Something Rotten in the States of America

Fuseli, “Hamlet and the Ghost” (1789)


What happens when you detect something rotten in the state of Denmark? Well, if you are of the same party family as the usurping king, you dither around, insist upon having irrefutable evidence, and generally hope that everything is okay so that you won’t have to take drastic action. By the time you realize you must do something, you have been outflanked and the rest of your drama is a steady slog downward. In your floundering, you get a lot of innocent people hurt (including yourself), and final justice comes too late.

Let’s line up our modern equivalents. We have a ruler who has risen to power through dubious means (Russian intervention, FBI Director intervention, voter suppression in Wisconsin and maybe Michigan). But forget about the Democrats for a moment. Think of Hamlet, Sr. as the Establishment Republicans, who have lost out to someone who pours poison into people’s ears.

Past crimes are forgotten once the new leader is nominated and then elected, however. Republican Gertrudes embrace him, and there are any number of patsies willing to do his bidding. (Let’s say that Priebus is Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.) He also manipulates hotheaded Laertes-types to do his dirty work.

In this scenario, think of young Hamlet as a vanishing breed—the principled Republican—who can’t bring himself to believe what his leader has done. His hesitant opposition is no match for his king’s ruthless survival instincts, and he quickly finds himself outmatched. The aphorism “if you aim at the king, make sure you kill the king,” could not be more relevant, both to the play and to Anti-Trumpism.

Neo-Aristotelian drama theory, which sees a play as the inexorable unfolding of a central action, identifies rottenness as central to Hamlet. Everything stems from the crime of Claudius’s usurpation. So what is the rottenness that has set our own tragedy in motion?

When he describes Denmark’s decline, Old Hamlet could be describing the descent of the GOP and of America generally. After eight years of a principled and scandal-free president, we have turned to a glib impostor who is “no more like my father/Than I to Hercules.” Like Gertrude, where once the country was moved by high-minded “Virtue” (hope and change), now it is driven by lust (racism and resentment). To use the Ghost’s word, we have bedded down with “garbage”:

O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!
But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.

Old Hamlet captures our feelings:

O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

And then calls us to action:

If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not…

Hamlet’s mission is to expose the rottenness and exorcise it. That’s our job as well.

Further thought: I am tempted to push the parallels even further, imagining that what the various investigations will discover about Trump’s Russian finances and electoral collusion will be comparable to the secrets that the Ghost refuses to divulge about Purgatory:

But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine…

Okay, maybe Trump isn’t hiding secrets this bad. His panic about the investigations, however, suggests that something he’s hiding something unsavory.

And another thought: I’d forgotten that the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, whose twice-a-day blog posts I check out every day, has been using the word “rot” for a while with regard to the Trump administration. For instance:

[T]he Trump White House has been infected from the outset with a kind of deep rot of bad faith — a contempt for legitimate process, fact-based debate and reality-based governing — that has bordered on all-corrosive.

Former Republican Jennifer Rubin, whose Washington Post blog used to be the conservative counterpoint to Sargent’s liberal blog, also has taken to using the word:

President Trump has had more-scandalous weeks. He has had weeks with more bombshell bad-news stories. But no week has matched this one in revealing the moral and intellectual rot at the center of the GOP. Pandemic intellectual dishonesty and celebration of uncivilized conduct now permeate the party and its support in the conservative ecosystem.

Which, as I say, leaves us all either in the position of Hamlet–no easy options–or of those enablers who go along. In the play, everyone ends up dead.

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