Trump’s Faustian Emptiness


A couple of weeks ago I took a close look at Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in light of the GOP’s “Faustian bargain” with Donald Trump. In return for tax cuts for the rich and shredding the social safety net, Republicans appear willing to turn a blind eye to collusion with a hostile foreign power, conflicts of interest, bigotry and misogyny, erratic behavior, and a host of other things. Today, however, I turn the Faustian light on Trump himself. The play gives us such insight into the man that it is essential reading for our time.

That’s because Marlowe brilliantly lays out the working of a narcissist, especially the emptiness that propels such individuals. Nothing narcissists achieve can ever be enough, which helps explains their frenetic activity. They are so focused on self that this self becomes the measurement of everything. Faustus only cares that he cannot live forever, not that his gifts can save whole cities from the plague. “Populist” Trump doesn’t care about about his fans, only that they worship him.

Both Faustus and Trump initially promise that, if they are given special powers, they will accomplish great things. Among both sets of promises, interestingly enough, is a wall:

I’ll have them [the devil spirits] wall all Germany with brass,
And make swift Rhine circle fair Wittenberg;
I’ll have them fill the public schools with silk,
Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad;
I’ll levy soldiers with the coin they bring,
And chase the Prince of Parma from our land,
And reign sole king of all the provinces;
Yea, stranger engines for the brunt of war,
Than was the fiery keel at Antwerp-bridge,
I’ll make my servile spirits to invent.

We have yet to see which promises Trump will deliver on but, if Faustus is any indication, bet the under. We don’t see any walls or great military victories but, rather, pranks played on the pope, magic tricks performed for various luminaries, a pair of antlers placed on a rival, and a deal involving a horse that sounds a lot like Trump stiffing his subcontractors.

Trump boasts to various foreign heads about his election results, sends out angry tweets about Saturday Night Live, entertains guests by turning Mar-a-Lago into a public Situation Room, and figures out ways to monetize the presidency.

Both men are prey to the seven deadly sins, especially pride. In Trump’s case we also see envy in his competitive boasting, wrath in his attacks on all detractors, covetousness in his business dealings, sloth in his disinterest in briefings, and lechery everywhere. I can’t answer for gluttony but I suspect it’s there.

Look also at the kind of relationships each man gets. Mephosophilis can’t fulfill Faustus’s demand for a wife because, when one defines oneself by power and domination, a soul-filled relationship is impossible. You can’t love another if you are only focused on yourself.

Instead, Faustus must settle for a “hot whore” and then, at the end of his life, a simulacrum of Helen of Troy. Faustus thinks that this beautiful woman will hold off death (“Helen, make me immortal with a kiss”), but all she can do is distract him from the emptiness at his core.

I don’t know anything about Trump’s relationship with Melania but they don’t appear to be soul mates. A trophy wife cannot touch a man who is hollow.

Neither Faustus nor Trump ever seem to be happy with their power, which is why they are so hungry for adulation from others. Faustus, the foremost scholar of his day, dwindles into an after dinner act, living for the applause of emperors and dukes. Trump can’t get over the fact that he lost the popular vote and began his presidency by embarking on an ego-stoking victory tour of states that he won.

Narcissists pay a price for their self-absorption but sometimes not (unfortunately for the rest of us) until they are on their death bed. Faustus dies in agony because Reality finally lets him know, definitively, that he’s not in control. Death can’t be replaced with alternative facts.

The major difference between the two men (other than Faustus’s massive intelligence) is that Marlowe’s character at least has some self awareness. He realizes that something is missing and, in his angst, contemplates suicide. His search for distractions is a way to take his mind off that abyss that looms before him.

I haven’t seen signs that Trump is self aware. Instead, he thrashes around in vindictive anger and insecurity. Like Faustus, he is in a private hell (“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it”). He cannot grow into the presidency because there is no seed to grow.

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