The Shakespearean Tragedy that Resembles Trump’s Presidency Almost Too Well

The current mood in Washington is distinctly reminiscent of a Renaissance revenge tragedy.

Stephen Marche

Stephen Marche is the author of, among other books, “How Shakespeare Changed Everything.”

President Donald Trump winks before a trade agreement signing at the White House on Oct. 7, 2019. (AP/Evan Vucci)

It can be a cliché to refer to Washington dramas as Shakespearean, but the current mood in Washington is distinctly reminiscent of a Renaissance revenge tragedy, “fit for treason, stratagems and spoils,” a bloody mess with secrets and lies, foreign agents, rumors of madness and an apocalyptic edge. There is one play by Shakespeare that suits Trump’s current predicament almost too well: “Coriolanus.”

The title character of Shakespeare’s play is a military hero who receives the agnomen “Coriolanus” because he singlehandedly wins the battle of Corioli against Rome’s sworn enemies, the Volscians, emerging from the city gates drenched in blood. Trump does not have quite so distinguished a military record, but like Coriolanus he won a great victory against the odds and without the support of anybody but his most devoted cadres. “I alone can fix it” was Trump’s battle cry during the 2016 election, and it could easily be a line from the play.

Coriolanus’s downfall begins after his triumph, when he takes on the actual business of governing. State administration is humiliating. He mopes around, wondering why the political elites won’t give him unreserved love. Sound familiar?

“It’s not too much to say that Trump’s system of government is Coriolanism. Coriolanism made him and now it looks like it will destroy him.”

Eventually, after many petty struggles, Coriolanus is exiled, and such is his rage against the country he once served that he joins his former enemies the Volscians and attacks Rome with them. And so the tragic contradiction reveals itself: Personal pride and the love of force undoes the cause of the pride and the purpose of the force.

The strangest but clearest connection between real life and Shakespeare’s play is the fraternity between Coriolanus and his enemy, the Volscian leader Aufidius. They are enemies but because of their shared martial values, they are the only two people who understand each other. Coriolanus says of Aufidius:

I sin in envying his nobility,
And were I anything but what I am,
I would wish me only he.

Trump’s primary friend in the international community, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is the express enemy of American power and traditional American values. But he is strong. Therefore he is like Trump. And that is all that matters. So it should come as no surprise that Trump makes phone calls for political favors to Ukrainian presidents. That’s his real community, where he thinks he belongs. He only respects strongmen: Kim Jong Un, Erdoğan, Duterte, Putin.

It’s not too much to say that Trump’s system of government is Coriolanism. Coriolanism made him and now it looks like it will destroy him. The man who wants to make America great again has never possessed a very articulate sense of the divide between national interest and personal ambition. For most of us, that line is so clear that its erasure seems like nonsense, simple fraud. But the psychological and political mechanisms are more complicated.

The contradiction in Coriolanus himself is that his belief in his own personal strength, in service to Rome, is at odds with the republican nature of Rome itself. As he is about to sack Rome with Aufidius’ army, Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, dissuades him with a passionate speech. It is the women of his family who stop his worst excesses. Those, of course, were the roles given to Melania and Ivanka. They have not played them very well.

“The man who wants to make America great again has never possessed a very articulate sense of the divide between national interest and personal ambition.”

The most intense contradiction in Coriolanus is that he loves Rome but hates the people of Rome, particularly the poor. He has no respect for the political system that gave Rome its greatness. His patriotism is enormous but vacuous. For the great Roman general, the Romans are just another rabble.

In contemporary politics, Coriolanism is a type of populism without people in it, its loyalties divided by the sense of belonging to a ruling class as much as by nation. It is therefore not just an American political type but a global one. The nationalist parties of Europe and elsewhere are Coriolanist — they run against globalism and corporatism but are run by executives. Their patriotism is a marker of their elite status, but they care vastly more for their status as elites than they do about the realities of their own countries. Steve Bannon represented the contradiction completely: He was a Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood producer fighting against the media-financial elite.

Bannon is obsessed with Coriolanus. In the late 1990s, he co-wrote a version set in Los Angeles during the time of the Rodney King riots as a gang war between the Bloods and Crips, which contains lines written in imitation street dialogue: “All yield to him — the press, whitey, the color aristo-cracks of his own set. Only the trash is weak, and I think he’ll view them as birds do fish and take them as his due.” Bannon could never get his Coriolanus made, but that hardly matters. He produced a real-life version.

“Their patriotism is a marker of their elite status, but they care vastly more for their status as elites than they do about the realities of their own countries.”

In Coriolanism, national pride is infused with loathing. When Bill O’Reilly declared that Putin was “a killer,” Trump’s response was the definition of Coriolanism: “You think our country is so innocent?” America, to Trump, is just another country. America is great because it is his country, not the other way around. Coriolanism is the defining feature of Trump’s lackeys, too. Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, when asked about Russian interference, noted that the United States “doesn’t come to this table hands-free.” It has meddled in other country’s elections. Why blame Russia? America is just as bad.

Coriolanus and Aufidius, though sworn enemies, recognize they belong to the same exalted group: the leaders, the ones who matter. Trump’s sons, who travel at the expense of the American people to establish a transnational global brand, see no contradiction in preaching nationalism for others but not themselves. Patriotism, for the Coriolanists, is indistinguishable from their own personal empowerment. Coriolanus is a man so proud of his country that he has contempt for the people.

But the drive to personal empowerment, as Coriolanus demonstrates, contains the nub of future destruction, impeachment or not. The hollowness of Coriolanism explains the incredible unlikeliness of the machinery of the Trump administration, which produces contradictions so absolute they would seem impossible if they were not real: White nationalists and Orthodox Jews as advisers, jingoism supported by foreign secret services. The tragedy of “Coriolanus,” like all Shakespearean tragedy, is the sensational display of one man’s collapse. It remains to be seen whether the Trump version of the narrative ends with such drama. Spectacular destruction of the machinery of government does not seem to be an undesirable outcome to him.

In Shakespearean tragedy, internal contradictions resolve themselves in death. By the end of the play, Coriolanus is a man without a country. Aufidius assassinates him for sparing Rome, and his legacy is dubious:

Though in this city he
Hath widow’d and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury
Yet he shall have a noble memory.

Even Shakespeare seemed flummoxed by the meaning of the spectacle he had just articulated. Coriolanism is gripping but mysterious. Rome is spared but only after a catastrophe it cannot quite bring itself to fathom.