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Friday, June 16, 2017

A Shakespearean Trump?

A current article in The Economist poses an interesting question.   Could Trump be the star in a tragic drama by Shakespeare?

Apparently, after the astonishing sight of prominent men humiliating themselves in Trump's first "Cabinet" meeting, by fawning over the smug president while his impassive son-in-law oversaw the performance, triggered a tweet from Canada that went viral.

It's straight out of the beginning of King Lear, the tweeter suggested.

For those who have forgotten their Shakespeare, it is a scene where the senile king's daughters (save for one brave abstainer) lavish him with flowery praise to ensure their bits of the kingdom.

It was just like that at the meeting, it seems.  As the article comments:  'Vice-President Mike Pence set the tone, confiding that serving a president “who’s keeping his word to the American people” is “the greatest privilege of my life”. 

'As Mr Trump clenched his jaw, nodded and threw in an occasional “good job” of encouragement, his cabinet secretaries—who include former governors, retired four-star generals and more than one billionaire—mostly followed suit. They variously reported that his presidency has “thrilled” crime-fighters, excited the world with its “international flair” and inspired “love” in Mississippi. “My hat is off to you!” swooned the energy secretary, Rick Perry, who in 2015 called Mr Trump a “cancer on conservatism”. 

'For as long as cameras whirred this surge of praise rolled round the room like a bureaucrats’ Mexican wave, peaking with a testimonial from Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff. Unabashed by speculation that he is to be sacked, Mr Priebus declared: “We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing to serve your agenda.” The verdict of a Twitter-user from Toronto, “This is actually the start of ‘King Lear’,” went viral, pinging around the political internet.

'No secretary quite filled the role of Cordelia, the princess whose principled refusal to flatter King Lear in the opening scene of that tragedy (“I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth”) helps to precipitate her father’s descent into madness and the play’s plunge into eye-gouging, several murders and a small war. A few came close, notably James Mattis, the defence secretary and a thoughtful former four-star Marine general. Rather than fawn, Mr Mattis used his turn to praise troops and to express a core plank of his philosophy: that America maintains potent armed forces so that its diplomats “always negotiate from a position of strength”.

'As Mr Trump basked in congratulations, then hailed himself as the most “active” and productive president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, it was understandable if some recalled Shakespeare’s tragedies. For those works often explore how sycophancy clouds the judgment of great men, especially when pride prevents them from seeing that they are being gulled. As he divides his kingdom between three daughters, Lear confuses flowery words with love. It is fawning that lures Julius Caesar to a fatal ambush in the Capitol, as a conspirator predicts: “But when I tell [Caesar] he hates flatterers,/He says he does, being then most flatter√®d.”'

Remarkably, an outdoor performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar opened in Central Park, New York, on the very same day as the strange demonstration of forced flattery.   Needless to say, Trump's adoring fans did not like it, especially as Caesar had an odd resemblance to the man who calls himself America's leader.  Donald Trump jr. waxed furious, and the NEH hastily denied funding the thing.

So, how did Trump himself view the stomach-turning display of craven adoration?  Did he take it at face value, considering the lavish praise well-earned?  Or did he simply enjoy seeing powerful men prostrate themselves?  Is he, in fact, a bully?

Also unanswered is the question of why those powerful men were so willing to publicly humiliate themselves.  Were they like Lear's conniving daughters, intent on enriching themselves?  Do they see themselves as the future oligarchs of America?

Sadly, it seems all too possible.

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