Watching the circle of craven sycophants, aka the President’s cabinet members, compete to outdo one another in paeans of effusive praise for their toddler-in-chief, I could not help but wonder if English teachers all over the country were reminded, as I was, of Act I, scene 1, of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Commanding the presence of his three daughters in the public space of the court, he requires of each that she declare her love for him as the price for such portion of his kingdom (He is dividing it up prior to retirement from kingly burdens.) as he deems the declaration of love deserves:
Tell me, my daughters,–
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,–
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
First Goneril and then Regan produce hyperbolic declarations of devotion and love
Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour; (1.1.56-59)
Sir, I am made of the self-same metal that my sister is,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short. (1.1.71-74)
Lear smugly accepts and rewards these avowals before moving on to ask his beloved youngest daughter Cordelia, “What can you say to draw/ A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”
Cordelia answers, “Nothing,” going on to barely explain, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty/According to my bond; nor more nor less.” (1.1.93-95)
As I watched the replay of Trump’s cabinet members, invited to say something about the accomplishments of his administration in front of the media, this scene played itself out on my English teacher’s memory screen. But there was no Cordelia refusing to utter puffed-up blandishments, so blatantly insincere that I was embarrassed to be witness to them, even coming from cabinet officials for whom I have little respect. Cordelia refuses to pander to her father’s vanity. Starting with Vice President Pence, who declared his connection to Trump the greatest honor of his life, one after another of Trump appointees declared his/her gratitude and pride in serving this amazing administration led by this outstanding man. Reince Priebus offered the most fulsome response, his paean including the pseudo-religious “blessing given” by Donald Trump, as if from some Olympian height. “On behalf the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people,” the White House chief of staff said.
No Cordelia there to interrupt the chorus of obsequious adulation. If I wanted to extend this comparison, I might invoke the ghost of James Comey, the man who refused to pledge allegiance and loyalty (love?) to Donald Trump; but that perhaps remains for a brilliant dramaturge such as Oskar Eustis to incorporate into a relevant production of King Lear. Although he’d have to take liberties with the text, I can imagine Comey as a Cordelia figure, both of them honest and, truth be told, a bit self-righteous. Of course Cordelia ends up dead and I would not wish such a fate on James Comey. Eustis’ controversial Julius Caesar, now playing in Central park, is currently dealing with the withdrawal of financial support from corporate giants Delta Airlines and Bank of America because of its rendering of Caesar as a Trump look-alike (sort of) with an affinity for long ties (Oh, don’t tempt me here!), a Slavic wife, and despotic power. Remember, Caesar is assassinated, so to the corporate oligarchs who rule this not-so-democratic republic, the play must seem a Democratic/liberal plot to hide the fact that Trump won the popular vote. Remember that Shakespeare served under an absolute monarch, that his plays were subject to official censorship, and that the assassination of a head-of-state, good or bad, could not be presented as a positive feat. I suspect those who see subversion in the play have neither seen it nor read it all the way to the end. Maybe in their sophomore year in high school, they weren’t paying attention to their English teachers. Maybe they lack a sense of irony or even of humor.
Trump’s story, no matter where it ends, can never be a tragedy. Trump is no Lear, no grand, frail, flawed hero capable of recognizing his flaws. I do not believe that Trump is capable of honest recognition of his ego-driven folly and foolishness, his need for constant praise. He will never, I suspect, cry out in honest self-assessment, as Lear does when he begins to see the damage he has wrought,
“I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less.
And to deal plainly
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”
Trump lacks the majesty of tragic hubris; his ego blinds him to the possibilities of honest self-assessment, of redemption. He may suffer reverses of fortune brought about by his own prideful errors in judgment, but I doubt he will ever see himself, rather than the Democrats and leakers of either party, as responsible. Trump is as shallow as a vernal pond, as vain as Narcissus, as psychologically naked in public as the monarch in Hans Christian Anderson’s “The King’s New Clothes.” He is mindlessly cruel both to strangers and those close to him, loyal only to his own appetites, and heedless of the hurt and humiliation he disperses like contaminated seed. He will never be able to declare, as Lear does on the edge of mad regret, in the insightful and empathetic speech I love most in the play:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just. (3.4.28-36)
Lear learns compassion, caritas, and humility. He realizes that he is not the only sufferer, in fact hardly a sufferer at all, compared to those enduring poverty of body and spirit. Through his suffering and his consequent consciousness of self, he emerges as the tragic hero of a great tragic drama.
I can’t envision Donald Trump looking deeper than his own skin to recognize the suffering that he and, under his leadership, the ilk of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Tom Price and Ben Carson and Rick Perry and Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson, are inflicting on the least among us. His story will not reach the heights of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. It is more theater of the absurd, occasionally funny but mostly Godot-goofy, Brecht-bitter, Sartre-sardonic – at least from an audience’s view. To Trump himself, his reign is an amazing spectacle of the superlative, theater of the rococo, the vulgar and the vicious. To this viewer, his little drama is neither ennobling nor elevating. It’s not even sad enough to be considered pathos. I’d call it a national embarrassment with potentially dangerous consequences.
I swore off ranting about Trump a few weeks ago; hence the blog-silence. I had begun to feel the fatigue of constant outrage, indignation and disbelief. Instead I read poetry: Yeats, Auden, Brodsky, Wisława Szymborska, Anna Akhmatova, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde. They expressed indignation, anger and apocalyptic terror so much more elegantly than the talking heads on TV or the columnists of the New York Times. Today’s televised replay of the cabinet of toadies bowing and scraping before the petty wanna-be tyrant, competing with one another to lick even the dirty sole of the master’s boot, heated my simmering umbrage to a pasta-cooking boil. Silent no longer…at least for now.
Every day someone posts an article on Facebook assuring us like-minded users (Of course, we see only the like-minded on our own pages along with the ads for anything we have ever coveted on line.) that the end is in sight, that impeachment or indictment or implosion of government is surely at hand, like the “sly beast slouching…” so often referenced. Then another day passes and Trumpkin is still on the throne, still twittering like a mad wren, still proclaiming accomplishments the likes of which no one has seen since perhaps George Washington’s day. I ask myself: is the outrageous becoming the new normal? People post that love will conquer hate. I think that I don’t think love has much to do with our current national dilemma. I think action has to challenge hateful legislation and language and lies. Writing is action, even though it requires no elbow grease or shoe leather or dangerous provocations of authority. Words are what I have to send out into the marketplace (good capitalist diction!) of ideas. Sharing the page with William Shakespeare helps keep me humble. Sharing citizenship with the likes of Donald Trump makes me wistful for the days when my ancestors were still living in Quebec, speaking French. I remind my adult grandchildren to be sure their passports are in order. I am writing checks to Planned Parenthood in lieu of birthday gifts. I am not hopeful but neither am I totally without hope, not when I have poetry and drama to terrify and console me. I will let Auden have the last words, from a poem he came to reject but that continues to inspire me.
From “September 1, 1939,” last stanza.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.