Trump as Lear, Howling in the Storm

Johann Ramberg, “King Lear”


Maureen Dowd of The New York Times recently made a comparison that has also come to my mind: Donald Trump as King Lear. The comparison has the virtue of providing insight into both Trump and the play.

First, here’s Dowd:

Consumed by his paranoia about the deep state, Donald Trump has disappeared into the fog of his own conspiracy theories. As he rages in the storm, Lear-like, howling about poisonous fake news, he is spewing poisonous fake news.

To capture the flavor, here’s Lear howling in the storm:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

So how are Lear and Trump similar? First, both are insecure narcissists (which is redundant), obsessed with how others see them. As a result, both do all they can to create their own realities.

Lear, an aging man afraid of dying, engineers it so that he people will tell him what he wants to hear. His elder daughters, like the GOP Congress, are only too willing to oblige. What’s wrong with a little “truthful hyperbole” if it gets you half of a kingdom? Or tax cuts for the rich?

Lear is able to control his reality as long as he holds onto power, and I suspect the same will be true of Trump. If he were to be impeached, I suspect he’d find himself alone in an inner storm. Perhaps he would go off the rails even more than he already has.

Lear can’t reconcile himself to his new powerlessness. Look at how he addresses the storm—it’s as though he has convinced himself that he can command the elements. A little while later, he imagines bringing his daughters to justice in a court he sets up. It’s not until he hits rock bottom and goes entirely mad that he is able to open himself to love.

I sometimes ask my students what Lear’s life would have been like had Cordelia told him what he wanted to hear. Possibly he would have spent his final days carousing with his knights in her basement and would have died without ever experiencing his moment of deep connection with her.

He is lucky because her integrity goes so deep that she refuses to feed him bullshit, regardless of the consequences. In the end, her sacrifice saves his soul, and his final hours with her are the happiest of his life. I suspect he wouldn’t trade those hours for anything in the world.

There appears to be no one in Trump’s bubble willing to make the same sacrifice, which means that he may end up spending his final days friendless and alone, perhaps at Mar-a-Lago. His favorite movie is Citizen Kane and that’s certainly how Kane ends up. Believe it or not, there are worse ways to go out than the way that Lear does.

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