Vail Daily column: Shakespeare staged Trump’s rise and fall
November 19, 2016
Two Shakespearian characters take center stage. They tower over others. One broods alone; the other sings his own tune and wins over scoffers.
President-elect Donald Trump isn't Hamlet-like, darkly wrestling with life's meaning. Rather, he's like Sire John Falstaff, who shows absolute faith in himself and speech that struts his stuff.
How does Falstaff pull it off, using an amazing ability to get bar maids, street urchins and village rustics to dance to his tune? At first, playgoers dismiss Falstaff as a buffoon. He acts loutish. He insults, uses bellicose taunts against enemies and flirts with women as if they were his toys. Falstaff's ill-manners and oafish conduct offend the high-brow crowd.
Though a crude clown, Falstaff wins over common folk because they believe he speaks from the heart. Hearing him, listeners let down their guard. They count Sir John in their corner because he stiffs power-brokers who scorn "the deplorables." Little guys and gals rally around this big guy. Falstaff's heart is as robust as his girth.
When Trump bellows that he's going to "drain the swamp" of Washington's insiders, he's Falstaff re-born. People believe Trump. He speaks to their deep-down resentments rarely expressed in polite society. Followers of today's Falstaff trust Trump to preserve their white society and turn back the clock to that era when kids stayed on the farm.
He blocks immigrants from getting what white people treasure: a safe home to raise a family. The Saturday Evening Post magazine reported this instinct to acquire a secure place is "motivated by emotions as strong and deep as those which sent pioneer wagons rolling westward a century ago." But then white immigrants trekked into the West, the kind Trump prefers.
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Like Falstaff, Trump makes merry his legions because he taps into their hearts.
This past October, I visited once-familiar territory. Traveling an hour from where I did pastoral ministry in the early 1970s, I passed through former Big Steel country west of Bethlehem and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Coal mines used to prosper here. Now, haggard residents reside in these towns. Locals are agitated because coal miners and steel workers lack paychecks. Now they want it all back. Their streets are cluttered with boarded-up houses, shuttered shops, Lutheran or Roman Catholic churches flipped into condos or specialty shops, plus rows of Trump/Pence signs.
My hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is an epicenter of Trump's fervor. Traveling north of Grand Rapids, I saw still more Trump banners. A woman in a Michigan hamlet was asked why she voted for Trump. As if he were Falstaff, she exclaimed, "He speaks to the heart," meaning, "he speaks to my heart." How? By protecting home turf where whites still call the shots.
In its election wrap-up, Time magazine can't make sense of the Donald's appeal. "His rambling late-night Twitter rants and his loose-limbed, jazz rift, fact-free speeches would have killed his chances …" bemoans Time.
"Instead, by some strange alchemy, they made him more real to his followers. More real, obviously, to bigots and trolls who made him a hero of the so-called alt right. But also more real to voters for whom Trump's style signified freedom from worn-out conventions and a refusal to toe the line. Trump's supporters didn't take him seriously, except when they did. He was like the guy at work who makes inappropriate jokes but never misses his monthly sales quota."
Who mixed a "strange alchemy" that Time magazine says Trump stirs? Sir John Falstaff.
Alas, Shakespeare writes Sir John out of the script. Falstaff oversteps, assuming his verbal jousts with Prince Hal will continue, with clownish petulance winning the battle of wits. Prince Hal becomes king and ditches Falstaff. Like a shooting star that fizzles, Sir John dies a sad death.
Trump oversteps. It's his way of doing business. Similarly, George W. Bush blundered badly after winning a second term in 2004. He boasted how he would cash in voters' capital granted him by again winning the presidency. He'd dismantle Social Security, ram democracy down Iraq's throat and let Wall Street have leeway to bundle mortgages.
Bush left office a sad Falstaffian loser. Trump is cut from the same political cloth.
Moreover, this bashing, threatening and enemy-taunting gets old. Americans want a hopeful spirit to prevail. Social trend interpreter James Davison Hunter tells how Trump's intimidating values create a "weak culture." In his book, "To Change the World," Hunter describes signs of a culture that loses its legs and falls flat, like a pathetic, dying-alone Falstaff bereft of former glories.
"A weak culture is always embattled, always back on its heels, always resentful of its enemies and uncertain of its friends," writes Hunter. "It imitates but doesn't influence, alienates rather than seduces and looks backward toward a better past instead of forward to a vibrant future."
What confidence can we show when, for a season, Trump captures many Americans' hearts? Hang tough. Hold on. Have confidence that our forefathers were dismayed by the Trumps of their era and erected a h-u-g-e wall against them. It's the Constitution.
Work for the poor, the immigrant, the woman groped and the person whose sexual identity isn't in the majority. Here's hope: Orange County, California, quintessential Reagan Republican territory, voted Democratic. Non-whites cast their ballots there. That's today's America. Falstaff struts but the heart of America is elsewhere. And Sir John dies. End of the play.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com).
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