Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines hubris as “overweening pride or self-confidence: arrogance.” It is a quality the celebrity billionaire Donald Trump had long possessed, to an often-entertaining degree. But the comedy was merely prologue for an epic rise to power that nobody could have foreseen — nobody except himself, of course. What was perhaps more foreseeable, at least in retrospect, was the tragic fall.
In literature, a “tragic hero” has to be larger-than-life, but he needn’t be particularly sympathetic. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes run the gamut from those we couldn’t care less about, such as Antony and Cleopatra, to the frustrating Hamlet, to those, like Othello and above all King Lear, whose stories are almost unbearably sad. What they all have in common is some terrible flaw that dooms them to make a terrible mistake.
Trump is certainly larger than life, but is he a sympathetic character? On one end, tens of millions of Americans won’t feel satisfied until Trump is rotting in prison. On the other, tens of millions see him as every bit the hero, protecting them and America itself from the forces of evil and corruption, an underdog who wins against the odds, while suffering the vilest abuses and betrayals. Still others see varying degrees of good in him, but can’t help being dismayed or revolted by his gratuitous insults, self-inflicted injuries, and myriad of other foibles.
However much you love him — or don’t — there is no denying his major character flaw: a crippling degree of vanity. Consider this exchange with Chris Wallace, from a July 2020 Fox News Sunday interview. At the end, Wallace asks, “Whether it’s in 2021 or 2025, how will you regard your years as president of the United States?”
It was the softest of softballs, which any normal politician would have answered by expressing gratitude at the opportunity to serve the country, and what a wonderful country, etc. Here is how Trump answered the question:
TRUMP: I think I was very unfairly treated. From before I even won I was under investigation by a bunch of thieves, crooks. It was an illegal investigation.
WALLACE: But what about the good —
TRUMP: Russia, Russia, Russia.
WALLACE: But what about the good parts, sir?
TRUMP: No, no. I want to go [into] this. I have done more than any president in history in the first three and a half years, and I’ve done it suffering through investigations where people have been — General Flynn, where people have been so unfairly treated.
The Russia hoax, it was all a hoax. The Mueller scam, it was all scam. It was all false. I made a bad decision on — one bad decision. Jeff Sessions, and now I feel good because he lost overwhelmingly in the great state of Alabama.
Here’s the bottom line. I’ve been very unfairly treated, and I don’t say that as paranoid. I’ve been very — everybody says it . . .
This is literary material, almost as good as the passages that Shakespeare lifted whole from Holinshed’s Chronicles of England or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. It shows how vanity diminishes the character proportionately. If only Trump had been a bit more humbled by the honor of the presidency, how much greater he might have been!
His tragic flaw thus illustrated, here was his terrible mistake: After the election, instead of focusing on his supporters’ legitimate concerns about the electoral process, he made it all about himself. Convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the election had been stolen, Trump fixated ferociously on the idea that it had been stolen from him.
During the 2020 election cycle, and indeed during most of Trump’s presidency, Big Tech and the media openly manipulated the flow of information to benefit Democrats, suppressing legitimate news that would hurt Democrats and amplifying misinformation (such as the Russia-Trump collusion hoax) that would hurt Republicans. And after years of Democrats’ pushing relentlessly to loosen election-integrity laws, such as voter-ID requirements, many states enacted mail-in voting and other loose rules for conducting the election in the midst of a pandemic, all in ways that seemed calculated to benefit Democrats, however sincere the “social justice” reasons.
It was both foreseeable and understandable that tens of millions of people would emerge from the election thinking that it had been stolen, and Democrats would be more convincing if they acted a bit less surprised, given their own role in staging the drama. But here is the point: Even if the election were stolen, it was not stolen from Trump; it was stolen from the voters. If the election was dubious, the remedy was not to reverse it by even-more-dubious means, which could only divide the nation even more bitterly, but rather to highlight the problems and to push for solutions that Americans could agree on.
Hence, the day after the election, Trump had before him two very different courses of action. He could accept the formal result of the election, highlight the sanctity of democratic procedure, and use his continuing leadership of the Republican Party to push for reform — and perhaps for another run in 2024. Or he could fan the flames of popular fury, further undermine the people’s trust in our democratic institutions, and risk all in a desperate gambit to benefit himself.
Tragically for all of us, he chose the latter course. He took little interest in the crucial runoff elections looming in the state of Georgia, on which depended the GOP’s continued control of the Senate. This was tragedy at its finest, because only a GOP Senate could now protect many of Trump’s greatest achievements, such as the tax reform of 2017. And GOP control of the Senate would be vital in addressing all that went wrong in the 2020 election.
But Trump and his more fanatical supporters demanded fealty to his increasingly theatrical attempts to reverse the results of the election, instigating a civil war within the Republican Party. Leading Trump supporters promised that Republicans who didn’t join the farce would be “finished forever.” Thus, in a childish temper tantrum over losing the White House, Trump dead-enders threw away control of the Senate, a stupid and unforgivable betrayal of the Republican Party. It was the fanatical Trumpers’ most shameful moment, and recalls Octavius Caesar’s final indictment of Antony: “’Tis to be chid— / As we rate boys who, being mature in knowledge, / Pawn their experience to their present pleasure, / And so rebel to judgment.”
But worse was to come. Rather than focus his energies on the January 5 runoff election in Georgia, Trump instead staged a massive rally for himself the following day in Washington, D.C., in a final desperate bid to get then-Vice President Pence to cancel the certification of electors and reverse the election result. The horrifying images of Trump’s rabble storming the Capitol, leaving five people dead, will forever shame his legacy.
Certainly he did not intend it. But if it was not a foreseeable result of all he did and said up until then, it was weirdly inevitable, like the bloodbath at the end of Hamlet.
The tragedy of Trump is that his hubris led him to betray the very tens of millions of voters whose trust and loyalty he had rightly won. Alas, there is an inescapable conflict between vanity and greatness, a truth we have forgotten along with the Tragedy of Coriolanus.
As Aristotle wrote in the Poetics, the tragic protagonist’s “misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” It is not always easy to feel sorry for someone who brings about his own downfall. But therein lies the power of tragedy.