I am fighting back the feeling, but it comes to the surface every now and again. The feeling that Donald Trump, like any good tragic character, deserves pity.
Remember your freshman humanities course where you read at least one Greek play—it doesn’t matter which one—Agamemnon, Oedipus Rex—and maybe a Shakespeare tragedy—Lear comes to mind.
Vain old men, some soldiers, some kings, or both, who come to defeat at the hands of an unforgiving Fate. Agamemnon: leader of the Achaeans (Greeks) in the war against Troy, complacent, egotistical and shallow, killed by a wife who has simmered since his departure for Troy. (He did, after all, kill their younger daughter as a sacrifice to the gods to obtain favorable winds for the journey.) Oedipus, a tortured soul with a secret who can’t figure out why the gods don’t love him–finally blind, crippled, supported by his daughters. An outcast from the city he saved. And Lear a swellheaded father who can’t figure out why his daughters don’t love him enough and wants to be respected for his fortune and lands. So much daughter-love, so much vanity. Isn’t Trump like one of those or all of them?
When we see these old men on stage they are hardly heroic at all. They are fools waiting for their comeuppance—to be taught a lesson. The aftermath of their folly in plays like the Antigone or the Eumenides is horrific, but not really moralistic. The Greeks were not interested in moral lessons in the way Dickens or the Victorians were—bad buggers turned into good and wiser buggers through a trick of fate. And that’s the problem for us post-twentieth century types, now looking back at the long history of characters in drama and fiction. Isn’t there some way to connect the chronological dots between an Agamemnon, a Lear, a Scrooge and a Trump? The answer is, No.
True, a tragic hero, Greek-style, has a tragic flaw, but the difference between him and your daddy’s tragic flaw is that your daddy is nobody so the larger consequences are relatively small. No cities will burn, no empires tumble and no governments fall because your daddy is imperfect. But the Greek hero is to be pitied because (according to Aristotle) he has magnitude–greatness. Heroes are greater than other men but not greater than their sins. Not greater than Fate. They suffer and are miserable despite having virtue. Accordingly we have no choice but to feel sorry for them.
I am not going to say what you think I am going to say. I am not going to say that Donald Trump is a tragic hero, a man more sinned against than sinning.
Oedipus was a legendary ruler before Sophocles got onto his story, famous for his wisdom and justice and the prosperity of Thebes. He had been a good king. As every sophomore knows, what happened to him through no fault of his own shouldn’t happen to a dog. (And by the way you very mal-educated English teachers who think the play is a mystery and that he has some hidden sin, No. That isn’t the point of the drama.) Agamemnon was a representative of kingly authority.” As commander-in-chief, he brought feuding Greek princes together in the first successful military coalition in history and personally led them in battle. His chief fault was conceit, the belief he could do no wrong. He survives glorious battle to be defeated at the hands of a jealous wife. He was flawed, not consummately incompetent and ineffective. Lear (Leir) is a legendary king of the Britons mentioned in a twelfth century chronicle by Geoffrey of Monmouth. His feat seems to have been to unite the warring Britannic tribes and then lose it all in a game of chance when he asks for professions of loyalty (fealty–love is Shakespeare’s affectation) from his three daughters. In the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Lear dies because tragic heroes have to. In the prototype, he recovers his kingdom with Cordelia’s help (and that of the French king) and reigns for three years. In all three plays, notably, the daughters fare morally better than their fathers. And, Trigger Warning, at no point ahead in this little screed will I attempt an analogy between Antigone and Ivanka Trump.
The stories of great men and women memorialized in myth and drama (and religion) are not the stories of great men gone wrong but men who like Achilles (his real flaw was wrath, not just the heel) who fall short. Superficially they have some of the American president’s worst traits: arrogance, petulance, the need for adulation–but they have these traits because their leadership has been tested and they excel in heroism and virtue. They can unite tribes and conquer riddle-posing sphinxes, rule nations and win wars. If only they could escape their own stories, they would be gods. But unlike gods, they die. Watching rulers being taught lessons in humility is one of the reasons Greeks liked seeing these plays.
In describing what a tragic hero is, Aristotle says “A man doesn’t become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall.” The Greeks called it anagnorisis, the moment in a play where the hero knows he is failing, where he moves from ignorance to knowledge with catastrophic effect. He is not Superman—in fact Superman cannot be a hero under the Greek rubrics because he violates the requirement that a hero, in his human nature, can be morally neither better nor worse than ordinary people. This more than anything allows the audience to identify with them.
And this is also where pity comes in, which is crucial to the idea of tragedy: If the hero is perfect, or invincible, or made of steel, we will not care about his fate. Movie superheroes excite us, but at the level of tragedy we do not really care about them—superiority defines them, and human life is not lived at the level of superiority.
If the hero is too imperfect, or actually evil, then the audience will feel he gets what he deserves. We can feel sympathy, sort of, for anyone in that position, but not really think that their life or downfall is tragic. Tragedy is almost getting to the top of Everest, almost getting a patent for a cancer cure in a race with another team, losing the love of your life to another for no obvious reason. It roils us a bit to think that to be a tragic hero you have to be certain kind of person—essentially good, basically human, fully rational in your decision-making ability, aware of risk, and preferably royal. But the Greeks felt that royalty, or true aristocratic leadership, put a mortal in direct competition with the gods and marked him out by fate. He would be tested. He would almost win, but because of one small deficiency, the dreaded hamartia, he would fail. The word came from archery and meant a missing of the mark. It meant not missing the target but missing the mark—the bull’s eye. You cannot feel sorry for a man who is utterly unable to pull a bowstring and come near the goal. You can only feel sorry for than man who means well, does well, and fails. No wonder Christian theology commandeered this word to mean “sin.” That is what entitled the observer to feel pity for the fallen hero. That is what brought tears to the eye. The failure of the accomplished and mainly virtuous man.
The Greek and renaissance audience did not have (or need) media to explain and analyze the behavior of the characters to them. The people, limited though they were with regard to the written word, knew the stories. And what good was the written word anyway? Stories are oral. So is drama. So was the Mass. There is a certain comfort in things always coming out the same way, even if that way is catastrophic. It teaches lessons, it tells us a thing or two about human nature and the way the world works. It may not make us virtuous but it makes us humble. And if a dramatist went too far astray by explaining, for example, why Agamemnon deserved to die, or how Lear lived happily ever after, the audience would be outraged. That wasn’t the point. The point was that we could see ourselves dimly reflected in the character, her nature, and his fate, even though his station, achievement—his glory—was greater than ours by far. You may well expect success, but learn to expect the unexpected.
I cannot see myself even dimly reflected in the character of Donald Trump. I suspect most of us cant. He is the antitype of what we think a good, truthful, and honourable man is supposed to be. He has no skills in leadership. No consistency in policy. No charity is speech, and no vision of his country or its destiny apart from empty clichés strung together like so make shells on a string cord. He has never won a war or secured a peace. He has no knowledge of the world. He has never served his country as a soldier or as a volunteer, worked for civil rights, human rights, women’s rights or any other kind of rights. He is not interested in poetry, philosophy, literature, or history. He probably cannot quote a line from Shakespeare and may well have never seen a Greek play. If he has attended an opera, it would have been unwillingly, as a fund raiser. He does not seem to be accomplished in music or in the arts, besides the chintz he buys for his hotels and resorts. He is, apparently, completely unread in the sciences. He is not handsome or courtly or gracious, and he has no gift for eloquence or speech, no interest in piety, reverence, or virtue. In short he is not a man of whom the gods would be jealous. They would not notice him at all. Arrogant yes: but so trivial as to pose no threat and evoke no attention–phthonos they called it, divine envy.
That’s important because in the analysis of tragedy emulation is what makes empathy and catharsis possible. Feeling sorry for a poor bastard who doesn’t know any better is not what the Greeks meant by pathos and empathy (εμπάθειαa, suffering with a victim). And as we know, Mr Trump is not affected by the charge of hubris; he revels in it and explains it away—always—as the jealousy of hoi polloi who envy him and wish they were like him.
Donald Trump is nothing like me and nothing like the vast majority of people in the democratic nations of the world. He is a glitch, snag, bug, gremlin and fly in the ointment of democratic and social progress. And because there is nothing there worth emulating there is nothing there worth pitying.
We need to remember this as we listen to the analysts searching for his defining moment, his transformative burst into being a “real president”–journalistic whims based on their preoccupations with adolescent fantasies like Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast.
But such a transformation, knowing what we know, would be even stranger than science fiction and the most saccharine melodrama. The word I used above, anagnorisis, means that a true tragic hero will recognize when it is too late because he will recognize something about himself and his inability to change the situation. That can never happen here. A character, even a real live human character, is the sum total of what experience makes him. It is type, not anti-type, and even in anti-type there in no there in Trump. We cannot pity him because we cannot emulate him. But we can feel very happy that we cannot.