He's endlessly proven himself a monster, but don't ever call him a tragic figure. He even lacks the class of Mary Shelley's horrific creation.
Writers have attempted to liken Donald Trump to characters in literature, most often in tragic terms, as, say, a maybe Macbeth or a kinda King Lear. For the past 4 years this has been a bit of a parlor game among the reading public (i.e., those libs).
As it happens, the far right created its own Parler game (which has been interrupted after the right-wing attack on the U.S. Capitol), but that's just in keeping with their desire to remain reality-free denizens of this country at all times.
And now poor Donald faces a second impeachment. Surely, that alone makes his story rise to the level of tragedy.
Well, let’s see. Tragedy most often depends on a fall from grace caused by a signal character flaw that the audience alone becomes aware of (dramatic irony), which inexorably pulls an otherwise good or decent character down to his, or her, ruin.
Since the tragic plays of the ancient Greeks (in particular, Sophocles' Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) audiences have felt an empathic catharsis in watching a tragedy because they have witnessed the self destruction of a man or a woman due to some understandable flaw in their character—greed or avarice or gluttony or lust or murther, as Shakespeare memorably spelled it. As Kenneth Rexroth, in his Classics Revisited (itself a classic), puts it in regards to the tragic characters in Sophocles' Theban Plays: "Their calamities are their own fault, but that fault is never base. Their sins are arrogance, rashness, overconfidence, presumption, contempt, cruelty, anger, lust, carelessness—the family of pride."
While that list of sins perfectly hits the mark for the subject at hand, there can be no tragedy with Donald John Trump because he is "base"—there is little good to be found to begin with—he simply cannot tell the truth, has no loyalty, and breaks every vow. He has been this way throughout his life of privilege. He even cheats at golf, a game that depends on the players' sense of honor. How was it a surprise he will not accept the results of an election?
A play about his life would start with boasts and lies and bigoted statements and threats and would end with the same. Where there are no morals there can be no moral arc—just a mind-numbing series of self-serving, self-aggrandizing, destructive and petty acts we've had to endure for decades now.
What we’ve really had with Trump is a tragedy in which a deeply flawed but largely decent and good nation makes a terrible decision in selecting a reality television actor of no account as its leader and as a result suffers the endless carnage that the reality T.V. guy alluded to on day one. The country was again led, with invited Russian assistance, into the "paranoid style" of politics that Richard Hofstadter wrote of back in 1964.
As Lindsey Graham tweeted on May 3, 2016: “If we nominate Trump, we will be destroyed….and we will deserve it.” Now, that’s a line in a tragedy!
And can you really call it a tragedy when your chorus is played by the likes of Conway, Spicer, Sanders, and McEnany? Well, it has been a tragedy, but again for the press and the country.
If I were to fashion and direct a play around Trump, I don't know how I would go about it (no script, just mean-spirited and purposely incoherent improv?), but I know that after each act I would ensure that some audience members would be directed, by tweet, to leave the building.
I would likely not have made more than a superficial connection to Victor Frankenstein's monster but for the fact that I decided, with a friend, to read a number of classics during the pandemic—Mehlville's Moby Dick and two by Nabokov, Speak, Memory (which we loved) and Lolita (which we pushed ourselves to get through—yikes!). Then, at my suggestion, we turned to the story Mary Shelley famously wrote on a bet and published anonymously in 1818, Frankenstein: Or the Modern-Day Prometheus.
I'd never read it before. I had a vague memory that Mary was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the proto-feminist A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, a political philosopher and an anarchist. She married young, to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In the summer of 1816, before their marriage, she, her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, and Shelley visited friend Lord Byron in Switzerland. Some persistently bad weather and a reading aloud of some ghost stories one night led to a wager to write a ghost story. Mary began the tale that would become her world-famous work. (John William Polidori, Byron's personal physician at the time, later wrote "The Vampyre," which is considered the first modern vampire story.)
In her introduction to the lovely little edition I have (Race Point Publishing), writer Catherine Steindler notes that it was almost instantly misunderstood as a simple parable about the dangers of messing with nature. But there was also more to it, from the point of view of the created thing, the 8-foot monster:
"Frankenstein is a potent warning—not so much against scientific invention as against the breakdown of fellow-feeling, without which one is stranded on an arctic sea."
Cartoonists have long rendered Trump as Frankenstein's monster. A U.S. District Judge in Pennsylvania alluded to Mary Shelley's creation in describing the odd mishmash of stitched-together evidence brought forward by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani in one of the baseless and anti-democratic attempts to overturn the results of the election just in that state.
One can go only so far with this comparison, given that, unlike Trump, the monster learns to speak eloquent English—using words like assuage and disconsolate and innumerable—seemingly even before understanding what fire is. But there are parallels to be noted between that highly literate monster and the one we continue to suffer.
Where we get statements like this from Frankenstein's creation, "Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend," today's monster emits the likes of, "Suburban women, will you please like me?" and “So what are we going to do here, folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break.”
Overall, Mary Shelley's monster comes off immeasurably better than our monster. (It's odd to consider there's another Mary, the niece, who has done her best to warn us about the Trumpenstein monster, and yet another Mary, noted below, who played a pivotal part in this terrible real-life tale.)
The crux of the issue with our modern-day Pro-me-thesus is that he was never accepted into the old-money society of Manhattan, much as he convinced himself he would eventually be, especially after he stepped in, in 1986, to refurbish Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park after the city had floundered with it for years. He might have impressed the aristocrats of New York City had he done the work quietly, behind the scenes, civic mindedly. But Donald has always been anything but self-effacing, and he made a showy political fight over it and was relentless in his self-promotion.
Because the moneyed of Manhattan would always view him as the classless nouveau riche braggart from Queens that he still is, he will never, ever get over it (as he will never, ever get over any slight or, say, overwhelming electoral loss).
And now, apparently, neither will the country. And there's your tragedy.
I have no real knowledge myself what it takes to be accepted into that kind of society, but I would hazard that it would require a level of taste and discretion. And only a small degree of boorishness. And a real appreciation of the arts and, importantly, of artists, of things subtle and lovely. And, yes, a recognition of what was once called the "social compact," in annually spending down a goodly chunk of that inherited wealth in charitable endeavors, so one can sleep more soundly at night and live with oneself amidst all the splendor.
Something like that is what this outsider is thinking—not sucking money out of your foundation to buy a painting of yourself, not cheating students out of a promised business education, not grifting as you breathe. Most people in New York City saw the Wollman Rink renovation as a good thing for the city, but they also recognized it as a ploy to win over the public. Among the people who mattered to Trump, it didn't move the needle.
And the parallels to Frankenstein's monster to our populist demagogue monster are abundant. I could hardly stop underlining passages, like this:
"To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honor that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm."
Alas! Victor, when falsehoods can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?
Speaking of Victor Frankenstein, who would we "credit" for creating Donald? There would be a slew of men who put together seemingly human parts to create something so vile, so world shattering. Because Trump is infamously "handsy," I'll offer a handful: Fred Trump, Roy Cohn, Hugh Hefner, Tony Schwartz, and Mark Burnett.
Father Fred Trump did his best to mold young Donald into the "killer, not the loser," he wanted him to be. Donald idolized his father, and placed a photo of him alone in the Oval Office (later, photos of other family members appeared). But he has been reticent about his mother, Mary. As described by Elise Jordan in a 2020 Vanity Fair piece:
Fred had lessons: how to cheat on your taxes; how to discriminate in housing; how to scam the government. But we know much less about his mother Mary’s influence, in the 20 years since her death. The man who has something to say about everything—including distinct opinions on every other woman in his orbit and women in general—has relatively little to say about the woman who brought him into the world.
Jordan comments that no modern president has had trouble with showing empathy, until this one. Learning how to express love and concern for others is mostly connected to what happens in a boy's relationship with his mother—especially when your father is working on you to be that "killer." Trump has said that his mother provided his religious beliefs, which must have been all about the prosperity gospel. (The Trumps were initially Presbyterians but then began attending the church in Manhattan where the self-help guru Norman Vincent Peale presided.) You would never call Donald a church-goer, but on at least one memorable occasion he was willing to call in police and military assistance to “get me to the church on time.”
As a mentor early in Trump's career, Roy Cohn taught Donald the low art of throwing feces endlessly in order to get his own way. Cohn's modus operandi was to garner press in any way possible and to constantly complain about being attacked—and then attacking back, hard and relentlessly. When the Trumps were charged in 1973 with violating the Fair Housing Act in 39 of their properties, Cohn countersued the government for $100 million. As reported in a 1978 piece by Ken Auletta in Esquire, we see that Trump has already learned his Cohnian lessons well:
"The mere sending of a letter from Roy Cohn has saved us a lot of money," says builder Donald Trump. "When people know that Roy is involved, they'd rather not get involved in the lawsuits and everything else that's involved."
Lawsuits are one thing, but it is that everything else that's involved, the viciousness, the relentless hectoring in the press, that made people blanch at the very name Roy Cohn. After his death, in 1986, from complications of AIDS, the Internal Revenue Service seized all of his assets due to unpaid taxes. One thing they reportedly did not seize were the pair of diamond cufflinks that Donald Trump had gifted Cohn. As it was reported, they were fake.
As a cultural guru, Hugh Hefner, through his "lifestyle" magazine Playboy, taught impressionable Donald all he was able to comprehend about the value of women and the desirability of living the swank "high life." Trump is the epitome of arrested development—he has a vocabulary around the fourth-grade level and he refuses to lose with any level of graciousness. If he is stuck in any decade, I would think it was the "go-go 80s," the New York City of cocaine and the "greed is good" of Wall Street and the insipid celebrity culture of Studio 54. When Trump cheated on his current wife, Melania, who did he go for? Of the two we know about (who were illegally paid off with campaign funds to keep their mouths shut), one is a former Playboy Playmate and the other is an actress in the porn industry.
Television producer Mark Burnett created The Apprentice and the later "Celebrity Apprentice" thereby burnished Trump's image as "a great businessman" (which, as is abundantly clear now, was entirely not the case) to a vast audience of gullible television viewers, who hung on every moment of the various silly challenges that were doled out to seemingly regular folks, and then B- and C-list celebrities, by the "boss." As we know now, the show actually saved Trump financially and enabled him to slap his name on everything from steaks to vodka—all of which failed. In musing his future some weeks ago, Trump was reportedly casually asking people if they would like to see a reboot of the show.
Writer Tony Schwartz, author of The Art of the Deal, acknowledges his part in creating the myth of Trump as businessman. He appears to suffer, like Victor Frankenstein, over his part in the creation of this mobbed-up, autocrat-loving, misogynistic, self-serving, anti-democratic, wretched example of a human being.
Schwartz would well recognize this feeling of dread, expressed by Victor: "
"I had been the author of unalterable evils, and I lived in daily fear lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness. I had an obscure feeling that not all was over, and that he would still commit some signal crime, which by its enormity should almost efface the recollection of the past."
Here's Schwartz, as reported in a 2016 New Yorker piece:
“I put lipstick on a pig,” he said. “I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is.” He went on, “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”
There were the creators, and then there were the enablers, too many to count, but count we should—the spineless senators and frat-boy congressmen who consider their oath of office a mere formality, and hired hands like personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who seemingly alone of those punished by law had retained the semblance of a moral system enough to see the light and speak the truth.
Anyone who thinks me mean spirited in likening Donald Trump to a monster would do well to remember the endless name calling that Trump himself has done throughout his 40-some years in public life—from calling New York Mayor Edward Koch "a moron" back in the 1980s, to leading the "birthers" against President Obama, to calling Kamala Harris "a monster" before her debate with Mike Pence—a man who seems pretty stitched together himself.
As New Yorkers have always known, Trump's putdowns are what is known in psychology as projection. That's the thing about Trump—somewhere too deep for him to comprehend, likely because he is not deep at all—the bitter putdowns he spews are rightly directed at himself.
He himself is the bad hombre, disloyal, the fake news, the enemy of the people, totally unqualified, a disgrace, and if it ever needed to be more clear, a traitor.
In each of his putdowns of others most people in this country, and around the world, recognize the dramatic irony—something key we understand all too well that the monster himself hasn’t a clue about.
Yes, Frankenstein’s monster killed a few people; Trumpenstein has stood by blithely ignoring or obfuscating about the pandemic, arguing with health experts, and politicizing the wearing of a mask as more than 390,000 Americans have died, to date, of Covid-19. His acolytes in Congress didn’t even have the decency to put on masks during the siege of the Capitol. The political monster wants all credit for the vaccines but is disinterested in their distribution.
And as his country burned in the pandemic, we listened in as the monster was, again, encouraging a conspiracy to turn an election (did he think he was trying to extort a leader from the former Soviet state of Georgia?), and finally exhorting his cult-followers to come to Washington (“Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”) and to attack the Capitol while he watched on TV.
By the way, if you find yourself setting up a gallows in the public square, it is highly unlikely you are on the right side of history. In any century.
And, yes, there is much to be said about “the breakdown of fellow-feeling, without which one is stranded on an arctic sea,” as Steindler put it in her introduction to Frankenstein. For a democracy to survive, it is essential that we speak with one other, share ideas, reason, compromise. But those require a dedication to the democratic process—and to living in the real world.
So, is the story of Donald Trump a tragedy? Yes, for the country. There has been fear, but there can be no pity. Besides warranted legal proceedings, Trump himself deserves mostly scorn and ridicule—and a second impeachment. This time with a conviction, so we never have to see this play again.