For those of us lucky enough not to live in the USA, the past week has been rather enjoyable. I know I’m atypical in being a bit of an American politics nerd: actually knowing about their Constitution and ‘impeachment’ and the 25thAmendment and the rest, all learned as a History undergraduate, and having sat up all night and even longer to watch the past dozen or so Presidential elections; but this election, with its astonishing aftermath – however that might turn out eventually – is the most fascinating yet. If I was an American, and so directly affected by it all, I would probably be too worried to get much enjoyment from it. Maybe I should still be concerned, living as I do on a continent that is bound ultimately to be affected by the wash from these events . But for the moment, watching this great tragedy unfold before us instantaneously on our TVs and laptops, it’s nothing but huge fun.
This is not a matter of schadenfreude, I insist; I have great affection for the USA and take no pleasure in seeing it in this state. It’s more an aesthetic pleasure, watching a drama with the same kind of excitement that one gets from watching a tragedy by Aeschylus or Shakespeare. Trump is perfectly cast as a modern-day King Lear. Hubris to nemesis: isn’t that it? Though I’d have to agree that his tweets don’t quite have the literary quality of Lear’s soliloquies: ‘Blow winds, and crack your cheeks…’ Trump’s ‘despite the constant negative press covfefe’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. But we can forgive him that, as he rides into a state of seeming madness that even Shakespeare might not have been able to put into words.
Then there are all the indecisive Hamlet figures among his closest followers, and the treacherous Iagos, and his own insecure narcissism reminding us of Othello, and the very Shakespearean (Julius Caesar and the Henry plays) ‘mob’, peppered with eccentrics like the chap who came onstage wearing the Viking (or buffalo) horns. Here they are, all together in one glorious drama, the memory of which will thrill readers and (probably) film-goers for decades to come. This could well be the Donald’s greatest achievement: to present the world, albeit unintentionally, with one of its finest works of dramatic art, which we can all enjoy; so long as we have a line of footlights and a safety curtain between it and us.
For historians and political scientists it must raise questions about the essential nature of American democracy. Dozens of liberal commentators have emphasized that Wednesday’s raid on the Capitol building did not truly represent America or its history; but of course it did. Democracy – however that is defined – is only one element of the essence of America; usually taken to be the dominant one, but only because so many Americans want to present their country like this. Other elements are late-stage and often corrupt capitalism, exemplified perfectly by Trump himself, and historically by the Mafia; macho violence, with its roots in the ‘taming’ of the West; and racism, deriving of course from the ages of slavery and segregation. (A Swedish TV documentary last night about the Ku Klux Klan threw up scores of parallels with last week’s ‘Stop the Steal’ rioters.) These are as essential and intrinsic to the nature of present-day America as is the ‘democracy’ that the Capitol building is supposed to represent; which makes the rioters as essentially ‘American’ – ‘patriotic’? – as the legislators they so despise. None of us should be fooled into believing that our country as we would like it to be is the country that actually exists. That applies, in spades (trumps?), to us Brits too.
Now to watch the House debate on impeachment…