Sunday, December 11, 2016

Donald J. Trump and King Richard II: The Politician as Actor

CAUTION: Long, academic (hence, arguably elitist, starting with my using the word "hence") post.

I'm a bit less apprehensive than many about the almost inevitable upcoming election of Donald Trump (19 Dec. 2016, 6 Jan. 2017) in part because I see in him not only the standard historical precedents — Italy supplies two useful ones — but with England's King Richard II. As a youngster, the historical Richard rather heroically met with leaders of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt and lied his royal ass off promising freedom and redress of grievances. He soon suppressed the revolt and sent the serf contingent back to serfdom, promising them they'd be oppressed even more than before. 

Shakespeare deals with Richard later in Richard's life, as Richard moves to his fall. Not with disinterest (I'll note with a double negative), Shakespeare acknowledges and even stresses that kings must be actors. Richard, however, comes to live the part and starts to believe what had become by Shakespeare's time the standard royalist propaganda on the Divine Right of Kings. King Richard is into his own beautiful words — and he's good at language, unlike Mr. Trump — and gets lost in them. He loses out to a man of few words and a relatively early member of "the reality-based community": that man of facts and opportunist action, Henry Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV.

As king, Henry IV gives good but pretty standard Machiavellian advice to his son, who goes on to become Henry V and outdo his dad in more sophisticated Machiavellian kingship. Henry IV isn't into straightforward speech, but here's his analysis of Richard for his son's benefit, and I think ours.

My expectation is that Trump will undermine himself as a, ahem, bad actor with delusions of total power, and will be displaced by hard-facts people who can use Machiavelli et al. to ethical ends. 

Enjoy! (Or just delete; I did give that trigger caution above.)

The hope and expectation of thy time
Is ruin'd, and the soul of every man
Prophetically doth forethink thy fall.
Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackney'd in the eyes of men,
So stale and cheap to vulgar company,
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession
And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.
By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder'd at;
That men would tell their children 'This is he;'
Others would say 'Where, which is Bolingbroke?'
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dress'd myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths,
Even in the presence of the crowned king.
Thus did I keep my person fresh and new;
My presence, like a robe pontifical,
Ne'er seen but wonder'd at: and so my state,
Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast
And won by rareness such solemnity.
The skipping king, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with capering fools,
Had his great name profaned with their scorns
And gave his countenance, against his name,
To laugh at gibing boys and stand the push
Of every beardless vain comparative,
Grew a companion to the common streets,
Enfeoff'd himself to popularity;
That, being daily swallow'd by men's eyes,
They surfeited with honey and began
To loathe the taste of sweetness, whereof a little
More than a little is by much too much.
So when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze,
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes;
But rather drowzed and hung their eyelids down,
Slept in his face and render'd such aspect
As cloudy men use to their adversaries,
Being with his presence glutted, gorged and full.
(_1 Henry IV_, from MIT Shakspeare on line)

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