In Stephen Greenblatt’s new book on Shakespeare’s “Richard III” ("Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power"), he enumerates the similarities between the wily and madly ambitious Richard and a similar public figure of our own time, President Donald Trump.
“There is the limitless self-regard, the lawbreaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. Richard III is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.”
But the most searching questions that Stephen Greenblatt asks is not about Richard or Trump, but about the complicity of those who enable them.
“Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers? Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?”
“This achievement, Shakespeare suggests, depended on a fatal conjunction of diverse but equally self-destructive responses from those around him. Together these responses amount to a whole country’s collective failure.”
Yet we can identify certain distinct psychological types most likely to participate in that failure.
Some people are unused to the techniques used by sociopaths to get what they want. They may be completely cowed by bullying and threats. All they can concentrate on is to somehow stop the barrage of abusive language and threatening behavior, so they go along with whatever corrupt plan is in place among those seeking power.
They are essentially childlike, Shakespeare seems to say, and do not have—or have not had the time to develop—the ability to think critically. They become dupes and victims.
“Then there are those who cannot keep in focus that Richard is as bad as they know him to be. They know that he is a pathological liar and they see perfectly well that he has done this or that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting, as if it were hard work to remember just how awful he is. They are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal.”
Such people deny the acuity of the evil they have seen with their own eyes.
“Richard is so obviously and grotesquely unqualified for the supreme position of power that they drive him from their mind,” Greenblatt suggests. “Their focus is always on someone else, until it is too late. They fail to realize quickly enough that what seemed impossible is actually happening.”
The tyrant is skilled at enhancing the dreamlike atmosphere in which he operates, usually by denying the very existence of reality.
“What you’re seeing,” Donald Trump recently declared, “is not what is really happening,”
He insists that during a secret two-hour meeting with Vladimir Putin, dictator of Russia, he made enormous diplomatic and political gains, but refuses to tell the American people what they are.
As the tyrant moves toward his inevitable reckoning, events seem to speed up, to happen pell-mell one after the other. It becomes harder to tell what is real, and what is distraction, all of which is a deliberate tactic of the tyrant in his guise as mountebank and hustler. He is a master of the Big Lie, but comes to believe his own lies, which become childish delusions.
One outcome of Trump’s reckoning might be a splitting in half of the Republican Party, which I would regard as a blessing. It is at present little more than a creation of the billionaires, who vie for influence with each other, but whose “principles” amount to little more than a lust for financial and political power. A split in the Republican party would probably end up with Trump’s followers leading one half, and the remnant of the Koch Network leading the other half.
But what about Donald Trump’s bromance with his political mentor Putin?
Masha Gessen, a Moscow-born writer and anti-Putin activist, has the most pessimistic outlook on the above.
“My biggest fear is a nuclear holocaust, because what we now have is these two stupid men with short tempers with their fingers on the nuclear bottom, each of whom thinks that he has got a special understanding with the other one, and each of whom, even more dangerously, thinks he is now the most powerful man in the world. That’s a recipe for disaster.”
Lawrence Swaim, Executive Director
Interfaith Freedom Foundation