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Utterly Disgusting

Posted by hkarner - 18. Juni 2017

Date: 17-06-2017
Source: The Economist: Lexington
Subject: Donald Trump’s need for flattery is trashing reputations

This is not Shakespearean drama: the penalty for characters who stand up to the king is too small for that

AS A rule, it is not ideal for a presidential administration to remind onlookers of a feuding, villain-haunted Shakespearean tragedy. Yet that was a widely shared reaction when the first full meeting of President Donald Trump’s cabinet, on June 12th, began with an extended flattery contest.

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 flatterèd.”

In a further demonstration that Shakespeare’s works pack a political punch more than 400 years on, Mr Trump’s cabinet meeting was held on the very day that a production of “Julius Caesar” opened in New York at an outdoor theatre in Central Park, in which the Roman dictator is played by a blonde, Trump-like figure in a suit and red tie. That staging, including a graphic stabbing, prompted anger from conservative news outlets and from the president’s son, Donald Trump junior, who asked on Twitter: “I wonder how much of this ‘art’ is funded by taxpayers?” As some corporate sponsors withdrew support and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, denied having funded the play, its director argued that Shakespeare’s drama does not incite violence but in fact explores the terrible costs of trying to preserve a republic through undemocratic means.

For all that, those drawing parallels between Shakespeare’s tragedies and the Trump administration need to be sure that they are comparing like with like. The present White House may be uncomfortably reminiscent of a medieval court, with its cliques and coerced displays of fealty, all taking place under the watchful gaze of a ruling family—as cabinet members cringed this week, an impassive Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law and senior counsellor, could be seen monitoring their tributes from a seat behind the president.

But Mr Trump is no King Lear, whose choleric old age was preceded by a long and fruitful reign. Nor is he a Julius Caesar, whose grandeur renders him incautious around flatterers: just before his assassins strike, Caesar sniffs that he is unmoved by their “base spaniel fawning”. Instead Mr Trump is a boastful, thin-skinned praise-addict. Lacking a governing record after squandering the start of his presidency, he used his first full cabinet meeting to stage a televised display of loyalty. He knew full well that the powerful men and women in the room were flattering him—and relished their humiliation. He is more bully than tragic hero.

Robes and furr’d gowns hide all
Shakespeare understood bullies. The tragedies are filled with demagogues: orators with a genius for stirring up divisions and stoking grievances to turn decent citizens into angry, vengeful followers. During the election Mr Trump called rivals “disgusting” or said they “choked like a dog”. This week he called the news media both fake and “dirty” and said they pursue “their agenda of hate”. Shakespearean populists—men like the plotters in “Julius Caesar” or the crowd-pleasing tribunes in “Coriolanus”—also dehumanise opponents. They call their foes wolves, or an elitist “enemy to the people”, liable to pay commoners no more heed than dogs that are “beat for barking”.

The fact that Mr Trump is a smaller, shallower figure than most Shakespearean heroes (or villains, come to that) makes the craven behaviour of his cabinet secretaries and other Republican enablers even harder to explain. Unlike courtiers in a Jacobean tragedy, they risk neither execution nor banishment. No invading army or witches’ curse impels so many members of Team Trump to sell their reputations and dignity cheap: merely ambition, and the comforting fiction that they are indispensable. Serving Mr Trump is a modest test of character, by Shakespearean standards. It is one which too many underlings are failing.

 

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