If there’s one enduring theme about tyrants in myth, literature, and history it is that, for a long time, no one takes them seriously. And there are few better examples of this than Shakespeare’s fictional Richard III. He’s a preposterous figure in many ways, an unsightly hunchback, far down the line of royal accession, socially outcast, riven with resentment, utterly dismissible — until he serially dismisses and/or murders everyone between him and the throne. What makes the play so riveting and often darkly funny is the sheer unlikelihood of the plot, the previously inconceivable ascent to the Crown of this indelibly absurd figure, as Stephen Greenblatt recently explored in his brilliant monograph, Tyrant.
I’ll never forget watching a performance by Antony Sher of Richard decades ago — playing him as a spider, instinctually scuttling on two legs and two black canes, to trap, murder, and ingest his foes. The role is, of course, a fictional portrait, designed to buttress the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty that followed Richard III and that Shakespeare lived under. But as an analysis of the psychology of tyranny, it’s genius. Like Plato and Aristotle, Shakespeare saw this question not merely as political, but as wrapped up in the darker folds of the human soul, individual and collective.
The background of the drama is England’s “War of the Roses”, the civil war between two regional dynasties from which Richard emerged. And that’s often key in tyrant narratives: it’s when societies are already fractured into tribes, and divisions have become insurmountable, that tyrants tend to emerge, exploiting and fomenting chaos, to reign, however briefly, over the aftermath.
The war seems resolved when the victorious Edward, Richard’s older brother, succeeds to the throne: “For here I hope begins our lasting joy!” And no one thinks the deformed, bitter sibling, of all people, would be a threat. It seems preposterous. But it’s true. And at each unimaginable power grab by Richard — murdering one brother, killing the late king Edward’s young heirs, killing his own wife, and then trying to marry his niece to secure the dynasty — Richard’s peers keep telling themselves that it isn’t really happening. Greenblatt notes: “The principal weapon Richard has is the very absurdity of his ambition. No one in his right mind would suspect that he seriously aspires to the throne.”
But he has one key skill, Greenblatt notes, the ability to lie shamelessly: “‘Why, I can smile and murder whiles I smile, And cry ‘Content!’ to that which grieves my heart, And wet my cheeks with artificial tears, And frame my face to all occasions.’” It’s a skill that serves him well — and there seems no limit to the number of those eager to believe him. His older brother George, Duke of Clarence, told by thugs that Richard wants him dead, exclaims: “Oh no, he loves me, and he holds me dear. Go you to him from me.” At which point the hired goons reply — “Ay, so we will” — and merrily murder him, taking him to Richard as a corpse. (In a good production, that can get a laugh.) One of Clarence’s young sons, told that his own uncle hates him, declares, “I cannot think it.” Others witness obvious depravity but can’t quite call it out. One official receives clearly illegal orders from Richard, and follows them, asking no questions: “I will not reason what is meant hereby, Because I will be guiltless from the meaning.”
Denial. Avoidance. Distraction. Willful ignorance. These are all essential to enabling a tyrant’s rise. And keeping this pattern going is Richard’s profound grasp of the power of shock. He does and says the unexpected and unthinkable in order to stun his opponents into a kind of dazed passivity. It’s this capacity to keep you on your heels, to keep disorienting you with the unacceptable (which is then somehow accepted), that marks a tyrant’s relentless drive. He does this by instinct. He craves chaos, lies, suspense, surprises — not because he’s a genius, but because stability threatens his psyche. He cannot rest. He is not in control of himself. And whenever the dust settles, as it were, he has to disturb it again.
This is what we’ve been dealing with in the figure of Donald Trump now for five years, and it is absurd to believe that a duly conducted election is going to end it. I know, I know. I’m hysterical and over-the-top and a victim of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” Trump is simply too incompetent and too lazy to be an actual tyrant, I’m constantly scolded. He’s just baiting me again. And so on. But what I think this otherwise salient critique misses is that tyranny is not, in its essence, about the authoritarian and administrative skills required to run a country effectively for a long time. Tyrants, after all, are often terrible at this. It is rather about a mindset, as the ancient philosophers understood, with obvious political consequences. It’s a pathology. It requires no expertise in anything other than itself.
You need competence if you want to run an effective government, or plan a regular campaign, or master policy with a view to persuading people, or hold power for the sake of something else. You need competence to create and sustain something. But you do not need much competence to destroy things. You just need the will. And this is what tyrants do: they destroy things. Richard III ruled for two short years, ending in his own death in battle, and a ruined country.
This is Trump’s threat. Not the construction of a viable one-party state, but the destruction of practices, norms, civility, laws, customs and procedures that constitute liberal democracy’s non-zero-sum genius. He doesn’t need to be competent to destroy our system of government. He merely needs to be himself: an out-of-control, trust-free, malignant narcissist, with inexhaustible resources of psychic compulsion, in a pluralist system designed for the opposite. All you need is an insatiable pathological drive to avoid any constraint on your own behavior, and the demagogic genius to carry a critical mass of people with you, and our system, designed as the antidote to tyranny, is soon unspooling into incoherence, deadlock, and collapse.
I’m told he’s been ineffective even as a tyrant, so no worries. To which I can only say: really? Once you realize he doesn’t give a shit about any actual policies, apart from doing all he can to wipe the legacy of Barack Obama from planet earth, he’s been pretty competent. Note how he turned Congressional subpoenas into toilet paper; how he crippled and muzzled the Mueller inquiry; how he installed a crony at the Department of Justice to pursue his political enemies and shield him from the law; how effectively he stymied impeachment; how he cucked every previous Republican opponent; how he helped destroy the credibility of news sources that oppose him; how he filled his cabinet with acting secretaries and flunkies; how he declared fake emergencies to claim the power of the purse assigned to the Congress; and how he has reshaped the Supreme Court with potentially three new Justices, whom he sees solely as his loyal stooges if he comes up against the rule of law.
And gotten away with all of it!
In protecting his own power over others, he has been as competent as hell. Imagine where we’d be in four more years. Despite a mountain of criticism, he has not conceded a single error, withdrawn a single statement, or acknowledged a single lie. His party lost the mid-terms, but seriously, what difference did that make? His control of the Republican party, and his cult-like grip on the base, has never been greater than now. Yes, he has said and done racially polarizing things — but the joke is he may yet have more support from blacks and Latinos in 2020 than he did in 2016. Think of his greatest policy failures: the appalling loss of life in the Covid epidemic and the collapse of law and order in the cities. Now recall that on February 1 of this year, Trump was at 43.4 percent approval; 200,000 deaths later, and the wreckage from Seattle to Portland to Minneapolis, and his approval today is at 43.1 percent.
This is, of course, not enough to win re-election. And Trump has no interest in broadening his appeal, because it would dilute the tribalism he feeds off. So he has made it abundantly clear that if the results of the election show him the loser, he will not accept them. Simple, really. He said this in 2016, of course, refusing to honor the result in advance. But this year, he has stumbled upon something quite marvelous for his purposes. Because of Covid19, it is likely that mail-in ballots will be far higher in number than before, and, as Barton Gellman has shown in this essential new piece, this gives Trump an opportunity he has instinctively seized. He has been saying for months now that: “MAIL-IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE … WE CAN NEVER LET THIS TRAGEDY BEFALL OUR GREAT NATION.” In late summer, Gellman noted, Trump was making this argument four times a day: “Very dangerous for our country.” “A catastrophe.” “The greatest rigged election in history.” He is telling us loud and clear that, if he has anything to do with it, this election will not be decided at the ballot box, but at the Supreme Court, which he expects to control.
If you haven’t, read Gellman’s piece closely. It seems inevitable to me that, unless it’s a Biden landslide, Trump will declare himself the winner on election night, regardless of the actual results. Because most mail-in ballots will take more time to count, and several swing states have not changed their laws to allow for counting before election day, and mail-ins are easily challenged, it is quite likely that much of Biden’s vote will remain uncounted or contested — and could remain so for a long time. And after declaring victory within hours of polls closing, Trump will follow the script he used for Florida in 2018: “The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged,” he tweeted, making shit up as usual. “An honest vote count is no longer possible — ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”
I’ve no doubt this bullshit will be challenged by the networks, the press, and many of the states, and other sane people, who will urge patience. I’ve also no doubt that many states will do their best not to pervert the process. But I fear the result will be close (I’m underwhelmed by Biden’s near-invisible campaign), which will give Trump a chance. The fanaticism and alternate reality of a base already addicted to conspiracy theories means a hefty chunk of the country will back him. And it’s perfectly possible that Trump’s pre-emptive strike on the election result could prompt a massive revolt across the country from those who want to defend our democracy. (I will be marching in such a scenario myself). Most presidents would balk at anything close to this kind of scenario. Trump can’t wait. Violence? You can almost feel Trump’s hankering for it.
All he wants is chaos, because in chaos, the strong leader wins. Would he incite violence on his behalf if the votes seem to be drifting away from him? You bet he would. Would he urge his supporters to physically prevent ballot-counting? He already has. Would he try to corral Republican state legislators to back him in electing electors? Gellman has sources. Would he take this country to the brink of civil conflict? Way past it. Will anyone in the GOP do anything to stop him? We know the answer to that already. If they cannot condemn him this week, when would they? And he will do all this not out of some strategic calculation or tactical skill but because he cannot do anything else. He is psychologically incapable of conceding anything. And he has no understanding of collateral damage because his narcissism precludes it.
In every Shakespeare play about tyranny — from Richard III to Coriolanus to Macbeth — the tyrant loses in the end, and often quite quickly. They’re not that competent at governing, or even interested in it. The forces they unleash come back to wipe them from the stage, sooner or later. They flame out. Richard III lasted a mere couple of years on the throne.
But in every case, they leave a wrecked and reeling society in their wake. Look around you now and see the damage already done. Now imagine what we face in the next few months. We are tethered to Trump at this point because he is the legitimate president: the man who cannot control himself is in control of all the rest of us. And that’s why I desperately want to appeal to right-of-center readers at this point in the campaign to do everything they can to vote and to vote for Biden. This is not about left or right. This is about the integrity of a system that can give us such a choice. It really is an existential moment for liberal democracy, and its future, not just here but across the world. The next few months are critical.
It fills me with inexpressible rage that we have been brought to this. But there is no way out now other than through. This was always going to be the moment of maximal danger. And we cannot lose our focus now.
Chicago, Illinois, 10.12 am
If you’ve ever wondered why critical theorists and their popularizers never seem to actually expose themselves to direct criticism, this quote might help:
I get regular invites to debate on various platforms. I always say no. Because debate is an imperialist capitalist white supremacist cis heteropatriarchal technique that transforms a potential exchange of knowledge into a tool of exclusion & oppression.
And also perhaps because debate is one of the most effective tools in rooting out ideological bullshit. Speaking of which, here’s an interview with Judith Butler, the patron saint of wokeness, in which she can actually say, with a straight face: “I am not aware that terf is used as a slur.” “Terf” is short for “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.” It’s yelled routinely at any dissenter from critical queer and gender theory. Of course it’s used as a slur.
Meanwhile, the 1619 Project has begun finally to implode. Its core argument - that America’s true founding was in 1619 not 1776, because America is in its DNA a slavocracy built on “white supremacy” and not a democracy rooted in the unrealized principle of human equality — has been withdrawn by the editor. Here’s the best summary of the rank dishonesty of the entire thing, from the preternaturally reasonable Conor Friedersdorf. He attempted to engage Nikole Hannah-Jones in good faith, a concept she simply doesn’t comprehend.
I think it’s clear by now that a completely defensible — even important — airing of new scholarship about the evil of slavery, and its profound impact on America, became hijacked at the NYT by the ideology that insists that the United States is inherently white supremacist, that this explains everything about the country, that this has never changed, that no white people were involved in perfecting the union, and that liberal democracy is a front for racism and should be dismantled. Given the extremist politics and unethical behavior of Nikole Hannah-Jones, this is unsurprising. But that this confused, half-baked rant won a Pulitzer and is being used to indoctrinate school kids in critical race theory is a staggering indictment of how corrupted by left-racism American elite journalism now is. In my view, the Pulitzer Board needs to rescind its prize. Fat chance, of course.
But there is hope. There are still reporters at the NYT interested in the truth about woke culture and politics. Nellie Bowles’ dispatch from Portland is a must-read. It’s a glimpse into the totalitarian impulses behind so many on the far left. Chilling.
Quinault, Washington, 10 am
Dissents Of The Week
A reader downplays the unique dystopia of our screens:
I’m not convinced that electronic media has created a uniquely modern cultural mess. Instead, it has awakened an atavistic instinct that has been propelling humanity outward since the beginning.
Every religion has had a schism; every country has had (or is the product of) a civil war; every commercial enterprise has had disaffected employees leave and start their own versions of the same business. That kind of behavior in our nature, as in all social mammals. It is a periodic amoral process, full of strife and suffering, but it has worked.
Perhaps social media has flipped on that old “kill switch” in a large number of Americans, and that’s why so few care about facts or nuance these days. The passions of instinct must be gratified, and we are “scheduled” to collapse, like every civilization has before us.
Cheery. And plausible. It’s just that civilizational collapse when we are at this level of technological sophistication and power seems much riskier than at any previous moment in history. Another reader “can’t help but imagine what it must be like to grow up with ubiquitous social media”:
Teenagers today are raised with narrowcasting and sub-tribes. Social media allows people who feel strange or alienated in any way (i.e. all teens) to “find their sub-tribe,” which can be helpful. But social media also allows those sub-tribes to be closed feedback loops suffering from epistemic closure, explaining away all inconvenient facts and validating all the behavior of their fellow tribe members, no matter how bad. They find themselves thinking that all their teenage problems are explained by the fact that they’re LGBTQ, or that all their teenage problems are the fault of non-whites, when in fact they’re just common problems shared by most teens.
It must be nice to spend much of your turbulent teen years in, effectively, an online support group; on the other hand, it must make living in the real world, with all its complexities and people different from yourself, unfathomable.
Another reader is doing his best:
Your column reminded me of your 2016 essay in NYMag about the cancer that is social media. That essay, along with Alan Jacob’s similarly-themed piece “Habits of Mind in an Age of Distraction” profoundly affected my life and my mental health for the better, so thank you. You convinced me to delete my Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts and set up an RSS feed for news and commentary. I check my feed once in the morning, read through what piques my interest and go about my day. It’s had such an effect on my soul that I can’t imagine why I took so long.
I am a socially conservative evangelical Christian who gets most of my news from liberal sources (the Times, NPR, The Atlantic, etc.) and my commentary from mostly academic or religious sources (The Hedgehog Review, Christianity Today, The Conversation, Comment Mag), and so I can arrogantly boast that I am not controlled by the algorithm. I realize I am outlier among both my neighbors (in Portland, Oregon) and my religious peers (as an evangelical who thinks Trump is a golden calf). I wonder what the average person can do to stave off the effects of Big Tech’s monopoly on our discourse.
Well she could always follow your advice. Another reader tacitly criticizes me by pointing to Trump’s comments praising Minnesotans for their “good genes” at a campaign rally this week:
This is why we can’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, talk about genes. Once the conversation ventures into superiority, it’s a problem — even if Trump is delusional about his intelligence and his success based on his own genes.
Eh. Yeah, it’s a bit weird and creepy. But of all the things to worry about with Trump, that’s not high on my list.
Face Of The Week
President-elect Donald Trump and Mitt Romney dine at Jean Georges restaurant in New York City on November 29, 2016. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images. This meme really speaks to me now.
Quote For The Week
“This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards,” - Abraham Lincoln, the country’s first Republican president, in a private memo written on August 23, 1864 — more than three years into the greatest national emergency the U.S. had ever seen, with more than a half-million Americans dead.
(Hat tip: Michael Beschloss)
Yglesias Award Nominee
“Some people on the so-called ‘common-good conservative right’ tend to do this too, where they will suggest that neutral principles are not being upheld by the left, therefore abandon the neutral principle and let’s just duke it out. That seems to me incredibly dangerous and a way for the country to basically break. If we can’t agree that there are such things as neutral principles that ought to be applied neutrally, then it’s hard to see how we’re going to stick together as a country,” - Ben Shapiro on his podcast talking with Matthew Yglesias. So meta. (Runner-up nomination: Glenn Beck agreeing with Matt as his guest.)
Mental Health Break
An interstellar elopement:
(And because everyone could use some extra mental health this week, here’s an Orthodox Jew dancing on the sidewalk with a bunch of young black guys in NYC.)
Last week I joined an intellectually diverse group of thinkers — James Lindsay, Hawk Newsome, Mia Brett, Kim Iversen, Isa Cespedes, Inez Stepman, Kian Hudson, Ken Bone, Chavonne Taylor, Kwabena Sarfo, and Jonathan Rauch — to debate the topic, “Resolved: free speech in America is under attack and should be defended.” Rauch, who wrote the book on free thought, called it the “best debate yet on cancel culture and free speech,” adding that Braver Angels, the host of the debate, “shows that passionate yet respectful disagreement is alive and well in America.”
Substack was profiled in the NYT this week. They fared better than I did.
In The ‘Stacks
Our latest faves from other writers on Substack:
Antonio Garcia-Martinez interviews Martin Gurri, a former member of the CIA’s global media analysis team who wrote The Revolt of the Public — “a must-read inside Silicon Valley.” Money quote from Gurri: “Liberal democracy is still the only game in town. You can’t compete with it — but you can destroy it.”
Emily Atkin and Judd Legum team up to tackle the “greenwashing” of Facebook’s new initiative to combat disinformation over climate change because the platform isn’t addressing the biggest culprit: fake news that goes super-viral.
Jonah Goldberg can’t contain his schadenfreude over the Department of Education calling the bluff of Princeton’s president, who virtue-signaled in a public letter that racism is “embedded” in the university. Now the feds are forced to investigate, bound by law.
Kat Rosenfield, the advice columnist at Persuasion, has a wide-ranging take on #MeToo as it approaches the third anniversary. Money quote: “This notion of consent as a safeguard against upsetting emotions is both new and counterintuitive: in most contexts (for instance, medical trials or media interviews), consent is sought precisely because what follows cannot be predicted, and may well be uncomfortable.”
Anne Helen Petersen provides a forum for seven faith leaders to discuss “clergy burnout,” a problem only made worse by the pandemic.
The View From Your Window Contest
So, where do you think it’s located? Email your entry to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject heading, along with any details about the location within the body of the email. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two TWD subscriptions. Happy sleuthing!
And as always, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the mix: firstname.lastname@example.org. But please try to be concise: the new format of The Weekly Dish is much more constrained than The Daily Dish, so it’s more difficult to include your smart commentary when it stretches into many paragraphs.
See you next Friday.
(Top photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)