Angry and alone, ‘Mad King’ Trump reigns

Blasted heath: King Trump raves in the storm. © Tutu (with apologies to the original artist, William Dyce)

Is Donald Trump having a meltdown? After the US president unleashed his fury on Twitter, one Washington Post columnist argues that Trump’s demented rage echoes Shakespeare’s mad King Lear.

An elderly leader, surrounded by sycophantic followers, puts his self-indulgence before the responsibilities of his office. Paranoid and defensive, he bellows furiously into the air — cursing his enemies both real and imagined.

Remind you of anyone?

In The Washington Post, Henry Olsen has written a powerful column comparing the beleaguered, belligerent Donald Trump to William Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Lear is a petulant, old king who rewards his two cruel but flattering daughters with riches and power, while their loyal, honest sister is banished.

When the elder daughters usurp their father’s power and cast him out of their houses, Lear descends into madness, raving in the middle of a storm, on a blasted heath.

Trump’s tweets may lack the poetic power of the king’s ravings, writes Olsen but they, nonetheless, reveal that he shares “Lear’s cast of mind”. They are the work of an “angry, bitter man who believes himself the victim of injustice”.

On Monday night, after announcing his shock decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, Trump unleashed a barrage of tweets.

“If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey.”

Trump’s hubristic pledge to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey could come straight from a speech that Lear spits at his daughter Cordelia, when she refuses to bend to his whims. “Come not between the dragon and his wrath,” seethes the old man.

The president’s increasingly wild rhetoric is characterised by furious attacks on his opponents, above all Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who he just accused of treason. It is, Olsen says, “the voice of a man who, like Lear, believes he is ‘more sinn’d against than sinning’ ”.

Those now stepping out to publicly question Trump’s mental state include a Harvard psychologist and attorney George Conway, husband of Trump’s advisor Kellyanne, who wrote that the president’s “bizarre behaviour” makes him unfit for office.

In the end, Lear comes to his senses and sees his failings for what they are. “O, I have taken / Too little care of this!” he laments.

But Olsen fears that, for Trump, this moment of anagnorisis will not come, even if he is removed from office.

“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.”

More sinn’d against than sinning?

Is Trump having a meltdown? His behaviour is unstable, obsessive and unprincipled, and his comments (see “my great and unmatched wisdom”) are getting more bizarre and disconnected from reality. Now that Democrats are seeking to impeach, Trump — unpredictable at the best of times — is under real pressure. We are seeing the deepening cracks in an erratic, troubled mind.

But hasn’t bombastic rhetoric been Trump’s strategy from the beginning? He is a master at social media who knows exactly how to whip up his followers, particularly in the run-up to an election. Trump may be theatrical, but only because he knows how to put on a show.

You Decide

  1. Is Trump “more sinn’d against than sinning”? Why or why not?
  2. Is it wrong to speculate about Trump’s mental health?

Activities

  1. Read a summary of Shakespeare’s play, King Lear. Draw a scene from it, like the one we have used above.
  2. Select three to five quotes from Trump’s tweets and compare them to quotes from King Lear. Write a short, one-page essay comparing the two rulers.

Some People Say...

“Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

The Fool in King Lear by William Shakespeare

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Henry Olsen is not alone in comparing Trump to King Lear. In The New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote that Trump “rages in the storm, Lear-like …”, while Roger Cohen imagines Trump, wearing a gold robe, like Lear “fantastically dressed with wild flowers”, as Shakespeare writes.
What do we not know?
What the consequences of Trump’s anger will be. Unlike Lear, who was mad and powerless, Trump remains one of the most powerful men on Earth. In his piece, Olsen fears that Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria, without warning, is a sign of things to come. Feeling wronged and under threat from impeachment, he will lean into his more extreme, unpredictable impulses.

Word Watch

Sycophantic
Flattering someone in order to gain advantage.
Beleaguered
Facing many obstacles and much opposition.
Belligerent
Aggressive.
Petulant
Sulking like a child and bad-tempered.
Usurp
Take power by force.
Blasted
In this case, damaged by extreme cold, wind or heat.
Heath
Open grassland.
Shock decision
He has even been criticised by senior Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he could undermine US national security and potentially bolster Islamic State terrorists in the region.
Hubristic
Hubris is excessive pride or over-confidence. In tragedies, hubris often features in the demise of the main character, as their tragic flaw.
Treason
Pelosi has led a drive to impeach Trump, which could lead to his removal from office.
Sinn’d against
One of the most famous quotes from the play, Lear says the line in Act 3, Scene 2.
Anagnorisis
The moment when a character comes to an important realisation, most often in a tragedy.
Bombastic
Pompous and ranting.
Rhetoric
Speech or writing intended to be persuasive.

Subjects

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