It’s satisfying to see national pundits take a page out of Better Living through Beowulf and turn to the classics to understand Donald Trump. Okay, so NeverTrumper conservative Bret Stephens has probably never read this blog, but we both recognize how literature deepens our understanding of the world, including American politics.
I particularly appreciate how Stephens sees fiction succeeding where journalism falls short:
If history’s greatest novelists and playwrights were to come back from the dead so they could tell the improbable tale of Donald J. Trump, how would they do it? How might they capture the man and his presidency in all of its hallucinatory, absurd and terrifying detail when we journalists usually seem to come up short?
Stephens wonders whether Shakespeare would treat Trump comically or tragically. He concludes that Trump leans towards the comic as long as he isn’t actually president and compares him to a comic figure from Shakespeare’s history plays:
Back in 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy, it would surely have been a comedy. The Donald would have been Falstaff, that “huge hill of flesh,” as Prince Hal calls him, whose lies are “gross as a mountain, open, palpable.” Here we would have a character who always plays for the cheap seats — ribald and ridiculous; magnetic but pathetic — and who, fortunately, would be destined for nothing more.
I’ve made my own Trump-Faustus comparisons. I’m struck, for instance, by how Falstaff looks for ways to monetize power once he gets it—somewhat like Trump using his presidential candidacy to land a hotel deal in Moscow. In Falstaff’s case, he takes bribes from rich parents to exempt their sons from inscription (“I have used the King’s press abominably”). As a result, he ends up with
ancients, corporals, lieutenants, gentlemen of companies, slaves as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth, where the glutton’s dogs licked his sores; and such as indeed were never soldiers, but discarded unjust serving-men, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted tapsters and ostlers trade-fallen, the cankers of a calm world and a long peace, ten times more dishonorable ragged than an old faced ancient…
In my earlier column, I asked, “Could this be a foreshadowing of the Trump cabinet?” We’ve since received our answer in all the grifters and sycophants that Trump has attracted.
Stephens next suggests Trump as Macbeth:
Admittedly, it’s hard to picture Melania as a model for Lady Macbeth. But Roger Stone, Steve Bannon and Ann Coulter are perfect as the three witches. Banquo? That’s easy: Michael Cohen, both as living accomplice and ghostly reproach. Macduff, of course, is Bob Mueller.
And then, Richard III:
Another possibility: Richard III. The political novelist Richard North Patterson wrote me with an idea of how it might work.
“In Richard’s stead,” Patterson suggests, “a morally deformed Trump ruthlessly dispatches the pitiful aspirants to the throne — Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — in order to win the hand of a surrogate for Lady Anne: the G.O.P. in the guise of Reince Priebus.
“As the bodies pile up one upon the other — Rex Tillerson, John Kelly — Trump/Richard is gripped by lethal paranoia. Tragedy looms over the realm until, at last, the insane tyrant is unhorsed by America’s savior, the Earl of Richmond in the form of . . . Mike Pence?”
I too have compared Trump to Macbeth for “his readiness to override convention in his lust for power,” as well as to the narcissistic Lear “for the way he’ll sacrifice his country to his ego.” The problem with comparing Trump with tyrants like Macbeth and Richard, however, is that it aggrandizes him. He would like nothing more to be seen in such company.
Unlike Macbeth and Richard, Trump is a coward incapable of taking decisive action. He can’t even fire people face to face, much less murder Duncan or take up arms on Bosworth Field. I’ve concluded, therefore, that he is more like Iago, someone who lurks in the shadows of giants rather than standing shoulder to shoulder with them. He’s better at venting his resentment against his black superior by whispering poison into people’s ears. Like Iago, he violates what is honorable and pure.
Stephens too understands that Trump cannot be a tragic hero and so shifts to satire. He gets a good lead from Nikita Khrushchev’s daughter, now a professor at the New School, who suggests Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 play The Government Inspector:
It’s the story of an out-of-towner named Ivan Khlestakov — a civil servant of no great means or talent but with spendthrift habits and unlimited chutzpah — who is mistakenly taken by the corrupt local mayor as a secret government inspector. Khlestakov takes advantage of the mistake to extract big loans from the locals, bully the mayor, and run off with his daughter. His imposture is revealed only after he’s left town.
“There is no direct comparison” between Russian autocracy and American democracy, Khrushcheva acknowledges. “And yet there is some resemblance to the Russian reality — the idiot is sitting on top of you, spouting orders and tweets, and you have to tolerate his presence and even call the moron your president.”
I think Khrushcheva and Stephens have it right here. Trump is not a towering figure but a cheap provincial con man who, almost by accident, managed to hit it big. I too have compared Trump to Gogol con men (here and here), wondering if he’s more like Dead Souls’ inept Nozdrev, a pathological but engaging liar, or the calculating Chichikov, who repels us with his coldness. I once thought #1 but am now leaning towards #2.
In the end, Stephens wonders whether the strategy used by Aristophanes’s Lysistrata to stop the Peloponnesian War would stop Trump. By denying their men sex, the Greek women bring the warring city states to peace almost instantly. Stephens would like the media to deny Trump media attention, which he craves even more than sex:
Put an absolute ban on quoting his tweets unless they contain substantive policy announcements. Stop sending reporters to his press conferences, which long ago became theaters of no information. Write more about what the administration does, less about what Trump says. Report news that has nothing to do with the administration at all. Award journalism prizes to stories that don’t contain the word “Trump” at all.
Although I enjoy Stephens’s column, it concludes with an observation that doesn’t make much sense to me:
[I]n an era in which the president is constantly trying to impose his fictions on reality, it’s incumbent on the rest of us to keep the two separate. Understanding what fiction is, and all the ways Trump seems to spring from it, is a good place to start.
Sure, we shouldn’t fall for fake news. But literary fiction is something altogether different. Given literature’s insights into human nature, the question is which work applies most to a particular individual or situation. Trump might like to see himself as a bigger-than-life action hero, but Shakespeare, Gogol, and Aristophanes help us cut him down to size.
Further note: It so happens that my forthcoming book specializes in finding Trump literary comparisons, so I’ll be sending Stephens a copy. Read, Reflect, Resist: Classic Lit vs Trump and Trumpism is due out this month.