A student essay about King Lear has me thinking that it might be one of the most important works of literature that Americans these days can read. Trevor O’Connor, a math-English double major, wrote about the bleakness of Shakespeare’s nihilistic vision and how different characters respond to the fact that “anything goes” in the divided kingdom. As I read it, I found myself thinking of a recent Washington Post article by Orin Kerr, a research professor at George Washington University’s law school, on how right wing “delegitimization” of traditional institutions has led to the rise of Donald Trump.
Kerr holds up Ilya Shapiro at The Federalist as an example of what he has in mind. Shapiro belives that when Chief Justice Robert refused to find Obamacare unconstitutional, he was showing “contempt for the rule of law” and acting extra-legally. He acted deceitfully and he broke his judicial oath. Because GOP voters were so disgusted, Shaprio contends, they
concluded that the way to “beat Obama” is to jettison constitutional government and instead turn to a “strongman” who wouldn’t “bother with the Constitution.”
As a consequence, Trump.
In response, Kerr says that, rather than identifying the problem, Shapiro and people like him are the problem. By concluding that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is corrupt and illegitimate, they undermine faith in all of America’s institutions:
[Shapiro’s attack on the Roberts court] is just one example of a broader rhetorical strategy of delegitimizing those on the other side that has found a lot of currency on the political right since Obama was elected. You can sometimes find the same narrative on the left, of course. But you don’t find it nearly as often or as prominently as you find it on the right. You can see the strategy at work if you follow popular conservative news or commentary programs. Too often, people who are barriers to good results (whether they are Democrats or the GOP “establishment”) aren’t described as simply disagreeing in good faith. Instead, you’ll often hear that they are illegitimate. They are acting in bad faith. Their motives are corrupt. Some are criminals. You hear that all the time.
Trump, Kerr observes, is the master of such talk:
What does this have to do with Donald Trump? A lot, I think. Donald Trump is the King of Delegitimization. It’s his trademark move. And he’s the master at it. As Trump tells it, the country is going down the tubes because everyone in power is corrupt. The President isn’t trying to stop ISIS. The politicians only care about fat cat donors. No one will enforce the border laws. Political correctness forces leaders to lie about our problems and to ignore solutions. In Trumpland, no one in power is actually trying to help. They’re all corrupt.
An extreme but telling version can be found in Trump’s active period as a “birther,” which he has toned down but never disavowed.
And further on:
According to Trump, everyone in government is running a con. Some run small cons and others run big ones. But they’re all corrupt.
The politics of delegitimization are hard to cabin once unleashed…With the pump primed, the King of Delegitimization Donald Trump capitalized on the dynamic and used it for very different ends [than the GOP establishment rallying the troops] with masterful effect. When a large audience is inclined to believe that everyone in government is corrupt, an outsider who excels at the politics of delegitimization can become a powerful political force regardless of his own politics. If everyone in power is corrupt, after all, politics no longer matters.
Now to King Lear. The play begins with two old men undermining kingship and family, institutions upon which social stability depends. First, a self-indulgent king decides to break up his kingdom in order to elicit psychological reassurance from his children. In doing so, he sets the stage for a civil war, which in fact breaks out.
Meanwhile another father, Gloucester, openly boasts of fathering a bastard child, introducing Edmund as follows:
[T]hough this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.
Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, refuses to play along with her father, noting that duty rather than narcissistic love games should be at the basis of both kingdom and family. Kent too incurs banishment when he calls out his king. Both are affirming the legitimacy of the social institutions, even though it costs them dearly.
They prove to be the exceptions, however. Once the old men start breaking the rules, the children follow suit. For instance, Edmund sees no reason why he shouldn’t usurp his legitimate brother’s place. If people have stopped following the rules, then there’s no reason why an enterprising fellow like himself shouldn’t do whatever he wants. Being a natural child himself, he violates tradition (he calls it “plague of custom”) and regards legitimacy as an empty word. He follows not God’s law but natural law and refers to the sacred institution of marriage as “a dull, stale, tired bed”:
Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
Americans who believe in meritocracy and entrepreneurial initiative may sympathize with Edmund. By the standards of Shakespearean society, however, he is stepping outside the entire belief system. It is as though someone today referred to the Constitution as an old, tired, stale document and proceeded to trample on it.
Lear’s elder daughters prove just as bad. They throw to the winds the fifth commandment (honor thy father and thy mother) and, in Goneril’s case, also the seventh (adultery) and the sixth (she poisons her sister).
In other words, two selfish old men have signaled to their children that self gratification takes precedence over social law. They therefore shouldn’t be surprised that their children behave accordingly.
In America, for short term political gain people have been attacking any number of institutions tasked with the responsibility of dispensing or determining justice, truth, and order. The payoff is that they get away with stuff that would otherwise be condemned. Unfortunately for them and for all of us, they therefore cede the field to whoever lies the best.
I can hear Trump in Edmund’s “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”
Further thought: As this Washington Monthly blog post outlines, the delegitimization process can be traced back to New Gingrich in the 1990’s. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, quoted extensively in the piece, brings the results of Gingrich’s work up to date:
Over many years, [GOP leaders have] adopted strategies that have trivialized and delegitimized government. They were willing to play to a nativist element. And they tried to use, instead of stand up to, the apocalyptic visions and extremism of some cable television, talk radio, and other media outlets on the right.
And add to that, they’ve delegitimized President Obama, but they’ve failed to succeed with any of the promises they’ve made to their rank and file voters, or Tea Party adherents. So when I looked at that, my view was, “what makes you think, after all of these failures, that you’re going to have a group of compliant people who are just going to fall in line behind an establishment figure?”…
And Republican leaders, like Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor, were complicit in this. I think when Republicans had their stunning victory in 2010, Cantor et al thought they could now co-opt these people. Instead, they were co-opted themselves.