Trump’s Latest Queen of Hearts Beheading

John Tenniel, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”


I’ve been trying to think of a literary passage that applies to the extraordinary firing of FBI Director James Comey, and an Atlantic Monthly article on Richard Nixon has given me an idea. John Aloysius Farrell, noting how both Comey’s dismissal and Nixon’s Saturday Night massacre were intended to stop investigations, mentions Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts.

The Queen, of course, is famous for ordering beheadings at a moment’s notice, and Donald Trump appears to be on a beheading tear of his own, firing anyone who threatens to investigate him. First he fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, probably because she warned the White House about Mike Flynn’s Russia ties (although that wasn’t the reason given). Then he fired New York attorney Preet Bharara, who was looking into sexual harassment allegations against Fox News and who may have been preparing to review “a range of potential improper activity emanating from Trump Tower and the Trump campaign, as well as entities with financial ties to the president or the Trump organization” (although that wasn’t the reason given). And finally, he fired Comey because he seemed determined to pursue Trump’s Russia ties (although that wasn’t the reason given).

In Alice in Wonderland, all the ordered beheadings wreak havoc with the game of croquet that the court is playing, which sounds a bit like the Trump administration at the moment:

The players all played at once without waiting for turns, quarreling all the while, and fighting for the hedgehogs; and in a very short time the Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Off with her head!’ about once in a minute.

Alice began to feel very uneasy: to be sure, she had not as yet had any dispute with the Queen, but she knew that it might happen any minute, ‘and then,’ thought she, ‘what would become of me? They’re dreadfully fond of beheading people here; the great wonder is, that there’s any one left alive!’


All the time they were playing the Queen never left off quarreling with the other players, and shouting ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Off with her head!’ Those whom she sentenced were taken into custody by the soldiers, who of course had to leave off being arches to do this, so that by the end of half an hour or so there were no arches left, and all the players, except the King, the Queen, and Alice, were in custody and under sentence of execution.

The Atlantic’s Alice reference is courtesy of Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman, who saw himself handling Nixon the way that various characters handle the Queen. To accentuate the parallels between Nixon and Trump, I look first at a recent Bloomberg article by Eli Lake about why NSA head General McMaster is currently in trouble with Trump:

Trump was livid, according to three White House officials, after reading in the Wall Street Journal that McMaster had called his South Korean counterpart to assure him that the president’s threat to make that country pay for a new missile defense system was not official policy. These officials say Trump screamed at McMaster on a phone call, accusing him of undercutting efforts to get South Korea to pay its fair share.

Now here’s Ehrlichman:

John Ehrlichman, an aide to Nixon, used to compare his boss to the Queen of Hearts (“Off with their heads!”) from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Nixon was always spouting orders—foreign lands to be bombed, aides to be fired, universities and newspapers to be punished—as a form of restorative, beneficial venting. Aides like Ehrlichman knew when to take him seriously—or when to let the matter simmer for a day or two, and determine if Nixon was really serious. Nixon, in a 1969 memo, explicitly delegated that responsibility to his top advisers: Trump may be wise to do so as well.

Then Farrell adds what may be an allusion to the Jack of Hearts trial in Alice: “The Comey firing reeked of “punishment first—rationale later.”

Here’s Carroll:

‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’

It seems pretty clear that Comey was fired because Trump saw him as not sufficiently loyal and so (as he had with Yates and Bharara) backfilled an explanation to justify his decision.

The country needs the GOP to stand up to Trump the way that Alice stands up to the Queen. Although Trump threatens them with tweets and angry base supporters, they may discover that his threats are no more dangerous than a pack of cards. Here’s what happens with Alice when she grows a spine (and a body to go along with it):

‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

‘I won’t!’ said Alice.

‘Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

‘I won’t!’ said Alice.

‘Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’

At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.

‘Wake up, Alice dear!’ said her sister; ‘Why, what a long sleep you’ve had!’

I’m not the only one who desperately wishes that the past 100 days have just been a dream from which we can awake. Would that it were that easy.

Elaboration: Here’s Nancy LeTourneau of Washington Monthly laying out the case for “punishment first–rationale afterwards”:

[T]he letters/memos from Rosenstein, Sessions and Trump are all dated yesterday (May 9, 2017), the same day Comey was fired. That indicates that Rosenstein’s letter didn’t go through any kind of process for consideration and lends credence to the idea that Trump decided to do this a week ago and merely asked Sessions to come up with a rationale.

This entry was posted in Carroll (Lewis) 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!