Trump’s – and our – ‘Coriolanus’ moment

Richard Westfall’s painting of Volumnia pleading with her son, Coriolanus, not to destroy Rome (1800), Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

Richard Westfall’s painting of Volumnia pleading with her son, Coriolanus, not to destroy Rome (1800), Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

Tragedy, it is said, returns as farce. Richard Nixon’s insecurity and paranoia – his inability to believe he was loved – earned him Watergate, resignation, reinvention and an Oliver Stone treatment of Greek tragedy proportions (“Nixon,” with a very fine Anthony Hopkins in the title role).

One thing is certain: Donald J. Trump won’t be “Stone”d, not for a long time, if at all. We’re still in the farcical “SNL” stage of our relationship with the president. (But then, Nixon, had his caricaturists, too.)

It really has been a farce – the ahistorical, hysterical hyperbole: No president’s ever been treated so unfairly, Trump told the Coast Guard Academy’s graduating class, whose members could be forgiven for thinking he was there to talk about them. (Silly graduates.) Really, no president? How about the four who were murdered? Did they deserve their appointments with assassination? As one of them, John F. Kennedy, remarked: “Life isn’t fair.”

But this is just the tip of the Titanic targeting iceberg. The disrespect for his opponents, minorities and the largest “minority” of all – women. The supercilious hypercriticism of underlings, particularly those who serve in the military or law enforcement. The Nixonian demonization of the press. The attempted manipulation of department managers (James Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein). The ridicule of those who have tried to save him from himself (National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster). The terrorizing of staffers with his foul moods and erratic behavior. Where has it led Trump but to this moment – a special prosecutor, the no-nonsense Robert Mueller, Comey’s predecessor at as FBI director; a succession of hearings that will further heat up the steamy Washington D.C. summer; and the inescapable whispers of impeachment.

And why? All Trump had to do was keep his mouth shut, sit tight and let the investigation into possible collusion with those meddling Russkies take its course. But no. Hubris – the overweening pride that is the fatal flaw of every tragic ancient Greek hero – wouldn’t let him. He had to make himself an enemy of the people – particularly the people who can hurt him the most, those with investigative skills, the press, the FBI and the CIA.

Forget the ancient Greeks and think instead of one of Shakespeare’s Romans – Coriolanus, the darling of the people until he wasn’t. Like that fatal Roman general, Trump has failed to understand that populism is a kind of cannibalism. It consumes its subject.

The real sadness here is not Trump’s predicament but that of America itself. The news at home may be all Trump all the time, but elsewhere in the world the talk is of China’s $1 trillion, 60-country New Silk Road (One Belt, One Road, or OBOR), which puts China in the driver’s seat. Do we want to cede pride of place to China or anyone else? The 21st century should not be Pax China but the continuation of Pax Americana.

It’s not too late. We’re still the world’s sole superpower, and other countries still look to us as a beacon of democracy. It’s not too late for Trump either. He can save his presidency – and save us from a President Mike Pence, who would be nicer, calmer and undoubtedly steadier but who holds some reactionary ideas, like converting gay people to straightness.

To save himself and ourselves, he and we would have to submit to a lesson in humility and reach out in a spirit of nonpartisan cooperation. I don’t know if he or we can do it. Trump may be like the scorpion that asks the turtle for a ride across the river on its back and then stings the turtle half-way across. As they drown, the turtle manages a “Why?” “Because it’s my nature,” the scorpion dies saying.

Hubris may be Trump’s nature, and thus the fatal flaw of us all.