Trump the (Shakespearean) Fool: a New Look at the Dynamics of Trumpism

Photo source Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0

Not long after Donald Trump’s accession to the presidency, I found myself arguing with fellow oppositionists who insisted that the new POTUS was either insane, moronic, knowingly corrupt, or a Russian agent – or all four simultaneously.   It seemed to me – and still does – that these characterizations misconceived the real problem.  “Listen,” I told my friends,  “These insults won’t work.  You are using conventional terms of abuse to describe something for which we have no political vocabulary.”

“Which is what?”

“Which is that this president is a fool.  He is not stupid, diabolical, or mentally out of control.  He is not Vladimir Putin’s bitch.  He is a foolish man who tends to act without calculating the consequences of his actions; a hothead who disdains polite discourse and loves to violate taboos; an actor who plays a boastful, threatening, oversexed, occasionally (but rarely) warmhearted character called Donald J. Trump in an ongoing reality drama that he seems to identify with reality itself.”

We have not had a fool in the Oval Office before, and I think that I was right to emphasize the self-directed aspects of Trump’s character.  But the President’s foolishness has turned out to be more complex and dangerous – and in some ways more instructive to his opponents – than I had thought.

Consider the difference between the small “f” fool, a simpleton whose ignorance and poor judgment make him an object of scorn, and the Fool with a large “F” – a far more complex and challenging character who appears in plays by Shakespeare, Beckett, Pinter, and other dramatists of note.  The large “F” Fool is not simply a dunce and target for other people’s tricks, but an important figure whose chief function, aside from comic relief, is to expose the false pretences and pretensions of the play’s highborn protagonists.  Shakespeare’s Fools are employed by the one percent – nobles like King Lear, Duke Orsino, and Henry IV, who outrank them by miles, but who can never outwit them. Despite hardships and insults, they remain loyal to these patrons, but their job is to undermine elite complacency by telling unpalatable truths.

Fools “do share a sort of capacity to stir things up, to say things that other characters in their social bracket couldn’t possibly get away with saying,” notes the University of Birmingham’s Jacquelyn Bessell.  “They deflate pompous, socially superior characters. They’re able to criticize kings.”  What enables them to perform this task is a sardonic, illusion-free vision of the world: what we might call an alienated consciousness.  As Jan Kott puts it in his classic study, Shakespeare, Our Contemporary:

The Fool does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good. Lear, insisting on his fictitious majesty, seems ridiculous to him. All the more ridiculous because he does not see how ridiculous he is. But the Fool does not desert his ridiculous, degraded king, and accompanies him on his way to madness. The Fool knows that the only true madness is to recognize this world as rational.

How does this help us to understand Trump and Trumpism?  First, consider the alienated consciousness through whose lens Trump perceives organizations long considered sacred, non-partisan, and politically untouchable, such as the F.B.I., NATO, and the G7 Alliance, as rankly self-interested and politically partisan.  Note also the ironic consequences of this perception, as many of Trump’s liberal/progressive opponents scramble to defend these agencies’ sanctity against the Fool’s acid criticism.  “Trump Wants to Destroy the West,” howls The New York Times’ David Leonhardt in a front page opinion piece.  Fools often provoke this sort of overreaction!

Next, observe Trump’s practice of redefining world leaders who many Americans consider enemies or bad people (Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, General Sisi, et al.) as actual or potential allies.  If interests, not values or human needs, make the world go round, and if violence is the normal means of defending interests, the Fool sees immediately that the Good Leader/Bad Leader distinction is sheer hypocrisy.  (Shall the killers of more than five million Koreans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, and Afghanis get their knickers in a twist over Kim Jong Un’s assassination of his relatives?)  He sees, too, that sacrosanct doctrines such as human rights and social equality are little more than pious shibboleths honored more in the breach than in the observance.

Third, think again about Mr. Trump’s highly distressed relationships with Truth and the news media. Recall that the Fool’s signature characteristic is an ability (or compulsion) to say the unsayable even when it hurts.  “Truth’s a dog that must to kennel, he must be whipped out,” King Lear’s servant tells him.  Yes, the Fool’s mission is to expose fakery and lies. On the other hand, though, his implicit nihilism undermines the whole notion of a Truth unsullied by self-interest. The way the Fool tells partial truths annihilates trusting relationships and dissolves communities.

Thus, Trump begins by charging his journalistic opponents with the creation of “fake news.”  At the same time, however (beginning with his own description of the size of his Inauguration crowd), he is unable to avoid promulgating “alternative facts.”  When the smoke finally clears after repeated charges and counter-charges, the Truth has become an allegorical figure as old-fashioned, unreachable, and mysterious as Botticelli’s Venus.  Once again, the President’s opponents are tempted to oppose his Fool-ish skepticism with professions of faith in the Establishment – in this case, the respectable news media and their alleged capacity for “objective” truth telling. We will see in a moment that this is a major political error as well as a philosophical mistake.

First, though, it will be helpful to recognize two key differences between Trump’s perspective and that of a Fool.  One: Fools are not cynics, not political ideologues. Therefore, no authoritative person or idea is safe from their criticism. By contrast, the President and his minions are ideologues, and their right-wing nationalism exempts certain sanctified institutions and concepts from critical analysis .  Consider the Nation, for example.  A modern Feste or Falstaff might well decide to deconstruct that“sacred entity” on the ground that, beneath the surface, it is an ideological con game designed to convince workers and people of color that their true interests and identities are identical with those of a wealthy white elite.  President Trump, however, is not about to expose concepts like American Greatness or the Free Market to the same acid bath that he employs to de-legitimize past norms of diplomatic practice, journalistic objectivity, and free trade. In this respect, he is more fool than Fool.

Second, Trump isnot a lower class counselor or gadfly to the monarch; he is President of the United States – his own fool, as it were. Rather than being chastened by some brave but passive underling, he has the power to adapt his conscience to his will and, within certain limits, to create his own political world.  The President’s apparent lack of self-reflexivity, combined with his enormous capacities for delusion and destruction, rightly give his opponents (and even some of his allies) cause for acute concern. But they would do well to remember how popularthe character of the Fool was in Shakespeare’s time and ours, and to avoid siding with the respectable elite against the boorish, impolite, taboo-defying Mr. Trump.

In Elizabethan times, the “groundlings” – workers and farm laborers who couldn’t afford expensive theatre seats – adored the aggressively comic figures  whose scurrilous language exposed the greed and hypocrisy of their “betters.”  The Fool’s speech, like that of today’s stand-up comics, was the antidote to political correctness.  In extreme cases (one thinks of Thersites, the fool in Troilus and Cressida), it unleashed repressed rage and contempt in ways reminiscent of an overflow of raw sewage.   Is this dangerous today?  You bet, especially given Mr. Trump’s tin ear for the music of racial equality, democracy, and social justice.  But the way to defuse this danger is not to adopt the “Tsk, tsk” attitude of those who continually take Trump to task for his rudeness, sulfuric language, harsh view of the world, and violations of revered norms.  The groundlings of today cheer these latter-day manifestations of Fool-ishness just as loudly as did their Elizabethan ancestors.

Where Trump is most vulnerable is in his non-Foolish character as a right-wing nationalist ideologue and an abuser of power who promises working people what he can’t possibly deliver.  One can and should call out the racists, xenophobes, and lovers of violence.  Even so, it seems clear that defending the manners and ideas of the respectable rich will not deprive the Fool in the White House of his audience.  Why should it?  For the past 40-odd years, the pretentions and depredations of the elite have brought working people little more than indignity, social insecurity, and communal decay.  Fewer than 10 percent of Americans own well over 90 percent of the nation’s wealth, and income inequality is higher here than in any other industrial nation.   So long as no one offers people an effective cure for these ills, they will continue accept the patent medicine (dispensed by most Democrats as well as Dr. Trump) that convinces them to “kick down” on their social inferiors rather than challenging the system that degrades and disempowers them.

Shakespeare understood, if the Democrats do not, that trying to shame the Fool is not a winning strategy.  Sadly, most of Trump’s opponents seem to think that the American masses will rally to a campaign stressing the President’s anti-elitist style rather than his pro-elite program.  Trump the Liar.  Trump the Boor.  Trump the Cynic.  Trump . . . the Fool.  One can almost see the groundlings of Michigan and Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, rolling their eyes.

Do the President’s opponents do this because they have no program of their own that is radical enough to challenge the elite and make a difference in ordinary people’s lives? You tell me.  Those inseparably wedded to Wall Street, the American Empire, and the status quo; those who want to define political identity exclusively in cultural terms; those who, deep down, divide humanity into respectable people and “deplorables,” will never produce an effective people’s program. The anti-Trump forces could use a dose of Fool-ishness themselves if they hope to win the trust of alienated working people and stem the right-wing tide.