For years I’ve been applying King Lear to American politics, and yesterday The Washington Post followed suit. Forget dystopian novels like 1984 and Handmaid’s Tale, Ron Charles advises us. The work that fits Donald Trump best is Shakespeare’s most disturbing tragedy.
Charles gives us a teaser before springing on us the name of the play (although we know it already from the headline):
The most prominent characteristic of our era is not the monolithic power of one party, but the erratic personality of one man. Every morning, all sides of the political establishment — his family and friends, along with “the haters and losers” — must contend with Trump’s zigzagging proclamations, his grandiose promises, his spasmodic attachments.
Charles finds many comparisons. First, Lear like Trump is unpredictable:
In Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy, composed around 1605, we see a kingdom entirely in thrall to the fitful mentality of its leader with his “unconstant starts.” As one of Lear’s daughters says, “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash.” Or, as Politico observed 400 years later about our president: “Unpredictability . . . is not a quirk but a hallmark.”
Then, in parallel that is so apt that I’m kicking myself for having missed it, each insists on absolutely loyalty from all followers:
[T]he old king of Britain and the new president of the United States are rulers obsessed with personal devotion. Trump is, as he once noted in his typically Shakespearean way, “like, this great loyalty freak.”
Trump’s language may not pass muster in ninth-grade English, but that’s a pretty fair description of King Lear. In fact, the great crisis of Shakespeare’s tragedy hinges on the fact that Lear is, like, this great loyalty freak, too. How eerily familiar that opening scene must feel to the Cabinet members and advisers currying favor at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.:
“Which of you,” Lear demands, “shall we say doth love us most?”
Goneril and Regan dutifully deliver their unctuous praise, but principled Cordelia — played for us with touching poignancy by FBI Director James B. Comey — refuses to take the loyalty pledge and is summarily disinherited. (Lear doesn’t even wait for the Earl of Kent to compose a memo justifying the move.)
Several times I have made Charles’s next point, which is that removing society’s traditional governing norms unleashes chaos. In Shakespeare’s play, Lear’s self-indulgent abdication and Gloucester’s whoring (and then boasting about it) are instances of irresponsible old men reaping the whirlwind. That’s why Trump’s assaults on empirical reality, journalism, the courts, and democratic traditions generally are so disturbing. We realize, as we watch Lear’s kingdom descend into civil war, that our own institutions are more fragile than we thought. Charles sets forth the consequences:
Now, like Lear’s subjects, we find ourselves experiencing the chaos that reigns “when majesty falls to folly.” As the Russian inquiry melds with the Michael Flynn scandal and the Comey investigation, the ludicrous denials and confusing qualifications keep spewing from the White House. Each day’s revelations are more disturbing than the last. We can take bitter comfort in Edgar’s gallows humor: “The worst is not, so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’ ”
Finally, there’s the spectacle of the leader who, at times, seems to be losing it:
How many of the president’s supporters have begged him — as Lear’s supporters implored him — “Check this hideous rashness”? But to no avail. Again and again, often at the most ill-timed moments, the president rages into the Twitterstorm on the barren plain of the Web.
“Fake news!” “When does it end?” “This is a disgrace!”
“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!”
And despite boundless advantages and allowances, Trump echoes Lear’s whiny complaint: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.”
Who doesn’t feel a prick of pity for this grandiose character wandering alone in his bathrobe in the dark, early-morning hours?
Charles notes one difference between Lear and Trump: Lear at least has a fool to keep him anchored in reality, even though he doesn’t listen to him. Trump, by contrast, is surrounded by yes-men and yes-women:
Who will speak sharp sense to the president in a way he can hear? Who will quell his Twitter raging? Surely not Vice President Pence; he prefers the part of Goneril, proficient in flattery, “that glib and oily art.” And Stephen K. Bannon is committed to playing Lady Macbeth in a competing production in the White House basement.
One could point to one other major difference: Lear at least is no longer in office.
We should be so lucky.
One other thought: Let’s take a moment to honor those brave men and women, our Kents and Cordelias, who stand firmly in support of our country’s founding principles, regardless of the cost. Unfortunately, at the moment this includes very few GOP members of Congress.
Previous Posts on Trump, the GOP, and King Lear
March 21, 2017: Trump as Lear, Howling in the Storm
March 10, 2016: #NeverTrump! Never! Never! Never! Never?
May 9, 2016: Time for GOP Moderates To Go to Ground?
May 8, 2016: Now, Gods, Stand Up for Trump!
Dec. 30, 2015: Conservative Extremists as King Lear