By Peter C. Herman
In the end, Trump’s presidency followed the general arc of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Whether we are talking about Richard II, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar or King Lear, the pattern is roughly the same. The beginning of the play predicts the inevitable, catastrophic ending. For Macbeth, it’s his murderousness; for Romeo and Juliet, it’s their rushing into sex and marriage; for Lear, as Goneril says, “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash,” and now that he’s older and going senile, we can expect more totally irrational decisions.
Similarly, we can see the ending of Trump’s presidency in its beginnings. During the 2016 election, Trump encouraged violence against protesters, promoted conspiracy theories, and refused to pledge that he would accept the election’s results (unless he won). That fits with what the early moderns called the protasis, “which is the beginning of the action, with that first tumult already as it were growing.
Then we get the middle of the play, the eptasis, where we find “the most fervent turbation, the argument is entangled; errors, with great perturbation of all the persons, troubled demeanor and countenances are assumed.” Which again, perfectly describes the four years of Trump’s presidency, which were marked by errors, nonstop conflict, and the “great perturbation” of all.
For example, his refusal to condemn white nationalism at Charlottesville, wrecking America’s image abroad, implementing a xenophobic immigration policy (i.e., the Muslim ban) that veered into a crime against humanity (separating families at the border), a phone call to Ukraine’s leader that led to his impeachment, and—in some ways the greatest failure of all—his bungled response to the COVIID-19 epidemic.
Finally, of course, we come to the ending, the final disaster that leaves the world reeling and the state in tatters. As Harvard professor and San Diego State alum Jeffrey R. Wilson said to the New York Times, “We’re approaching the end of the play here and that’s where catastrophe always comes.”
“Catastrophe” perfectly describes what happened on Jan. 6—Trump incited a seditious mob to invade the Capitol and his presidency collapsed. Instead of being carried to victory by his army of supporters, Trump finds himself isolated, abandoned by nearly everyone, with aides and at least one cabinet member, Elaine Chao, resigning, banned temporarily from Twitter and probably permanently from Facebook, and facing either another impeachment or removal using the 25th amendment. Unlike Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, Trump remains alive, but in every other way, his presidency has crumpled around him.
The central character in Shakespeare’s tragedies almost never commits just one bad act. Usually, his behavior deteriorates until finally he goes over the limit. Richard II can murder his relatives and banish his enemies, but he’s fine until he steals Bolingbroke’s inheritance. Richard III murders his way to the throne with impunity until he does something unforgivable: slaughtering two children. Trump, it is true, did not commit homicide. He never put to the test his assertion that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.
But from the moment Trump descended the escalator to announce his candidacy, his behavior continuously worsened. For four years, Trump kept pushing the envelope of acceptability, shredding more and more norms, jumping over guardrail after guardrail, and telling lie after lie, all without consequence, culminating in the repeated fantasies about how the election was stolen.
Then on Jan. 6, the President, like Lear, like Richard III, finally went over the line by inciting mob violence, refusing to call in the National Guard, and doing next to nothing to defuse the situation. In the end, the monster Trump created and nurtured for the last four years destroyed his presidency, leaving him Twitterless and disgraced.
Shakespeare’s tragedies usually conclude with some gesture toward redemption. In Romeo and Juliet, Capulet and Montague bring an end to the feud. At the end of Lear, with the king and his daughters all dead, Albany asks his friends to help “rule in this realm and the gored state sustain.”
And so with us: Joe Biden will assume the presidency of Jan. 20, and we can put the nightmare behind us. With a new administration and Democratic control of both the House and the Senate, we can start clearing away the wreckage and rebuilding.
But Shakespeare’s plays don’t end cleanly. There’s always a hook, a subtle threat, a shadow that remains. With Lear, both Edgar and Kent say no to Albany’s request to help repair the damage. At the end of Romeo and Juliet, the feud continues in the competition over who will build the more expensive statue. Hamlet does not end with Horatio’s lovely farewell to his friend, “Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” but with Fortinbras marching in with his soldiers, demanding his “rights” in the kingdom, and Horatio demurring. The play concludes, in other words, with more fighting and an uncertain result. The comedies finish the same way. At the end of Twelfth Night, Malvolio stalks off the stage, snarling that he will “be revenged on the whole pack of you.” He’s not joking.
The same applies to our political situation. The curtain may be about to fall on the tragedy of Donald J. Trump, but the damage remains, not the least being the COVID-19 pandemic, which seems to get worse every day. Nor have the conspiracy theories that fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection faded or been discredited. Over 70% of Republican voters continue to believe that the election was rigged.
Many in the House and a few Republican senators still maintain that the election was stolen, and they will probably do everything they can to obstruct Biden’s agenda. Finally, even though many aides have resigned, and doubtless more will leave in the coming days, Trump still has his supporters. The day after his followers stormed the Capitol, Trump appeared at an RNC breakfast meeting, where he was roundly applauded.
In other words, this isn’t over. Not by a long shot. Shakespeare’s plays always end by gesturing toward the storm clouds gathering on the horizon We would do well to pay attention to what’s looming in our future.
Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and has essays in Salon, Inside Higher Ed, as well as Times of San Diego. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11” (Routledge, 2020).