Donald Trump shows his reaction to the sound of Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton’s voice. Photo by Chris Stone

By Peter C. Herman

Toward the end of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Malcolm—the leader of the revolt against the Scots king—decides for mysterious reasons to test his ally, Macduff. What, he seems to want to know, are the limits of political acceptability? What level of evil would be acceptable to get rid of a greater evil?

First, Malcolm says that he has so many vices that “black Macbeth / Will seem as pure as snow,” to which Macduff responds, no-one can top Macbeth’s crimes. Malcolm then moves from abstract to concrete examples.

Well, he says, “there’s no bottom, none, / In my voluptuousness.” Nobody, not your wives, your daughters, your matrons, or your maids will satisfy his lust. To which Macduff responds: this is bad, and boundless lust has overthrown many kings. But it’s worth it to get rid of Macbeth. Besides, “we have willing dames enough.”

Okay, Malcolm says, what about greed? I have a “staunchless avarice,” and no matter how much I get, I will always “hunger more.” To which Macduff responds: This is bad, even worse than lust, and greed too has been “the sword of our slain kings.” But, “do not fear,” he tells Malcolm, Scotland has enough “to fill up your will.” Given your other graces, this is bearable.

At this point, Malcolm pulls out all the stops and says that he HAS no other graces. Instead, he abounds in each vice, “acting it in many ways.” If he could, he would “pour the sweet milk of concord into hell, / Uproar the universal peace, confound all unity on earth.”

Finally, we reach the outer limits of Macduff’s tolerance, and he exclaims that such a man shouldn’t live, let alone govern. Malcolm answers that he was just kidding, that he’s purer than the driven snow, and the rebellion can proceed apace.

This scene nicely shows the predicament that the Republicans have found themselves in. As we saw at the Republican convention, they think that Hilary Clinton smacks “of every sin / That has a name.” She’s crooked, she’s a liar, she’s personally responsible for all the deaths at Benghazi, she had Vincent Foster murdered, she’s a traitor, and one person even said she should be shot as a traitor.

The Republican party will do anything, and I mean anything, to keep her out of office. And that means continuing to endorse Donald Trump.

Now, the list of Trump’s real political transgressions goes way beyond Malcolm’s made-up sins. We know that Trump lies the way other people breathe (e.g, claiming that he got a letter from the NFL about the dates of the presidential debates; no such letter exists). We know that he is a racist whose proposal to build a wall is both physically and constitutionally preposterous. And he has a deep-seated need to lash out at anyone who has the temerity to criticize him (e.g., the Khans, whose son died while serving in Iraq).  His poll numbers are cratering, and it is manifestly clear that electing Donald Trump to the highest office in the land would mean electing a thin-skinned demagogue who needs to be repeatedly reminded as to why using nuclear bombs would not be a good idea. To use one of his favorite phrases, it would be a complete and total disaster.

But as President Obama observed the other day, like Macduff, most Republicans refuse to take the final step and repudiate Donald Trump. Even Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who said that while he thinks Trump’s comments about the Khans are “beyond the pale” still supports him because Trump at his worst is still better than the alternative: “I know Hilary Clinton will put a bad judge from my perspective on the Supreme Court. I believe that Donald Trump won’t.”

Paul Ryan, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Sen. John McCain and others, would rather have a proven liar, a racist blowhard who consults only himself on foreign policy, and is so politically tone-deaf that he kicks a woman with a crying baby out of a townhall than Hillary Clinton.

But you have to ask: at what cost? If you are willing to support a proto-fascist who doesn’t seem to know about, let alone understand, the basics of the American political system, who has revoked the press credentials of 11 news outlets because their coverage displeased him, and who seems to think that he can lose only if the election is “rigged,” what does that say about you?

Which brings us back to the Scots play.  If you are willing to put a sex-crazed greedhead on the throne, Shakespeare seems to ask, then maybe there isn’t all that much difference between you and the criminal you want to replace. By agreeing to make a man king whose crimes were enough to get other kings deposed, Macduff shows that the rebellion against Macbeth is hopelessly compromised.

So it goes with the Republicans. By continuing to support Trump’s candidacy even though they know Trump is totally unfit for the job, the Republicans demonstrate that they are now a morally bankrupt party.


Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism. 

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