Trump as Yeats’s Rough Beast

Artist unknown

Artist unknown


When President Obama, in a speech earlier this month, reminded us that “Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes,” Donald Trump responded, “What sport is he talking about, and who?” One of those sports heroes responded with a Time column asserting that Trump is hastening the apocalypse described in W. B. Yeats’s best-known poem.

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose scoring totals will probably never be equalled, opens his article with a description of a terrorist threat to the United States. Then, in an unexpected twist, he reveals that he’s talking about Trump:

The terrorist campaign against American ideals is winning. Fear is rampant. Gun sales are soaring. Hate crimes are increasing. Bearded hipsters are being mistaken for Muslims. And 83 percent of voters believe a large-scale terrorist attack is likely here in the near future. Some Americans are now so afraid that they are willing to trade in the sacred beliefs that define America for some vague promises of security from the very people who are spreading the terror. “Go ahead and burn the Constitution — just don’t hurt me at the mall.” That’s how effective this terrorism is.

Trump’s “hate speech,” Abdul-Jabbar says, fits the dictionary definition of terrorism:

Webster defines terrorism as “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal; the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.”

Abdul-Jabbar concludes,

Trump is ISIS’s greatest triumph: the perfect Manchurian Candidate who, instead of offering specific and realistic policies, preys on the fears of the public, doing ISIS’s job for them. Even fellow Republican Jeb Bush acknowledged Trump’s goal is “to manipulate people’s angst and fears.”

A few months ago, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne named “The Second Coming” as the poem most cited by political columnists (I write about that here). Abdul-Jabbar is therefore not breaking new ground. He applies the poem well, however:

One of my favorite poems is “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats, in which he describes, in a chillingly obtuse and mystical way, a second coming — not of Christ, but of something much darker and sinister:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

When I read the description of the beast, it’s “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,” I can’t help but think of Trump and his cynical strategy of using misinformation, half-truths and deception in order to gain access to a position that should only be held by those who would be repulsed by that strategy.

Indeed, what rough beast slouches toward Washington to be born?

Had he been interested in further applying the poem, there are other lines that Abdul-Jabbar could have mentioned. Yeats pictures a falcon that has lost connection with the falconer and says, “the center cannot hold.” When the credibility of all potential judges is systematically undermined—the media, scientists, academics, religious figures—then one can say anything and get away with it. When Trump sweeps aside the social norms that a society needs to operate, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

It is certainly the case that the Republican center cannot hold as the GOP has been pulled increasingly to the extreme right. Republican moderates have been swamped in what feels like a blood-dimmed tide. Their lack of conviction cannot match Trump’s passionate intensity.

Yeats’s use of the adjective “mere” is important, however, because it undercuts anarchy’s pretensions to grandiosity. My one objection to Abdul-Jabbar’s article is that, by comparing Trump to Yeats’s man-lion, he is making Trump bigger than he is. Trump would be flattered more than insulted. “The power, the devastation [of nuclear weapons] is very important to me,” he boasted in the last debate (while showing his ignorance of the nuclear triad). While Trump’s GOP contenders do indeed resemble Yeats’s “indignant desert birds,” that’s different than seeing Trump as the antichrist.

Then again, as a Muslim Abdul-Jabbar is particularly attuned to the damage Trump is causing and to the danger he represents. In other words, he can’t be laughed off. Trump himself may be no rough beast, but the streak of intolerance that he is tapping into is indeed a threat to the world.

Merry anti-Christmas. Here’s the poem in its entirety.

The Second Coming

By William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Follow-up note: Paul Krugman in his New York Times column today makes a similar point about why the center is not holding in the GOP. About why voters don’t care when Trump, Cruz and Carson deliver outrageous falsehoods, Krugman says,

Well, part of the answer has to be that the party taught them not to care. Bluster and belligerence as substitutes for analysis, disdain for any kind of measured response, dismissal of inconvenient facts reported by the “liberal media” didn’t suddenly arrive on the Republican scene last summer. On the contrary, they have long been key elements of the party brand. So how are voters supposed to know where to draw the line?

Krugman traces the problem back to the 2000 election when Al Gore was faulted for his wonky but substantial policy prescription whereas George Bush, who accused Gore of “fuzzy math,” was seen as the more desirable man to have a beer with. Krugman points out that the current Democratic debates are full of substance, the GOP debates–well, not so much.

Making a similar point about conservative disregard for empirical evidence, Jon Chait of New York Magazine writes,

Conservative economic thought is structurally different from liberal thought. Liberal support for expanded government is based entirely in practical expectation that new programs can deliver concrete results — cleaner air, healthier children, higher wages for low-income workers, and so on. Conservative antipathy to expanded government is based ultimately on philosophical opposition. For that reason, data can change liberal economic thinking in a way it can’t change conservative economic thinking. Liberals would abandon, say, new environmental regulations if evidence persuaded them the program was not actually improving the environment, because bigger government is merely the means to an end. No evidence could persuade conservatives to support new environmental regulations, because conservatives consider small government a worthy end for itself. (As Milton Friedman once put it, “Freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.”)

This entry was posted in Yeats (William Butler) and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete