In a May 26, 2016 Los Angeles Times article, entitled “The theater of Trump: What Shakespeare can teach us about the Donald”, theater critic Charles McNulty undergoes what he calls a “fool’s errand”, a meticulous search in the Bard’s plays to find precedent for Trump’s now-famous political strategy: his use of lies, bigotry, and transparently racist policy proposals to suck up media oxygen and achieve dominance over the American political debate. McNulty’s quest to understand the Trump phenomenon brings him, logically, to the plays in which Shakespeare treats demagogues explicitly: Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. McNulty admits that Shakespeare “may have no equivalent” for the businessman and reality TV star turned presidential candidate, but he focuses on the Bard’s insight into “just how easy it is” for a demagogue “to transform anxious citizens into mobs.” Fair enough. But, it seems to me that McNulty fails to give Shakespeare enough credit for anticipating the mechanism of Trump’s rise and the advent of a new kind of political figure: the “clown politician”.
To understand this, we need to forget the grand figures of Coriolanus, Mark Antony, and Julius Caesar; in fact, we need to depart from the world of politics entirely, and, instead, zero in on the secretive, debased, and repugnant figure of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. Iago is an “ensign”, a standard-bearer, whose resentment at being passed up for promotion by his Moorish general, Othello, leads him to plot to get his rival, Cassio, fired from his position as lieutenant and to bring about the ruin of his general by persuading him that his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him. Now, this is Trump territory: the stuff of reality TV and tabloid newspapers!
Though the central action in Othello is domestic, Iago possesses a media mogul’s mastery of what the British press has called “dead-cat” politics: the trick is to “throw a dead cat on the table” in front of reporters, and then dominate the news cycle. Iago describes this method quite explicitly, when he berates his rival, Cassio, for supposedly having the same fault:
A slipper and subtle knave, a finder of occasions that has an eye, can stamp and counterfeit advantages, though true advantage never present itself. (Oth II. i. 235)
What makes Iago and Trump’s strategy especially effective is that both incite racial conflict. In Iago’s case, that conflict is intended to draw attention to the Moorish general’s racial and geographical difference among the prejudiced denizens of Venice, so that he becomes convinced of the perverse notion that his wife is, somehow, suspect because she has chosen to marry a black man. In Trump’s case, the point is to displace economic anxiety onto issues of race and religion so that white American males are provoked to murderous hatred of the outsider in their midst: Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, etc. In a country of immigrants, such rhetoric amounts to turning the country against itself.
So, Iago whips the Venetian Senator, Brabantio, into a racist apoplexy when, in the middle of the night, he delivers the news that his daughter has eloped with Othello, by characterizing the marriage through pornographic images of miscegenation and bestiality:
. . . you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse. You’ll have your nephews neigh to you. You’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans . . . I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs. (Oth I. i. 115-20)
Are you taking notes, Trump?
This language incites Brabantio to burst into the Venetian senate, which is in the midst of a midnight meeting to discuss an impending invasion of its colony of Cypress by the Turks, to publicly accuse Othello of “corrupt”[ing] his daughter with “spells” and “medicines” (Oth I. iii. 66-7). . . “to fall in love with what she feared to look on” (Oth I. iii. 101). When, on the later military campaign in Cypress, Iago seeks to convince Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity, it is Brabantio’s words that Othello will paraphrase (“that perfection so could err / Against all rules of nature” [Oth I. iii. 103-4]) and that Iago will seize upon to persuade the general of his wife’s infidelity.
Like Iago, Trump does not just prey off racial divisions to gain an “advantage”: whether deliberately or not, he is attacking the very soul of the country. If Iago were living in America right now, there is no doubt that he would be awed by Trump’s large-scale political success at what, for Iago, is merely a mechanism for personal revenge.
But such incitement does not fully account for the Trump phenomenon. After all, America has had demagogues before, such as Alabama governor, George Wallace, whose 1964 run for the democratic nomination on a racist platform has drawn comparisons with Trump. What, I would argue, is the truly Shakespearean touch in Trump’s rise is also what causes him to “defy the gravity” of ordinary politics. At a time when cynicism about political leaders is at an all-time high, Trump is a clown-politician.
As Shakespeare critics have long recognized, Iago is not a typical villain. He possesses important features of clowns and fools, which would typically make him more at home in the world of comedy. What distinguishes the genre of comedy, where such a figure would more often reside, is the fact that its characters do not stand on principle. In fact, “principles” such as duty, honor, honesty, valor, and fidelity, in comedy, are parodied and travestied. A fool is disarming precisely because he can speak his mind. As Jaques laments, in As You Like It, wistfully longing to possess a fool’s freedom:
I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please; for so fools have . . .
The wise man’s folly is anatomized
Even by the squandering glances of the fool. (AYL II. vii. 48-50, 57-8)
In part because he has no adherence to any fixed principles, the fool can send them all up. But fools don’t need to stand for anything or adhere to any principles because they generally inhabit a kind of play in which nothing serious is at stake – or, if they appear in tragedies or histories, they are carefully contained. The remarkable exception to this is, of course, Falstaff, whose antics become positively disturbing when Hal puts him in command of a squadron in a war.
If Falstaff becomes disconcerting, Iago is, from the beginning, sinister – because he uses the fool’s privilege to undermine all the principles that, despite their flaws, make civilized life possible. And he does so not out of roguish frivolity, but with deliberate murderous intent.
And this is what makes Trump so dangerous. He is a comic figure, out of the “reality television” genre, who, like Falstaff, is not taken seriously, and, who, like Iago, gains credibility among his supporters for being “honest” because he seems to speak the gritty truths that other candidates are afraid to utter. Again and again, Trump’s supporters cite his ability to speak what they “are afraid to say” in public as the single most important reason why they support him.
At the same time, Trump’s gross hyperbole is so ludicrous that it disarms the criticism of journalists, who are used to dealing with politicians who must, at least, act as if they adhere to principles. Trump’s hyperbole also has the additional consequence of allowing his supporters a degree of plausible deniability. When pressed, they frequently express the opinion that they don’t believe that he is serious about implementing many of his most inflammatory proposals, such as the ban of all Muslims from entering America.
As a figure out of comedy, Trump is exempt from the rules of ordinary political discourse. His ridiculous overstatements, in defiance of political logic, create a bizarre cocoon that prevents him from ever being fully accountable. That cocoon has only begun to rupture in the general election, when Trump has been under immense pressure by donors to become more scripted, like other “normal” candidates. When the clown reads from a teleprompter, it removes his greatest advantage: the freedom to speak his own mind.
The advent of the “clown” as a politically viable figure in contemporary politics, as I indicated before, is a measure of the cynicism of the public. If the political class is already packed with clowns – as was certainly true of the GOP primary – the fool who exposes the folly has an insurmountable advantage.
Far from being an isolated phenomenon in American politics, the “clown politician” has risen to prominence in the UK as well. As the leader of the “leave” campaign in the Brexit referendum, Boris Johnson adapted a more sophisticated version of Trump’s politics. He let Nigel Farage do his race-baiting dirty work, while he played the role of lovable scoundrel, deriding the united opinion of “experts” about the dire economic consequences of Brexit and answering all skepticism with outlandish claims that there would be “no shock” to the economy, but that the UK would enjoy a “£350 million” a week surplus, increasing wages across the country and funding the cash-strapped NHS. As soon as “leave” won the referendum, “Boris” (and Farage, too, it might be added) exited stage left. Since clowns are, by definition, without principle, the notion that “Boris” would undertake the grim work of negotiation to achieve a British exit from the EU should have been ridiculous from the beginning. But, for many, his dramatic disappearance came as a shock.
Pundits in Britain have had recourse to Shakespearean analogies to describe the political back-stabbing of recent weeks, citing Macbeth and Julius Caesar, but what these commentators ignore is the new reality that contemporary politics is not being made by figures out of Shakespearean tragedy or history, but figures out of comedy elevated into circumstances that produce tragic consequences.
Our politicians today may have Machiavellian motives, but they appear in the guise of clowns who have learned, like Iago, how to use racial divisions and public cynicism about political leaders, fostered by globalization and neoliberalism, to achieve their Machiavellian ends. An economic system that produces massive wealth for the few and has left behind the population it was supposed to benefit has created this new political reality.
Trump and “Boris” are the clowns that reign over it.
Since this article was written, Boris Johnson has been appointed Foreign Secretary by the new UK Prime Minster, Theresa May. The reaction by foreign leaders has been, as we would expect, a combination of dismay and laughter:
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