Trump as an Elizabethan
March 2016
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Trump as an Elizabethan

By Jonathan Wallace

I never thought of this before, but: as a kind of political game, let’s ask which Shakespearean character each Presidential candidate most nearly resembles. Shakespeare is huge and contains multitudes, and there ought to be an instructive match-up for everyone, right?

Let’s start with the easy ones. Marco Rubio is obviously Henry VI, a little too kind, gentle and oblivious to be President: he’s smart, and trying hard, but callow, his instincts are not that good, he seems soft, too unguarded, easily betrayed.

Bernie Sanders is Polonius. Not an exact analogy, but he’s older, seen it all, knows everything, is grandfatherly and loves to talk about it. You like and trust him--he’s never going to stab you-- but you just can’t listen for too long.

John Kasich is probably also Polonius, for the same reasons.

Ted Cruz is obviously Richard III. He’s whip smart, good with words, sardonic, monstrous and very dangerous. He will stab any one in the back in an instant.

Hilary Clinton is Henry V. She has overcome some roguish elements in her own background going back to Arkansas days by studying to be calm and magisterial. She seems the most Presidential of candidates in large part because the calmest and smartest, but you sense she has bent herself into that role through the application of tremendous will and intelligence. I could argue, by the way, that there is barely a hair of difference morally between Henry V and Richard III. The latter is probably a tad more selfish and chaotic. Richard III will murder children to become king; Henry V knows that in order to achieve the throne he must kill Hotspur in battle. Both are killers.

Chris Christie, standing next to Donald Trump with his eyes flicking back and forth and his expression blank, has slipped down to Iago, the ambitious right hand man who will stick a knife in his boss’s ribs when the moment comes.

I have left the best for last and hope really to surprise you when I say that Donald Trump is, wait for it, Falstaff. Yes, Falstaff. Looking at his fat face as he rants and jokes, you can see Trump has heard “the chimes at midnight”, and his invective, which seems as vivid as Viking flyting or the "dozens", is definitely Falstaffian. He loves to live well and be surrounded by nice things, has no sense of duty and regards himself uncritically as a higher life form than anyone in the picture. Falstaff is nevertheless smart and observant enough, attuned to reality, to recognize power and to know that Hal is more powerful, can make him or end him. Trump, like Falstaff, is appetitive, the id-candidate, but has through-out his life made obeisance to power, including the Clintons, until he no longer had to. Falstaff with a billion dollars would be Donald Trump; you can say that the money stands in as Trump’s Prince Hal, putting wind in his sails, enabling him. Trump as President would be exactly Falstaff as king, living large, enjoying himself hugely, joking about the murder of enemies, too impulsive and id-driven to last. Trump’s greed, his willingness to exploit the very people he is now turning to for votes, is very like Falstaff’s; Trump University, which sold worthless real estate courses for $35,000 to desperate people who maxed out their credit cards to pay for them, is a very Falstaffian enterprise, like the various acts of piracy and cons which Falstaff and young Hal work together in Henry IV Part One. Falstaff is larger than life, a brand before the concept existed, as Trump is a brand today.

I have not in my own mind entirely solved the problem of why people vote for Donald Trump, when the information about exercises like Trump University is out there: how can you support someone who despoiled and impoverished someone just like you? One possible answer is that some voters, who have been sat on and ruined for decades, have come to perceive they are powerless peasants in the American system. They need to be under someone’s protection, and naturally flock to the baron who has paid them the most attention and seems most likely to treat them benignly, regardless of whom he has murdered before. Some people who feel a little more powerful match the rogue in themselves with the rogue in Trump, like the rag tag gallery of colorful thieves and killers who were Falstaff’s entourage. (Chris Christie also assimilates well to this model.)

I wrote five years ago that American (in fact, all Western liberal democratic) politics seem to me to be taking a tragic, decades-long swing back to a medieval model, with billionaires such as Bloomberg, Trump and the Koch brothers as the new barons, while you and I stand in for the peasants hoping for protection but so often plundered instead. One of the hallmarks of liberal democracy is a vital wall between public and private life. Politicians shouldn’t sell you products, or use public power to help close their real estate or oil deals or ameliorate their personal tax situations, or personally fund public works, or use their own money and power to determine public policy outcomes. In medieval barons, “all the gyres converge in one, all the planets drop in the sun”, as there is no distinction whatever between public and private power, between ruling and accumulating great personal wealth. The best evidence I can give you is that there is a living ex-President who has no power whatever, a last product of a truly liberal democratic system: Jimmy Carter. Carter’s post-Presidential career exemplifies the distinction between the individual and the office: the person wields power only in and through the Presidency, and has little or none afterwards. The three other living ex-Presidents fit better within a baronial narrative. The Bushes through their wealth and connections have been, compared to the Koch brothers and Trump, a relatively well behaved family of barons, who continue to compete in the American power landscape, most recently hoping the crown would pass to a third family member, Jeb. Bill Clinton also seems to have founded a baronetcy, funded and protected by the Clinton foundation, and it seems very likely right now that Hillary Clinton will achieve the crown.

It has always been a defect in American liberal democracy that private individuals achieve great temporal power and warp things out of shape. It happened with the 19th century robber barons. In the twentieth century, William Randolph Hearst, whom we have largely forgotten today, frightened and bullied presidents, and sought the Democratic nomination himself, in 1904. Today, the Koch brothers are, in my humble opinion, the biggest existential threat to American democracy. When someone combines great private power with the power of the Presidency, as Trump would as a billionaire-President, our own opposing voices are diminished, our value as participants in the democratic process slips down to nothing to the extent we are not willing merely to act as tools of autocratic power. Of course, a billionaire does not have to become President in order to exercise near-complete power; the activities of the Koch Brothers these last twenty years, greatly accelerated since Citizens United, demonstrate how much you can do,and destroy, from behind the scenes. We are near a stasis in which every politician is either a baron or a baron’s puppet; Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and many of the candidates who dropped out earlier were all recipients of Koch money and support.

Personally, I refuse to be either a baron or serf. What is the third choice in today’s world? e.e. cummings said, “Pity this busy monster, manunkind: listen: there’s a hell/ of a good universe next door: let’s go”.