Shakespeare Understood Trumpism

Ary Scheffer, "Macbeth"

Ary Scheffer, “Macbeth”


As we move into the final weekend before one of the most momentous elections in American history, we can thank Shakespeare for providing us with a healthy perspective on what we have before us. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik observes that the Bard probably would have understood Donald Trump better than we do.

Perhaps thinking of those titanic egotists who bring down tragedy upon everyone around them (Lear, Macbeth, Richard III), Gopnik says that it is a mistake to see Trump’s rise as “a historical oddity.” After all,

The more tragic truth is that the Trumpian view of the world is the default view of mankind. Bigotry, fanaticism, xenophobia are the norms of human life.

The real question, in Gopnik’s mind, is

not what causes them but what uncauses them, what happens in the rare extended moments that allow them to be put aside, when secular values of toleration and pluralism replace them.


Human groups, particularly those fueled by religious fanaticism or the twentieth-century equivalent, blind nationalism, always tend towards exclusion. To eliminate the tribal instinct may be impossible, but to raise the accidental practice of pluralism to a principle is what enlightened societies struggle to accomplish. And they have. It just turns out to be a horribly hard triumph to sustain. Along comes 1914 or 1933—or, God forbid, 2016—and the work comes crashing down. What really needs explaining is not why the Trumps of the world come forward and win. It is why they sometimes lose.

Gopnik observes that, while we believe in history, justice, and compassion, Shakespeare believed in fate, order, and forgiveness. As Gopnik will go on to argue that Shakespeare would use such a framework to understand Trump, it’s important to understand exactly what Gopnik means. Here’s what he had to say in an earlier article where he expressed skepticism about modern adaptations of Shakespeare:

Shakespeare believed in fate, order, and forgiveness; we believe in history, justice, and compassion—three pairings so similar as to sometimes seem the same, though they are not. The novelistic, psychological work of explaining why evil people are evil gets very little energy from him. His villains are the products not of trauma and history but of nature and destiny. He amputated Iago’s motive for malignancy from the Italian story where he found Othello’s tragedy, in order to make the evil more absolute. Even to ask if Shylock’s graspingness is a product of his people’s history of exclusion would not have seemed important to him. He wasn’t looking for causes. Though not satisfying to our modern sense of “psychology,” this is actually psychologically quite satisfying. The malevolent people we encounter in life are mostly just like that. They don’t have a particular trauma that, if addressed and cured, would stop them from being evil. They were creepy, malignant kids, too.

And Shakespeare believed in order as an absolute good. His most eloquent speeches are given to singers of well-ordered communities, as with Canterbury’s speech on the beehive in Henry V, or, most memorably, Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida: “Take but degree away, untune that string / And, hark, what discord follows! / Then every thing includes itself in power, / power into will, will into appetite / And appetite, an universal wolf” devours all. Maybe he felt this way because the circumstances of the religious wars filled his youth, but even to put it like this is to show our prejudice for anachronistic historical or biographical explanations. He liked order. Most people do. He was perfectly aware that the social order he saw before him was arbitrary and unjust, but he was convinced that its absence would lead to chaos and cruelty, not to liberation and kindness. Although modern scholars like to pretend that this is one point of view among many on offer in the plays, any sensitive reader recognizes in the eloquence of the argument the pressure of personal faith.

But Shakespeare also believed in forgiveness in a way that we don’t. Really rotten people get forgiven, in the comedies and romances, at least, in ways that still make us uneasy. In The Tempest, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, bad actors get easy outs. Even Shylock isn’t killed. Dr. Johnson thought the moment when Hamlet delays killing Claudius in order to deprive him of any chance of forgiveness was “too horrible to be read or to be uttered.” We are much more ostentatiously compassionate and much more effectively vindictive. Small incidents of plagiarism end careers—not a rule that Shakespeare himself would have escaped—and sexual sins can place their perpetrators forever beyond the bounds of redemption. In Shakespeare, rotten people do rotten things, but if they stick around and say they’re sorry they are forgiven. By contrast, we feel everyone’s pain, forgive no one’s trespasses.

Order looks pretty good right now given the prospect of a Trump presidency. Here’s Gopnik applying Shakespeare’s vision to Trumpism:

[S]uperior though our moral progress may seem, there are bitter truths in the old trinity [of fate, order, and forgiveness]. For, as Shakespeare would have grasped at once, there is no explaining Trump. He is one of those phenomena that rise regularly in history to confound us with the possibility—and black comedy—of potent evil: conscienceless, cruel and pathologically dishonest. That evil magnetizes followers of all kinds is another permanent truth. Overexplaining its rise is as foolish as pretending that it can be easily defeated. The threat it makes to an order that, however imperfect, is worth sustaining and defending reminds us of that order’s fragility.

I gather from this observation that Shakespeare would be suspicious of idealists, those who think a world can be shaped that will make Trumps unlikely. Profoundly conservative (in the good sense), Shakespeare thought that Trumps were inevitable and that the best we can do is minimize the damage. If Lear and Macbeth tear their kingdoms apart, maybe Edgar and Macduff can cobble them back together in a way that will make people’s lives not altogether miserable.

Interestingly enough, this might mean that a Hillary Clinton, more than a Barack Obama or a Bernie Sanders, is the right candidate for right now. Clinton is cautious about promising too much because that’s not how she sees the world. For her, politics is all about incremental changes, the art of the possible. This conservative vision may have been shaped by her Illinois Republican upbringing or it may have come about from the chastening experience of getting beaten up decade after decade. Looking at her, one is tempted to say, with Edgar in King Lear,

The oldest hath borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Whatever the explanation for her cautiousness, it may be what the country needs at the moment. Gopnik says that forgiveness will be called for in the event of a Clinton presidency, and while I don’t expect the GOP to ask for forgiveness for having nominated Trump, even Hillary’s enemies admit that she is able to work with those who have attacked her. She does not hold grudges but goes about doing the work that needs to be done.

Of course, forgiveness will not be the order of the day if Trump is elected. He does hold grudges, and if the country decides to forego order by putting him in charge, then we can expect King Lear-type chaos. In that case, God help us all.

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