In “King Lear,” Shakespeare’s tragic protagonist comes to life as fiction’s most powerful example of narcissistic personality disorder, a man who devolves from being a mere fool to gradually going mad.
For the past four years, we’ve witnessed a similar tragedy in the person of Donald Trump, who might have been a great president but for his own many personality disorders. If only his craziness, starkly evident in his recent phone call to Georgia’s secretary of state to beg for votes — “I just want to find 11,780 votes” — stemmed from betrayal by his children, as Lear’s was. (Instead, Trump’s children enabled their father’s worst instincts and impulses, becoming partners in crime to the theft of America’s dignity.)
One tragedy is that Trump, notwithstanding his irksome personality, could have been a great president had he been able to control his temper and his tongue. Like Lear, he suffers from intermittent explosive disorder, overreacting to all kinds of unimportant matters. Trump’s stream-of-consciousness Twitter storms in response to any perceived slight were childish tantrums, indicating a lack of emotional maturity that put terror in the hearts of normal adults.
Typical of narcissists, Trump demonstrated no capacity for empathy, whether it was letting stand a dubious policy of separating children from their immigrant parents — many of whom remain lost to their families — or demonstrating little concern for hurricane victims beyond their walk-on role in his continuing reality show.
Finally, Trump’s willingness to demonize certain people (Mexicans, Muslims and the media) while accepting unacceptable behavior from others (white supremacists, racists and armed radicals) damaged the nation. “Make America Great Again” was a fine slogan as long as it pertained only to business or military strength. But we soon learned that MAGA also stood for Whiteness and the good old days when White men were in charge.
One can safely say, for example, that our borders need to be more secure — and even suggest that reinforcements are essential — without making many people feel threatened. Or without separating young children from parents seeking refuge from drug lords, bloodthirsty gangs and destitution.
“Some, I assume, are good people,” Trump said, referring to the caravans of people crossing our southern border. He might instead have added, “I know that most of those trying to enter our country are good people, but some are not, and we have to make sure that drug dealers, thieves and rapists don’t get through.”
Great leaders know how to say hard things without wounding the innocent or stimulating dark hearts. Trump’s instinct for the jugular may have served him well in the dealmaking meatgrinder of his native Queens, but most people in Main Street America prefer to get along and leave well enough alone. Trump has managed to make enemies of neighbors and divide families along partisan lines.
This brings me to the question I’m often asked and that I sometimes ask myself: How could Republicans, Christians, evangelicals and other “good” people support someone such as Trump, especially as he threatened our democratic republic by denying the 2020 election results? What could Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Ted Cruz, R-Tex., be thinking in joining his crusade to reverse the election’s results — that is, other than their own 2024 presidential campaigns and their craven desire to appeal to Trump’s loyal base?
I think I know the answer: A certain percentage of conservatives think Trump saved the country simply by deregulating industry and keeping his promise to appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court. Full stop. He was their bulwark against decline and fall. They believe in his unsubstantiated claims that the election was rigged for the same reasons. It is all in the service of a higher calling: free markets, freedom of conscience, and a pro-life position that can’t be compromised as a matter of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
If these are your operating principles, and if you believe the other side will irrevocably alter them, then holding onto power isn’t negotiable. Denial isn’t so much a political decision as a religious conviction. Or, as one political soothsayer recently said to me: “When politics becomes your religion, people become irrational.”
In this context, Trump is all they’ve got. They’ll take him any day over Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who they fear will take Biden’s place before 2024 arrives.
That’s not how things work here, however. To believe all that is a fiction of its own.
Speaking of which, if this were ancient Britain and Shakespeare were writing this column, then Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., would duel to bring this drama to a close. And Trump would make his exit.
But alas. For such is fiction writ.