We all love villains from Darth Vader in “Star Wars,” to Ursula in “The Little Mermaid” to the classic characters of literature, we just love villains. These are people of immense power and focus who use their skills of intimidation and persuasion to hoodwink an entire country, empire, or an entire planet sometimes. I feel it’s safe to say though that when confronted with real life with villains we are quite disturbed and hope that their cruelty or destructive schemes will soon be brought to an end.
I’m sure you’ve been hearing in the news how Donald Trump is spreading highly xenophobic dogma about Muslims, and has been getting a lot of backlash in the press and from both political parties. In fact, scholar and activist David Signer has pointed out that Trump fits the profile of a modern-day demagogue on par with such figures as Idi Amin, Hitler, and even the head of ISIS. Is this fair comment, or just sensationalism on the part of the media? A demagogue, according to dictionary.com is somebody who purports themselves to be a man of people somebody who tries to mobilize the public, and claims to be opposing the old guard, but who ultimately uses the prejudice and hatred of the masses to his or her advantage. In other words these are the type of people who want to revolution people like Napoleon, Stalin, and especially Hitler are examples of demagogues.
Does Trump deserve to be lumped in with such a notorious group? He has been billing himself as an antidote to the people who currently hold the letters of power. He’s polling very well with people who are sick and tired of the current state of our country, which means he does in fact fit a demagogue’s profile. A demagogue isn’t necessarily bad however their potential for evil is unsurpassed. One writer who obsessed over the uses and abuses of power is of course William Shakespeare. Therefore I looked at some of Shakespeare’s greatest villains who all share the traits of demagogues and realize the Trump shares something in common with all of them so here is my analysis of a few of Shakespeare’s greatest baddies, and how they are like our current Republican front runner.
Demagogue number one: Coriolanus, Coriolanus
Strictly speaking, this character could be a villain or a hero, depending on who you ask. In the play that bears his name, Coriolanus is a Roman general who wins a great victory fighting Rome’s enemies. Like Trump, Coriolanus’ name is a brand- his real name is Caius Martius, but was awarded a new surname in the Battle of Corioli.
After the battle, Coriolanus tries to capitalize on Rome’s gratitude to make himself Consul and govern most of the empire. In order to become Consul, he has to court the people, who don’t believe the Roman republic doesn’t represent them. One of the senators, Menenius, compares Rome to a human body, and the senate to a stomach:
The senators of Rome are this good belly,
And you the mutinous members; for examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o’ the common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you
And no way from yourselves. Cor. I.I
This passage illustrates that, in order for a country to function, the people need to allow the government to distribute power to them. A demagogue like Coriolanus ruins the social contract by trying to get the people to rebel. Signer mentions in his interview that when Trump attacks the body politic with hateful rhetoric, he infects it like an autoimmune disease mimicking this speech in Coriolanus.
Coriolanus and Trump both want to be put in charge, but whenever anyone questions their fitness to govern, they fly into rages, often resorting to childish name calling:
Compare this speech from Coriolanus to Trump, who has been known to call his critics, “liars,” “crooks,” “fat pigs,” ”dogs,” ”slobs,” and “disgusting animals.”
You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumor shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair!
Coriolanus hates the common people, but demands that they support him without question. In a sense, Coriolanus is the opposite of a demagogue since he sides with the elite against the common people and the republic that represents them.
Demagogue #2: Jack Cade from Henry VI, Part II
Cade is the best example of a man of the people who becomes a corrupt warlord. Like Napoleon and Hitler after him, he rises to power during a time of political unrest- in this case, the civil war known as The Wars Of the Roses. Cade leads a lynch mob who kills everyone with authority over the common people, with particular fierceness against anyone who can read or write. One of Cade’s soldiers utters the famous Shakespearean line: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” This line has become a funny catchphrase because we all want to shake off the chains of the legal system or the political checks and balances we live in, but as Cade demonstrates, when you give into mob rule, tyranny soon follows.
Cade claims to be fighting for the common people, but by the end of the play, he becomes a full-on dictator:
The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute; There shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me
Her maidenhead ere they have it: men shall hold of me in capite; and we charge and command that their wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell (Act IV, Scene vii).
Men like Cade are power-hungry warlords and like Trump, they’ll say anything to attract the most malcontents. To quote Signer, once a demagogue takes over the state,”What they do is they create a substate that is accountable to them alone,” which is why Cade is willing to destroy and pervert all English laws that don’t suit his own selfish goals. Similarly, Trump’s proposal to refuse all Muslim immigrants flies in the face of the US Constitution and the principals of religious freedom that it guarantees.
Demagogue #3: Richard III
I hesitate to compare Donald Trump to Shakespeare’s most diabolical villain, the hunch-backed cripple Richard of Gloucester, who murders his way to the crown in Richard III, but Trump’s shameless attacks on minorities to stir up support for his campaign echo Richard’s schemes to slander his opponents (in addition to slaughtering them).
According to David Signer, one tactic that demagogues use is to manipulate the emotions of their supporters, and the time honored way for demagogues to manipulate emotions is to blame all of the old regime’s problems on a common enemy. Trump has blamed our nation’s problems on Muslim and Hispanic immigrants, while Richard blamed many of the kingdom’s problems on the Queen, claiming her relatives were taking coveted positions from “more deserving” nobles, like in this speech where Richard convinces his brother that the Queen arrested him, when it was Richard himself who arrested his brother Clarence:
Why, this it is, when men are ruled by women: ‘Tis not the king that sends you to the Tower:
My Lady Grey his wife, Clarence, ’tis she
That tempers him to this extremity.
Was it not she and that good man of worship, Anthony Woodville, her brother there,
That made him send Lord Hastings to the Tower,
From whence this present day he is deliver’d?
We are not safe, Clarence; we are not safe. Richard III, Act I, Scene i.
The other surprising comparison I can make between Trump and Richard, is that they are both related! According to the website MyHerritage.com, there is a genetic link (albeit small) between Trump and the notorious Richard of Gloucester!
To sum up, when politicians try to turn over the apple cart, puncturing the constitution of our country, and encouraging people to dispense with established political order, the result is a deeply wounded nation and the potential for numerous examples of tyranny and despotism.
- NPR News: “Democratic Activist Says Donald Trump Fits Demagogue Mold” democratic-activist-says-donald-trump-fits-the-mold-of-a-demagogue
- Daily Mail: Royal Connection Between Trump and Richard III: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3220982/Royal-connection-Donald-Trump-distant-cousin-notorious-Richard-III-revealed-s-related-Hillary-Clinton.html