No one will mistake President Trump’s tweets for Shakespeare. But that doesn’t mean the Bard can’t inform our understanding of the president’s state of mind and what that means for our future.
“King Lear” is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. The plot revolves around the old monarch’s self-indulgent folly, dividing his kingdom among his daughters not on merit but on flattery. Bereft of power, he learns his children’s true characters: mean, grasping and cruel. They humiliate him, take away his last squires and throw him out of their homes. The injustice drives him mad, leading to one of the theater’s most famous scenes: the white-haired ancient raging on the heath in the midst of a massive storm.
Trump’s tweets aren’t poetic, but they reveal he shares Lear’s cast of mind: angry, full of self-pity and resentful at perceived injustice. Trump clearly believes he has done nothing wrong. And so we are treated to tweets arguing that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) are “guilty” of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors and even Treason”; that “the Biden family was PAID OFF”; and that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) should be impeached. Not as eloquent as “tremble, thou wretch, that hast within thee undivulged crimes” but still the voice of a man who, like Lear, believes he is “more sinn’d against than sinning.”
We should expect more of this behavior as the impeachment inquiry moves closer to fruition. An angry, bitter man who believes himself the victim of injustice will not go quietly into the night. Instead, he will meditate on the mischief of his foes and lash out. We should expect more unfounded charges, more vicious attacks and more unpredictable actions. Sunday’s announcement that U.S. troops are withdrawing from northern Syria may be one example of how Trump agonistes will salve his wounds by finally acting on his long-held instincts.
Trump’s psyche will also have a strong impact on the next year’s events. His attacks may fall largely on deaf ears, but Republicans will likely rally round their embattled king. They interpret this impeachment effort in the context of the past three years and the never-ending attempted character assassination of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Just as Lear found comfort in the army of the king of France, which arrived with his rejected daughter, Cordelia, to avenge his deposition, so, too, will Trump find comfort in the army of the Republican Party. That will probably ensure he is not removed from office, but that will simply make the 2020 counteroffensive so divisive that 2016 will look like a trip to Disneyland.
Even removal from office wouldn’t make Trump go away. He’d simply turn to Twitter, digitally raging against his enemies from his golden penthouse heath. This would impact the election in unpredictable ways. Democrats might think this would simply divide Republicans, but they shouldn’t be too sure about that. A savvy Republican would use the popular anger Trump whipped up to his or her advantage to focus on the Democrats’ bloodlust. Democrats, freed from the need to moderate to present the best chance of defeating Trump, would likely fall against themselves just as Lear’s daughters plotted against one another for the throne. And all of this would be aided and abetted by the deposed president, incensed with self-pity and grief.
Lear’s madness was tragic but ultimately unimportant because he was by then powerless. Trump, however, will continue to wield presidential power throughout this ordeal. President Richard M. Nixon had his own demons, but he was much younger and in better control of himself as he stared at impeachment and removal from office. Nevertheless, he became unglued — reportedly crying, talking to portraits and drinking — in the final weeks of his presidency. His sense of honor and shame kept him from abusing his power in his personal crisis. Can we trust Trump to do the same if this continues?
“The weight of this sad time we must obey,” Albany says as the play draws to a sorry close. So, too, must we, caught in our own sad times, obey our consciences and decide who will next “rule in this realm and the gored state sustain.” But whatever we decide, we will not have the advantage the next king had in the play. Lear died in the final scene, and his madness could no longer influence events. No matter what happens, we will still have Trump, eyes blazing and seeking to avenge ingratitude, to contend with. This tragedy is nowhere close to being over.