The very idea that Donald Trump could, even in a perverse way, be heroic may appall half the country. Nonetheless, one way of understanding both Trump’s personal excesses and his accomplishments is that his not being traditionally presidential may have been valuable in bringing long-overdue changes in foreign and domestic policy.
Tragic heroes, as they have been portrayed from Sophocles’ plays (e.g., Ajax, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Philoctetes) to the modern western film, are not intrinsically noble. Much less are they likeable. Certainly, they can often be obnoxious and petty, if not dangerous, especially to those around them. These mercurial sorts never end well — and on occasion neither do those in their vicinity. Oedipus was rudely narcissistic, Hombre’s John Russell (Paul Newman) arrogant and off-putting.
Tragic heroes are loners, both by preference and because of society’s understandable unease with them. Ajax’s soliloquies about a rigged system and the lack of recognition accorded his undeniable accomplishments are Trumpian to the core — something akin to the sensational rumors that at night Trump is holed up alone, petulant, brooding, eating fast food, and watching Fox News shows.
Outlaw leader Pike Bishop (William Holden), in director Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, is a killer whose final gory sacrifice results in the slaughter of the toxic General Mapache and his corrupt local Federales. A foreboding Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), of John Ford’s classic 1956 film The Searchers, alone can track down his kidnapped niece. But his methods and his recent past as a Confederate renegade make him suspect and largely unfit for a civilizing frontier after the expiration of his transitory usefulness. These characters are not the sorts that we would associate with Bob Dole, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, or Mitt Romney.
The tragic hero’s change of fortune — often from good to bad, as Aristotle reminds us — is due to an innate flaw (hamartia), or at least in some cases an intrinsic and usually uncivilized trait that can be of service to the community, albeit usually expressed fully only at the expense of the hero’s own fortune. The problem for civilization is that the creation of those skill sets often brings with it past baggage of lawlessness and comfortability with violence. Trump’s cunning and mercurialness, honed in Manhattan real estate, global salesmanship, reality TV, and wheeler-dealer investments, may have earned him ostracism from polite Washington society. But these talents also may for a time be suited for dealing with many of the outlaws of the global frontier.
At rare times, a General George S. Patton (“Give me an army of West Point graduates and I’ll win a battle. Give me a handful of Texas Aggies and I’ll win a war”) could be harnessed to serve the country in extremis. General Curtis LeMay did what others could not — and would not: “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. . . . Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.” Later, the public exposure given to the mentalities and behaviors of such controversial figures would only ensure that they would likely be estranged from or even caricatured by their peers — once, of course, they were no longer needed by those whom they had benefited. When one is willing to burn down with napalm 75 percent of the industrial core of an often-genocidal wartime Japan, and thereby help bring a vicious war to an end, then one looks for sorts like Curtis LeMay and his B-29s. In the later calm of peace, one is often shocked that one ever had. A sober and judicious General Omar Bradley grows on us in peace even if he was hardly Patton in war.
So what makes such men and women both tragic and heroic is their full knowledge that the natural expression of their personas can lead only to their own destruction or ostracism. Yet for a variety of reasons, both personal and civic, their characters not only should not be altered but could not be, even if the tragic hero wished to change, given his megalomania and Manichean views of the human experience. Clint Eastwood’s Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan cannot serve as the official face of the San Francisco police department. But Dirty Harry alone has the skills and ruthlessness to ensure that the mass murderer Scorpio will never harm the innocent again. So, in the finale, he taunts and then shoots the psychopathic Scorpio, ending both their careers, and walks off — after throwing his inspector’s badge into the water. Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) of High Noon did about the same thing, but only after gunning down (with the help of his wife) four killers whom the law-abiding but temporizing elders of Hadleyville proved utterly incapable of stopping.
The out-of-place Ajax in Sophocles’ tragedy of the same name cannot function apart from the battlefield. Unlike Odysseus, he lacks the tact and fluidity to succeed in a new world of nuanced civic rules. So he would rather “live nobly, or nobly die” — “nobly” meaning according to an obsolete black-and-white code that is no longer compatible with the ascendant polis.
In other words, tragic heroes are often simply too volatile to continue in polite society. In George Stevens’s classic 1953 western Shane, even the reforming and soft-spoken gunslinger Shane (Alan Ladd) understands his own dilemma all too well: He alone possesses the violent skills necessary to free the homesteaders from the insidious threats of hired guns and murderous cattle barons. (And how he got those skills worries those he plans to help.) Yet by the time of his final resort to lethal violence, Shane has sacrificed all prior chances of reform and claims on reentering the civilized world of the stable “sodbuster” community. As Shane tells young Joey after gunning down the three villains of the film and thereby saving the small farming community: “Can’t break the mold. I tried it, and it didn’t work for me. . . . Joey, there’s no living with . . . a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back.”
Trump could not cease tweeting, not cease his rallies, not cease his feuding, and not cease his nonstop motion and unbridled speech if he wished to. It is his brand, and such overbearing made Trump, for good or evil, what he is — and will likely eventually banish him from establishment Washington, whether after or during his elected term. His raucousness can be managed, perhaps mitigated for a time — thus the effective tenure of his sober cabinet choices and his chief of staff, the ex–Marine general, no-nonsense John Kelly — but not eliminated. His blunt views cannot really thrive, and indeed can scarcely survive, in the nuance, complexity, and ambiguity of Washington.
Trump is not a mannered Mitt Romney, who would never have left the Paris climate agreement. He is not a veteran who knew the whiz of real bullets and remains a Washington icon, such as John McCain, who would never have moved the American embassy to Jerusalem. Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush certainly would never have waded into no-win controversies such as the take-a-knee NFL debacle and unvetted immigration from suspect countries in the Middle East and Africa, or called to account sanctuary cities that thwarted federal law. Our modern Agamemnon, Speaker Paul Ryan, is too circumspect to get caught up with Trump’s wall or a mini-trade war with China.
Trump does not seem to care whether he is acting “presidential.” The word — as he admits — is foreign to him. He does not worry whether his furious tweets, his revolving-door firing and hiring, and his rally counterpunches reveal a lack of stature or are becoming an embarrassing window into his own insecurities and apprehensions as a Beltway media world closes in upon him in the manner that, as the trapped western hero felt, the shrinking landscape was increasingly without options in the new 20th century.
The real moral question is not whether the gunslinger Trump could or should become civilized (again, defined in our context as becoming normalized as “presidential”) but whether he could be of service at the opportune time and right place for his country, crude as he is. After all, despite their decency, in extremis did the frontier farmers have a solution without Shane, or the Mexican peasants a realistic alternative to the Magnificent Seven, or the town elders a viable plan without Will Kane?
Perhaps we could not withstand the fire and smoke of a series of Trump presidencies, but given the direction of the country over the last 16 years, half the population, the proverbial townspeople of the western, wanted some outsider, even with a dubious past, to ride in and do things that most normal politicians not only would not but could not do — before exiting stage left or riding off into the sunset, to the relief of most and the regrets of a few.
The best and the brightest résumés of the Bush and Obama administrations had doubled the national debt — twice. Three prior presidents had helped to empower North Korea, now with nuclear-tipped missiles pointing at the West Coast. Supposedly refined and sophisticated diplomats of the last quarter century, who would never utter the name “Rocket Man” or stoop to call Kim Jong-un “short and fat,” nonetheless had gone through the “agreed framework,” “six-party talks,” and “strategic patience,” in which three administrations gave Pyongyang quite massive aid to behave and either not to proliferate or at least to denuclearize. And it was all a failure, and a deadly one at that.
For all of Obama’s sophisticated discourse about “spread the wealth around” and “You didn’t build that,” quantitative easing, zero interest rates, massive new regulations, the stimulus, and shovel-ready, government-inspired jobs, he could not achieve 3 percent annualized economic growth. Half the country, the more desperate half, believed that the remedy for a government in which the IRS, the FBI, the DOJ, and the NSA were weaponized, often in partisan fashion and without worry about the civil liberties of American citizens, was not more temporizing technicians but a pariah who cleaned house and moved on. Certainly Obama was not willing to have a showdown with the Chinese over their widely acknowledged cheating and coerced expropriation of U.S. technology, with the NATO allies over their chronic welching on prior defense commitments, with the North Koreans after they achieved the capability of hitting U.S. West Coast cities, or with the European Union over its mostly empty climate-change accords.
Moving on, sometimes fatally so, is the tragic hero’s operative exit. Antigone certainly makes her point about the absurdity of small men’s sexism and moral emptiness in such an uncompromising way that her own doom is assured. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, unheroically kills the thuggish Liberty Valance, births the career of Ranse Stoddard and his marriage to Doniphon’s girlfriend, and thereby ensures civilization is Shinbone’s frontier future. His service done, he burns down his house and degenerates from feared rancher to alcoholic outcast.
The remnants of The Magnificent Seven would no longer be magnificent had they stayed on in the village, settled down to age, and endlessly rehashed the morality and utility of slaughtering the outlaw Calvera and his banditos. As Chris rides out, he sums up to Vin their dilemma: “The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.” He knows that few appreciate that the tragic heroes in their midst are either tragic or heroic — until they are safely gone and what they have done in time can be attributed to someone else. Worse, he knows that the tragic hero’s existence is solitary and without the nourishing networks and affirmation of the peasant’s agrarian life.
John Ford’s most moving scene in his best film, The Searchers, is Ethan Edwards’s final exit from a house of shadows, swinging open the door and walking alone into sunlit oblivion. If he is lucky, Trump may well experience the same self-inflicted fate.
By his very excesses Trump has already lost, but in his losing he might alone be able to end some things that long ago should have been ended.