I write a lot about how the Biden-Harris administration is working to restore the principles of the period between 1933 and 1981, when members of both political parties widely shared the belief that the government should regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, promote infrastructure, and protect civil rights.

And I write about how that so-called liberal consensus broke down as extremists used the Reconstruction-era image of the American cowboy — who, according to myth, wanted nothing from the government but to be left alone—to stand against what they insisted was creeping socialism that stole tax dollars from hardworking White men in order to give handouts to lazy minorities and women.

But five major stories recently made me realize that I have never written about how Trump and his loyalists have distorted the cowboy image until it has become a poisonous caricature of the values its recent defenders have claimed to champion.

The cowboy myth originated during the Reconstruction era as a response to the idea that a government that defended Black rights was “socialist” and that the tax dollars required to pay bureaucrats and army officers would break hardworking White men.

On May 11, Paul Kiel of ProPublica and Russ Buettner of The New York Times teamed up to deliver a deep investigation into what Trump was talking about when he insisted that he must break tradition and refuse to release his tax returns when he ran for office in 2016 and 2020, citing an audit.

The New York Times had already reported that one of the reasons the Internal Revenue Service was auditing Trump’s taxes was that, beginning in 2010, he began to claim a $72.9 million tax refund because of huge losses from his failing casinos.

Kiel and Buettner followed the convoluted web of Trump’s finances to find another issue with his tax history. They concluded that Trump’s Chicago skyscraper, his last major construction project, was “a vast money loser.”

He claimed losses as high as $651 million on it in 2008. But then he appears to have moved ownership of the building in 2010 from one entity to a new one—the authors describe it as “like moving coins from one pocket to another” — and used that move to claim another $168 million in losses, thereby double-dipping.

The experts the authors consulted said that if he loses the audit battle, Trump could owe the IRS more than $100 million. University of Baltimore law professor Walter Schwidetzky, who is an expert on partnership taxation, told the authors: “I think he ripped off the tax system.”

The cowboy myth emphasized dominance over the Indigenous Americans and Mexicans allegedly attacking White settlers from the East. On May 10 an impressive piece of reporting from Jude Joffe-Block at NPR untangled the origins of a story pushed by Republicans that Democrats were encouraging asylum seekers to vote illegally for President Joe Biden in 2024, revealing that the story was entirely made up.

The story broke on X, formerly Twitter, on April 15, when the investigative arm of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which promises to provide “aggressive oversight” of the Biden administration, posted photos of what it claimed were flyers from inside portable toilets at a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, that said in broken Spanish: “Reminder to vote for President Biden when you are in the United States. We need another four years of his term to stay open.” The tweet thread got more than 9 million views and was boosted by Elon Musk, X’s owner.

But the story was fabricated. The flyer used the name of a small organization that helps asylum seekers, along with the name of the woman who runs the organization. She is a U.S. citizen and told Joffe-Block that her organization has “never encouraged people to vote for anyone.” Indeed, it has never come up because everyone knows noncitizens are not eligible to vote. The flyer had outdated phone numbers and addresses, and its Spanish was full of errors. Migrants who are staying at the encampment as they wait for their appointments to enter the U.S. say they have never seen such flyers, and no one has urged them to vote for Biden.

Digging showed that the flyer was “discovered” by the right-wing video site Muckraker, which specializes in “undercover” escapades. The founder of Muckraker, Anthony Rubin, and his brother, Joshua Rubin, had shown up at the organization’s headquarters in Matamoros asking to become volunteers for the organization; they and their conversation were captured on video, and signs point to the conclusion that they planted the flyers.

Nonetheless, Republicans ran with the story. Within 12 hours after the fake flyer appeared on X, Republican representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Dan Bishop (R-NC) brought posters of it to Congress, and Republicans made it a centerpiece of their insistence that Congress must pass a new law against noncitizen voting. Rather than being protected by modern-day cowboys, the woman who ran the organization that helps asylum seekers got death threats.

The cowboy image emphasized the masculinity of the independent men it championed, but the testimony of Stephanie Clifford, the adult film actress also known as Stormy Daniels, in Trump’s criminal trial for falsifying business records to cover up his payments to Clifford to keep her story of their sexual encounter secret before the 2016 election, turns Trump’s aggressive dominance into sad weakness. Covering Clifford’s testimony, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times wrote that “Trump came across as a loser in her account — a narcissist, cheater, sad Hugh Hefner wannabe, trading his satin pajamas for a dress shirt and trousers (and, later, boxers) as soon as Stormy mocked him.”

In the literature of the cowboy myth, the young champion of the underdog is eventually supposed to settle down and take care of his family, who adore him. But the news of the past week has caricatured that shift, too. On Wednesday, May 8, the Republican Party of Florida announced that it had picked Trump’s youngest son, 18-year-old Barron, as one of the state’s at-large delegates to the Republican National Convention, along with Trump’s other sons, Eric and Donald Jr.; Don Jr.’s fiancée, Kimberly Guilfoyle; and Trump’s second daughter, Tiffany, and her husband.

On Friday, May 10, Trump’s current wife and Barron’s mother, former first lady Melania Trump, issued a statement saying: “While Barron is honored to have been chosen as a delegate by the Florida Republican Party, he regretfully declines to participate due to prior commitments.” It is hard not to interpret this extraordinary snub from his own wife and son as a chilly response to the past month of testimony about his extramarital escapades while Barron was an infant.

Finally, there was the eye-popping story broken by Josh Dawsey and Maxine Joselow in the Washington Post on May 7, revealing that in April, at a private meeting with about two dozen top oil executives at Mar-a-Lago, Trump offered to reverse President Joe Biden’s environmental rules designed to combat climate change and to stop any new ones from being enacted in exchange for a $1 billion donation.

Trump has promised his supporters that he would be an outsider, using his knowledge of business to defend ordinary Americans against those elites who don’t care about them. Now he has been revealed as being willing to sell us out—to sell humanity out—for the bargain basement price of $1 billion – with about 8 billion people in the world, this would make us each worth about 12 and a half cents.

Chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration Richard Painter wrote: “This is called bribery. It’s a felony.” He followed up with “Even a candidate who loses can be prosecuted for bribery. That includes the former guy asking for a billion dollars in campaign cash from oil companies in exchange for rolling back environmental laws.”

The cowboy myth was always a political image, designed to undermine the idea of a government that worked for ordinary Americans. It was powerful after the Civil War but faded into the past in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s as Americans realized that their lives depended on government regulation and a basic social safety net.

The American cowboy burst back into prominence with the advent of the Marlboro Man in 1954, the year of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, and the idea of an individual White man who worked hard, wanted nothing from the government but to be left alone, was a sex symbol, and protected his women became a central myth in the rise of politicians determined to overturn the liberal consensus.

Now it seems the myth has come full circle, with the party led by a man whose wife rejects him and whose lovers ridicule him, who makes up stories about dangerous “others,” cheats on his taxes, solicits bribes, and tries to sell out his followers for cash — the very caricature the mythological cowboy was invented to fight.

Vaclav Volrab and UnikyLuckk (via Shutterstock)

Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics