Tuesday, Thirteen-WNET, PBS’ New York flagship, offered a fascinating juxtaposition – “Inside the Court of Henry VIII” and, on “Frontline,” “Trump’s Takeover,” – about the president’s takeover of the Republican Party, a documentary that looks chillingly prescient airing as it did a day before House Speaker Paul “Paulie PowerPoint” Ryan announced that he would not seek reelection and instead intended to spend more time with his family. (I love the poster on The New York Times who wrote, “What makes him think his family wants to spend more time with him?” Really, you have to laugh. It used to be that religion was the last resort of those throwing in the towel. Of course, in modern society, no one flees to the convent or the monastery anymore, because that might require real thought, real prayer and real work. So, it’s all about the family. Question: How did the family survive all those years Ryan wasn’t spending that much time with them?)
But we digress. The juxtaposition of “Inside the Court”and “Trump’s Takeover” revealed some strikingly similarities between the two egotists that I have alluded to before:
Chubby-wubby after a more svelte youth? Check.
Much married? Check.
Can’t keep it in their pants? Check.
But the most striking similarity between Henry VIII and Donald J. Trumpet – and in all my years of studying Henry through my fascination with the wives, I never realized this – is that they were both visceral men who went with their considerable gut and left the dirty work of governing to advisers whom they ultimately got rid of. I always assumed that Henry was pulling the strings of Cardinal Wolsey, his protégé Thomas Cromwell and, even, Thomas More.
But it turns out he was more interested in hunting the way Trump is more interested in golf. And, autocrat that he was, he was even more effective in his Revolving Door Policy – sending Cromwell, More and wives number 2 and 5 (Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard) to the chopping block. Trump at least hasn’t done that – yet.
You could, of course, hope to survive if you could get some facetime with the king and plead for your life. He was susceptible to persuasion and changed his mind on a dime – in large part because he needed an audience. (Gee, sound familiar?) That’s how the sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, survived.
In the end, Henry turned an entire country upside down not because he believed in the Protestant Reformation but because he wanted nothing more than a new wife who would give him a legitimate son. (Ah, the irony. He got the son, Edward VI, off wife number three, Jane Seymour. But he would die young, paving the way for one of England’s greatest rulers, Elizabeth I, the cast-aside daughter of the wife Henry defied Rome for, Anne Boleyn. Somewhere God is laughing.)
Still, without Henry’s Protestant Reformation, the program argues, there would be no United States, settled by English Protestants, as we know it. And yet, should Henry get credit for what he didn’t intend to do? Perhaps some people are only vehicles, so-called agents of change.
The question is, what will be the consequences of Trump’s agency for change? Might those of us who survive it someday say with Alexander Pope, writing in “An Essay on Man”:
“All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, 'Whatever is, is right.”