In 2018, the United States is confronted with a deeply unsettling question: How is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a potential tyrant? With his daily attacks against the press, labeled “enemy of the people”, Trump seems to have crossed a red line and aligned himself with dark figures like Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte.
However, all this is not really new, writes Harvard scholar Stephen Greenblatt: Shakespeare was “perceptive about the ways in which a society becomes ripe for a despot.” It is clear in his play King Henry VI, where “the starting point is weakness at the center of the realm. King Henry VI is still an untried youth, having succeeded to the throne upon the untimely death of his father.”
The question of “weakness at the center of the realm” is interesting to political scientists because a number of books, in the last 25 years, has pointed to the fact that American institutions – as glorious as they appear – are profoundly dysfunctional. Daniel Lazare, Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, Alan Abramowitz and Larry Bartels have shown ample evidence of this. One of the last books of two respected scholars, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, has this title: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.
It is in the dynamics of growing political polarization that democratic institutions become weaker: “as soon as the distinct party affiliations emerge, everyone’s anger level suddenly seems to shoot up” writes Greenblatt.
But polarization “leads to a social breakdown and, eventually, to tyranny. It makes the voice, even the very thought, of the opponent almost unendurable. You are either with me or against me – and if you are not with me, I hate you and want to destroy you and all of your adherents.” Does this bring to mind the meetings in which Trump – referring to Hillary Clinton – invited his supporters to chant “Lock her up! Lock her up!”?
In King Henry VI, “York sees an opportunity to forge an alliance with the miserable, overlooked, and ignorant lower classes, and he seizes upon it. And we learn that the hitherto invisible and silent poor are seething with anger. Party warfare cynically makes use of class warfare. The goal is to create chaos, which will set the stage for the tyrant’s seizure of power.” Sounds familiar?
The demagogue promises to make the nation great again. How will he do that? “He shows the crowd at once: he attacks education. The educated elite has betrayed the people. They are traitors who will all be brought to justice, and this justice will be meted out not by judges and lawyers but in a call-and-response between the leader and his mob.”
What about foreign policy? Apparently this was an issue even in Shakespeare’s England: “The political party determined to seize power at any cost makes secret contact with the country’s traditional enemy. (…) ‘How can tyrants safely govern home,’ Queen Margaret asks, ‘Unless abroad they purchase great alliance?’” (King Henry VI3.3.69–70).
Greenblatt also explains why legitimate, moderate leaders cannot find enough support: “In the chaotic free-for-all into which the realm has fallen, this apparent betrayal of principle does not produce any great outrage. What might at another time have provoked charges of treason is simply accepted as the way things are.” You are forgiven if this reminds you not of the events of 600 years ago in England, but of those of two years ago in the United States.
The author also explores another hot political issue, this time looking into Richard III: the would-be tyrant’s supporters “know that he is a pathological liar and they see perfectly well that he has done this or that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting, as if it were hard work to remember just how awful he is. They are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal.”
Many observers of the Trump presidency have faulted social media for their role in manipulating American citizens. However, 500 years ago things were apparently similar: “We are charmed again and again by the villain’s outrageousness, by his indifference to the ordinary norms of human decency, by lies that seem to be effective even though no one believes them.”
Lies are key in the political careers of demagogues: “The steady barrage of falsehoods plays its part, working to marginalize skeptics, to sow confusion, to quiet protests that might otherwise have erupted. Whether from indifference or from fear or from the catastrophically mistaken belief that there is no real difference between Richard and the alternatives, the citizens fail to resist.” Just put “Trump” in lieu of “Richard” and you have a statement that the editors of New York Times and Washington Post would be happy to sign right now.