dear president-elect: Can a leopard change his spots?

A letter to president-elect Donald Trump from novelist Claire Messud
Claire Messud (CP)

Claire Messud is an American novelist and professor. Here is her letter to president-elect Donald Trump, commissioned by The Sunday Edition. 

Dear Mr. president-elect,

I've been thinking a lot about leopards, lately. Have you? "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil," it is written in Jeremiah 13:23. The Bible tells us that just as the leopard cannot change his spots, the evil-doer can't suddenly become a good man. 

If we take this Old Testament wisdom – unforgiving wisdom, granted, but often not less wise for that – we're all in trouble: you, and the American people, indeed all the world's people. Because, let's be honest, you haven't been a doer of good up till now, in the many years of your fairly long life. You've cheated and swindled, you've bullied and injured, harassed and groped, lied and prevaricated. None of these things is remotely okay, let alone good. (Besides which, of course, you've profited from gambling, women and usury, among other vices. From any moral perspective, you've lived your life on the dark side.)

Like a lot of other people, I've been feeling pretty down about your bad character, about the particular configuration of your spots. But then, as I further considered leopards and leopardness, I remembered Rudyard Kipling, and his explanation of how the leopard got his spots, a story that loomed large at some point in my now distant childhood.

Do you remember? The leopard used to be sandy-colored, but once the animals moved off the veldt, he stuck out too much among the trees. His good friend the Ethiopian used his fingers to spot him up and speckle him, so that he could lie camouflaged in the dappled jungle and better catch his prey. Kipling says it's ridiculous for grown ups to say that a leopard can't change his spots, when of course he did do it once.

And that had me thinking about you, Mr. President, and about how you, too, have changed your spots in order better to catch your prey. You've done it more than once over the years, of course, and in order to catch this very big animal – the American people! – you donned a whole new set of spots, a veritable demagoguery of spots – a strikingly effective set of spots, as it turns out, that was pretty alarming for many of us.

Kipling also warns, in his story, that the leopard won't change his spots again, because he's quite contented now. But I have the feeling – dare I say, in this dark time, the hope – that the leopardly configuration that has served you through this campaign may no longer suit. You may just find, as you ascend to the highest office of the land – nay, of the world – that it's time to change your spots again.

If I indulge this small hope – and how can I not, when without it the situation looks very dark indeed? – then I can imagine that your new skin could look a little different. Underneath the surface – off camera, if you like – you'll remain the same, of course. Given that the next prey you're after is History itself, you'll want to think carefully. Spots – leopard spots – may no longer be the way to go: remember the signature leopard hat of Mobutu Sese Seko, loathed dictator of the Congo for 30 years?

Not a good look here and now – trust me. It's supposed to be the United States of America, after all; and you need to be uniting rather than dividing, unless you're after a new civil war. Maybe it's time for stripes instead of spots. Stripes would suit you, I'm sure of it: a new look for the new season. But first you'll have to earn the stars.

Yours truly,

Claire Messud


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