Mediocre Netflix screenwriters are out of their league: we need Shakespeare himself to do justice to what is happening in Washington these days.
After the new book by Bob Woodward with its detailed account of a White House consumed by chaos, a bombshell anonymous op-ed in The New York Times rocked the political scene. Written by an anonymous “senior official” in the Trump administration, the op-ed was not only unprecedented in the history of the US presidency and American journalism, but it was particularly devastating in its description of Trump as uneducated, uninterested in foreign policy, unable to concentrate, and patently unfit for the role he plays.
According to the op-ed, Trump is so hopelessly out of his league that the anonymous writer claimed his reason for staying in office was to prevent the president from causing disasters, working with a group of other cabinet members and officials who had all pledged to control the president—up to and including by surreptitiously removing key documents from his desk, as Woodward recounts in his book.
The Trump administration looks more like a Renaissance court of the Borgias, or a sultanate on the brink of collapse, than like a modern presidency. New hires last for just a few weeks or a few months, and everyone is stabbing everyone else in the back as cabinet ministers and advisers try to survive the daily political and judicial scandals until the time that they can finally go through the revolving door to join the lobbyist profession, having padded their CV with a government role that will make them highly valuable to potential employers.
To interpret just what is going on, we can find some valuable help in the work of a Harvard professor, Stephen Greenblatt, who recently published a book called Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. This volume is not an academic work: instead, the author cites the Richard III, Henry VI and Macbeth of the plays as examples of tyrants who came to power because of the “weakness of the kingdom,” and points out disturbing similarities between their ambitions, their character and their methods and those of Trump.
For example, Greenblatt writes that a particular characteristic of tyrannical regimes is the fact that “even those in the inner circle of power very often have no idea about what is going to happen.” What better description for the current situation: Trump says he wants to unleash nuclear war against North Korea, then he meets with Kim Jong-un, then the threatening talk suddenly resumes.
The current president simply cannot put two sentences together without lying—a feature typical of demagogues that was already analyzed by Shakespeare in the form of his character Jack Cade, who maintains his hold over his faithful supporters, full of resentment towards the elites and who are never bothered by his exaggerations, distortions and lies—which are, in fact, essential elements for his success.
In Shakespeare’s tragedies, tyrants always come to a bad end, usually killed in battles they thought they would win easily. But it is difficult to make any predictions for the American political drama playing out at the moment. What is certain is that everyone is waiting for the outcome of the midterm congressional elections on Nov. 6. If the Democrats manage to win a majority in the House of Representatives, the first phase will begin of what will be a political fight to the death, with endless congressional investigations and the possible start of impeachment procedures (although an impeachment is unlikely to result in Trump’s actual removal from office, because the Republicans will probably keep control of the Senate).
A successful showing by the Democrats in November would mean, however, that the Trump presidency is politically dead in the water, which fact could push a certain number of Republicans—those who are more or less in agreement with the anonymous author of the New York Times op-ed—to jump ship and join the opposition. What has kept them loyal to Trump so far has been not only their raw appetite for power, but also, most importantly, the knowledge that Trump’s sway over the Republican base is still very strong. Those who approve of Trump are a minority, but a stable one, hovering around 40 percent since the day he took office: the scandals have not even made a dent in it. As a result, Republican senators and congressmen have to tread extremely carefully when distancing themselves in any way from the GOP’s own Líder Máximo.
In the coming days, the news cycle will be dominated by the hunt for the identity of the anonymous op-ed writer, which paradoxically could overshadow the much more consequential Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, a Trump-picked archconservative whose ascent to the Court would consolidate a decades-long right wing majority in the highest judicial—and political—body of the United States.
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