Shakespeare had the Age of Trump sized up four centuries ago
Ezra Pound, who might have recognized a thing or two in our current political environment and found them familiar, once defined literature as “news that stays news.” Two of William Shakespeare’s plays have for the past ten years or so been of particular interest for the light they shed on American political news. The first is Macbeth, which is in the end a play about debt, a subject from which there is no escape in this life. The other is Richard III.
Richard III is an interesting play and Richard III is an interesting character because of the way in which contradictory tendencies come together in them: the gravity of high affairs of state conducted with glib frivolity, crimes of the worst depravity perpetrated with lightness of spirit, civil war understood as a kind of schoolboy romance. Nobody, including Shakespeare, seems to be taking things quite as seriously as they should be taken.
Richard III is a play in which the principal characters lie to one another — and to themselves — about their motives. In the famous opening soliloquy (“Now is the winter of our discontent”), Richard, who is a hunchback, informs the audience that he is embarking on a course of treachery as a balm for his romantic exclusion: “Since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain and hate the idle pleasures of these days.” He convinces Elizabeth that he killed her husband, the Prince of Wales, and her father-in-law, King Henry VI, out of desire for her. She eventually marries him, purportedly out of pity — continuing the theme of self-deception — and he murders her children. Elizabeth asks the elderly Queen Margaret for advice on how to curse Richard, and Margaret offers a master’s course in self-deception:
Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days;
Compare dead happiness with living woe;
Think that thy babes were fairer than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is:
Bettering thy loss makes the bad causer worse.
Fouler than he is. That is the current operating mode of American presidential politics, which in these imperial times comprehends American politics as a whole.
There was a great deal to dislike about Barack Obama, and much to oppose. He was preening and dishonest, a serial violator of constitutional constraints, an aggrandizer of presidential power with contempt for the legislative branch and its prerogatives, and, not least, an assassin. But for many of his critics — Donald J. Trump prominent among them — that wasn’t enough. He had to be something more and something worse, something fouler than he is: a secret Marxist agent, a Kenyan-born crypto-jihadist, a Manchurian candidate. None of that was exactly political in the conventional sense: Conservatives and Republicans were going to oppose the Obama administration because of its left-wing agenda and its contempt for the constitutional order. The Kenyan/Marxist/Muslim stuff was not about how Republicans thought about Obama — it was about how they thought about themselves.
And now the same story repeats itself in the matter of President Trump and the Russia investigation. Trump’s defects as a man have been uncontested public knowledge for decades now — he has made them part of his brand. His deficiencies as a president are well known and admitted even by those of his partisans who have a measure of intellectual honesty. But that is not enough for his opponents — not as a matter of politics but as a matter of theater, the dramatic narrative in which they understand themselves to be plucky heroes standing bravely against the incursions of an alien menace, soldiers in the resistance, anything other than ordinary political partisans whose personal bitterness and bile are grossly in excess of what the actual facts of the political case would justify.
It is of course more comforting for Democrats to believe that they were sucker-punched in 2016 by a conspiracy led by the Russian intelligence apparatus rather than bested in ordinary electoral politics by a man who, though a teetotaler, took as his unstated campaign slogan: “Hold My Beer!”
Who would choose to be feckless chumps when they could instead be martyrs to democracy? Who could resist bettering the conditions of their loss by making the bad causer worse? Only those who are willing and able to make the supernatural effort to be honest with themselves.
Like Richard III, our political partisans tell themselves that they are acting not out of inchoate malice or thirst for power but out of love: love for the one half of the country that they do not hate, and hate utterly. But Richard loves no one — least of all himself. As he waits sleepless on the night before a battle in which victory is far from assured, he faces the facts: “I love myself. Wherefore? For any good that I myself have done unto myself?” In the end, we all face the facts — we are made to.
For the Democrats, this is a springtime of discontent: They had been hoping, with a smile inside, to hear a tale of treason authored under the imprimatur of the special counsel, and are bitterly disappointed to be denied it. What good have they done unto themselves?
Or the country?