Since the start of his presidency, the genre that best described who and what Donald Trump looked like as you watched him on cable TV was J.R. Ewing in the glitzy, 1980s prime-time soap opera “Dallas.” Sneaky, sleazy, scheming, lying, adulterous, crooked, greedy and shamelessly boastful are some of adjectives for comparison that instantly come to mind.
But the narrative changed this week with the guilty pleas of his former attorney Michael Cohen and guilty verdicts for his former campaign manager Paul Manafort. Since that very bad turn of events for Trump, we’ve been watching a made-for-TV version of King Lear raging against the storm of evidence against him in an interview on Fox News and in late-night tweets: (“NO COLLUSION — RIGGED WITCH HUNT!”)
We have been here before — near the end of Richard Nixon’s time in the White House before he resigned and was said to be talking to the portraits of dead presidents on the walls late at night. The comparisons were made to Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” and it wasn’t just a case of the same first names of the villain-protagonists.
But we didn’t have the media in 1974 to watch Nixon crack up in real time under all his lies and investigatory revelations. There was always a lag of several days or, more likely, weeks and months before the truly bizarre stuff was reported by traditional journalistic venues and later yet in non-fiction books.
But now, we we can dial up Trump’s Twitter feed before turning in for the night to get a glimpse of his mental state, easily discernible at a glance by the number of capital letters and exclamation points he uses as he attacks his enemies and give full-throated, midnight voice to some of his grievances.
I don’t know if that’s good or bad in a more cosmic cultural sense, but it sure makes for one riveting narrative. What new fall series could network TV possibly deliver in coming weeks that could compete with nightly cable TV coverage of Trump Agonistes?
I have never thought of Trump in Shakespearean terms. There was nothing large enough or universal about him. He was an easily discernible American type described since the 18th century in folklore, fable and story: the con artist, the flim-flam man, the liar and crooked salesman selling Florida swampland as prime Gulf Coast property. No way to get larger than life or epic with someone like that.
But the narrative in which he now finds himself seemingly trapped is Shakespearean. The aged and increasingly angry and addled king making bad decisions as he faces the threat of his own misdeeds being exposed and an army led by a righteous lord on the march to take him down.
That lord would be Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor, and the army of U.S., New York state and Manhattan attorneys scaling the walls of the White House and Trump, Inc., with subpoenas, grand juries, indictments and civil and criminal suits on an almost daily basis. And Trump is looking increasingly like cornered prey.
Some in his court, like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, are suddenly taking a more insolent tone as the tottering king rails against them, while his few staunch supporters sound increasingly desperate in their attempts to defend him. That would be the truly addled attorney and spokesman Rudy Giuliani and Sean Hannity, the high minister of propaganda at the Fox State Network.
And what a jolt of adrenaline Tuesday’s conviction and guilty pleas sent through the rest of the cable news universe. CNN’s top legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin seems like he has been on-air non-stop with his keen analysis for the last three days and nights, while Rachel Maddow delivered a straight 26 minutes of exegesis Wednesday night that was nothing short of dazzling as she explained the seeds of destruction for the House of Trump contained in a lawsuit filed by the attorney general of the state of New York in connection with the Trump Foundation.
I understand that the Lear comparison is not a perfect one.
Lear’s troubles started when he divvied up his wealth among his children. He favored the two most dishonest of his three daughters, while dissing the decent and honest one.
I don’t think any of Trump’s three oldest children as decent or honest. And this state of New York suit against his foundation looks like it could ultimately take them all down. He and Eric, Ivanka and Don Jr., are all named in the suit along with the president.
Nixon was an evil, evil man. But at least he didn’t drag his two adult daughters into his crimes. They were never threatened with the possibility of jail as his house of lies and hush money collapsed and he started talking to the portraits on the White House walls late at night.
Trump might just live to see three of his children in jail as a result of state charges he has no power to pardon.
Rage on, Mr. President. Rage on.
Like you said in that Fox News interview Thursday, you never lose.