Can Trump Cast Off His Falstaffs?

Baxter, Welles as Hal, Falstaff in "Chimes at Midnight"

Baxter, Welles as Hal, Falstaff in “Chimes at Midnight”


The morning after Donald Trump was elected president, my good friend Sue Schmidt wrote me in a desperate search for a silver lining. Might not Trump prove to be Prince Hal, she wondered. Upon ascending to the presidency, was there a chance that he would banish his former disreputable companions and take seriously his leadership duties?

Let’s take a look at Henry IV, Parts I and II, to see such a shift in action.

While Henry IV is trying to consolidate his kingship after overthrowing Richard II, his son is off drinking with Falstaff in a world of no responsibilities. The following exchange gives a sense of their life:

Falstaff: Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?

Prince Henry: Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes capons and clocks the tongues of bawds and dials the signs of leaping-houses and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.

The king need not be worried, however. Hal assures the audience that, when the occasion arises, he will adjust. His soliloquy is the first time he speaks in iambic pentameter, a sign that he can move at will from formless prose to the orderly rituals of kingship:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Has Trump just been lurking behind clouds of hate speech so that he can stun us us? Let’s imagine for a moment that this is his plan. Say that, having played the headline-grabbing political entertainer for the past six years, he suddenly becomes serious. Rather than follow through on incendiary promises to deport millions, register Muslims, restore racial profiling, and run up trillions in debt from high-end tax cuts, can he govern as a moderate Republican? Can he find compromises with Democrats, pass comprehensive immigration reform, set up a responsible infrastructure program, and strengthen universal healthcare. As The Washington Post reported yesterday, he has that potential, being an independent candidate who owes little to a political party or entrenched interests.

A positive sign would be if he were to cast off his old acquaintances, as Hal does at his coronation. The soon-to-be Henry V is as cold as ice as he strides down Westminster Abbey:

Falstaff: God save thee, my sweet boy!
Henry V: My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.
Lord Chief-Justice: Have you your wits? know you what ’tis to speak?
Falstaff: My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!
Henry V: I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.

“I know thee not old man” is one of the harshest rejections in all of literature. It breaks Falstaff’s heart but it is politically necessary. Henry V, meanwhile, goes on to glory at Agincourt.

So that’s our fantasy for Trump. How’s it going in real life?

It appears that Trump has not only brought his drinking companions with him to the White House but is making them his chief counselors. Above all, there is the rightwing extremist Steve Bannon, publisher of the “white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill” Breitbart (in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center). Other sycophants are buzzing around him (Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie), and clash-of-civilizations Islamophobe Michael Flynn has already been promised the National Security Agency.

It also appears that Trump is preparing to monetize the White House the way that Falstaff, before he is rejected, monetizes his recruiting authority. Assigned to form a regiment, Falstaff takes bribes from rich parents to exempt their sons from inscription (“I have used the King’s press abominably”). As a result, he ends up with with

ancients, corporals, lieutenants, gentlemen of companies, slaves as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth, where the glutton’s dogs licked his sores; and such as indeed were never soldiers, but discarded unjust serving-men, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted tapsters and ostlers trade-fallen, the cankers of a calm world and a long peace, ten times more dishonorable ragged than an old faced ancient

Could this be a foreshadowing of the Trump cabinet?

Trump is the first president in recent times who refuses to put his business dealings in a blind trust. His children will continue to run the branding operation, and we can be sure that every diplomat who wants to be on good terms with Trump will stay in his hotels and use his resorts. Also imagine the good real estate deals he stands to gain overseas from countries seeking to curry favor. The New York Times reports that, just last week, Trump met with three Indian business partners who are building a Trump-branded luxury apartment complex south of Mumbai,

As several have noted, if Trump doesn’t enter the White House as an actual billionaire, he will certainly exit it as one.

Trump is no Prince Hal. I fear that what we saw in the campaign is what we are getting.

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