Trump as Tragic Hero

Preparation for the Future Christian Prince

How do you defeat a kleptocratic oligarchy whose membership numbers in the millions and at whose fingertips is the seemingly unlimited money and military might of the most powerful country in the world? That we can discern an internal revolution and factional war among America’s ruling class is one thing; to know exactly what part Trump and his followers should play to turn the current conflict for America’s good is far more difficult.

Everyone has an opinion about Trump. Some believe America is caught in the clutches of an unconstrained populism led by the braggadocio Trump. Others believe that Trump is a moral test for the American people and that he serves as a divining rod to see who will succumb to his corrupting temptations and who possess the fortitude to resist. Of course there is the never-ending stream of legacy media articles about how authoritarian, fascist, and nuclear trigger-happy Trump is, making him an imminent threat to democracy, freedom, and global peace that justifies the ruling class’s illegal and criminal prosecution of him at all costs. Progressive Christians think Trump is an idolater and polluter of the Church. The most radical MAGA fans believe Trump is the greatest American statesman ever, and probably a Christian to boot. Never Trumpers have yet to find a reason too lurid to condemn the man.

The myriad of perspectives on Trump can make it seem as if no one truly understands what’s happening in American politics, and that everyone is consumed and driven by their own prejudices. Yet there is a way to make sense of Trump’s American moment, and it begins with an accurate assessment of America’s ruling political oligarchy.

“Presidential” vs. Tragic Hero

Americans tend to assess the office of the presidency and the persons who run for and then fill that office according to an historical precedent. That precedent is twofold: it is formal, according to moral and constitutional norms (for example, as set forth in the Federalist Papers, nos. 68-77); and it is personal, revolving around the tangible example of great American statesmen, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and many others. The resulting ethos and expectation of the American presidency is what’s often called “being presidential.” In short, this includes great men who possessed the moral virtues of self-restraint and civic virtues of public spiritedness, in keeping with a realist conception of human nature and an understanding that politics is the art of the possible in governing men for the good of the whole. As Scott R. Stripling summarized the matter over twenty-five years ago,

The president acts in behalf of all the people for their common good. … [and] thus [he] must have those qualities—e.g., dedication to the public good—that earn the “esteem and confidence of the whole union.” The president must transcend partisan interests in favor of the common good … [and he] must be capable of acting with certainty of purpose and dispatch; and he must display the kind of self-restraint worthy of one who bears the public trust. …The Chief Executive of the nation is not, therefore, obliged merely to execute or carry out the will of the people; he is rather bound to act in the best interests of the people, being guided by those great founding principles, liberty and equality, as well as by the Constitution and the laws of the United States. In carrying out his duties of executing the law of the land, the President must always be guided by the ends or purposes that make up the common good; and he must choose those means that are commensurate with the common good.

It is not hard to conclude that according to the traditional “presidential” standard, Trump falls short, especially in his moral failings and his tendency to be dragged into petty, partisan squabbles. In fact, one of the major beltway and establishment criticisms of Trump since 2015 has been his flagrant violation of a serious presidential decorum worthy of the “leader of the free world.” Of course, the persons that currently populate our ruling class and fill the many legislative, judicial, and executive offices are themselves decrepit and morally repugnant—arguably worse than Trump in many regards. In addition, their understanding of “presidential” is itself a warped and twisted standard suited to protect and insulate the ruling class from both outside criticism and challenges to its power.

The problem with using the historical presidential standard to judge Trump is that we no longer live under a representative and constitutional government. If the governing regime—its constitution, education, character, and ruling element—has undergone a complete transformation, then benchmarks and assessments of the presidential office must also necessarily evolve.

In his 2020 book, The Case for Trump, historian, classicist, and popular columnist Victor Davis Hanson suggested that Trump might fit the mold of a tragic hero, the literary protagonist in a tragedy. Tragedies are dramas that depict human suffering and the terrifying circumstances and choices faced by a central character. They are meant to invoke pity for the one who suffers, yet also fear in the realization that such suffering is common and could befall any of us.

In the current American drama, the suffering is that of the forgotten American citizen who has been demonized by the ruling class and targeted for reprogramming and replacement. When Trump won the presidency as a representative and champion of the forgotten man, he encapsulated their suffering. He, too, has been demonized, attacked, and marked for ruin by the ruling class in every way imaginable. Yet Trump is not just a hero for his fortitude and doggedness in the face of unjust prosecution, but he is also a tragic figure.

The nature of tragic heroes is that they are pre-civilizational. They do not fit in easily with their times, yet this is precisely their strength and attraction. They possess qualities—virtues even—that are deemed necessary in circumstances of great suffering and evil. These qualities, however, are repugnant to civilized gentlemen who would prefer to defer to an officially deputized sheriff equally enforcing the rule of law in order to deal with ruffians and misfits. Yet when a gang of robbers ties up and gags the sheriff, shreds the town’s bylaws, and terrorizes the populace, a new kind of gun-slinging hero is called upon.

The hero is tragic because his virtues include insurmountable character flaws that lead to his downfall. Thus, the plot line of tragedies always moves from good to bad. While the town might be saved from the gang of robbers by the hero’s courage and unpredictable genius, in the end he is undone by his own violence, lawlessness, or pride. The hero is driven out of town by the very people who originally welcomed him and whom he saved, because he is too dangerous to now live among them.

Trump’s Virtues

In many ways, Donald Trump fits this mold (even if not perfectly). While he hailed from the ruling class and so shared some of their qualities (personal ambition, patronage and loyalty, ruthlessness)—qualities necessary to defeat the reigning oligarchy—he nonetheless was an outcast among them. Although Trump graduated with a BS from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1968, he did not indulge Ivy League ideology and credentialism. He was a pro-American businessman who charted his own course, even when that course took full advantage of the ruling class’s privilege and power.

Trump embodied three great virtues that have endeared him to the American people and made him revolting to his political peers. First, he was not afraid to flout the ruling class’s false decorum and nauseating fashion. For the past half century, the political establishment in Washington, the coastal corridors, and globalist NGOs have worked very hard to maintain a public air of respectability, soberness, and moral rectitude—equivalent to the “adults are in charge” idea. Yet the reality is that they were reckless, avaricious, lascivious, and criminal all the way down, rotten to the core. Trump saw through the thin veil of respectability and ripped it down, purposely violating the fake “presidential” standards propped up by tottering gerontocrats and grasping climbers. Insulting nicknames like “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Low Energy Jeb,” and most of all “Crooked Hillary” and “Crooked Joe Biden,” drove the ruling class insane.

Second, Trump had learned to prioritize family, tribe, and loyalty above ideology and merit. While the ruling class also acts this way, they simultaneously preach the opposite, elevating diversity, multiculturalism, and meritocratic ideals to be imposed on the country. They know these ideas and the practices and institutions that follow are national solvents, particularly effective at destroying a people’s self-understanding, common memory, preservation and love of one’s own, and a productive relationship to the land. Trump’s valuation of loyalty instead of professional credentials or CV accomplishments meant that he was the first GOP president since Richard Nixon who was able to distinguish friend from enemy—and to act on it, firing cabinet members right and left who were revealed as turncoats. Trump signified the return of politics among the new right.

Third and finally, Trump was unabashedly pro-American. He was not ashamed to visit the American heartland, to eat Big Macs with blue collar workers, to slap tariffs on Chinese goods, and to demand that European NATO members pay their fair share. He did not indulge the opulent and revolutionary anti-Americanism of college activists and HR administrators. While his understanding of American history, constitutional jurisprudence, or political philosophy is surely scant, his instinctual affinity toward everyday Americans earned him eternal scorn among the political elite.

Trump’s strengths make him dynamite to our current regime; he is their kryptonite, and they cannot help but wreak his destruction. Yet at the same time, Trump’s strengths also make him dangerous to political stability and self-government going forward. His moral lapses, his personal volatility, his loose tongue, and his materialism are corrosive toward long-term national prosperity. Since he hails from the ruling class, he reflects many of their vices. He is the hero we need, but tragedy will likely follow him.

The Christian Prince

Donald Trump is no George Washington; nor is he the Christian Prince. While we should expect him to be neither, and we can appreciate him as the tragic hero we need to wrest control away from America’s ruling faction, we should not lose sight of the kind of presidential statesmanship America deserves in the long term.

In Tucker Carlson’s recent interview with El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele, Tucker asked Bukele how he was able to subdue El Salvador’s massive drug, crime, and gang problem that flipped the country from being the murder capital of the world to being the safest in the Western Hemisphere. Bukele responded that officially they followed ‘the plan’ according to operational phases, but that unofficially he and his whole cabinet prayed to God for wisdom and success. God has been pleased to answer their prayers. Yet the hard and dirty work of rounding up and imprisoning 70,000 gang members and reestablishing order and peace in the country still had to be done. Even Christian Princes must subdue and kill their enemies.

Americans, and especially Christians, can vote for Donald Trump without a guilty conscience, knowing the role he serves as our tragic hero. Yet support for Trump could help pave the way for future Christian statesmanship, whether constitutional or post-constitutional. The ability to stand by Trump will translate into the ability to support a future Christian Prince when the time comes to restore order and good rule to America, even though that will inevitably require difficult and painful policies that separate friends from enemies.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Ben R. Crenshaw

Ben R. Crenshaw is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Declaration of Independence Center at the University of Mississippi. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. You can follow him on Twitter at @benrcrenshaw.

5 thoughts on “Trump as Tragic Hero

  1. This excusing of Trump’s flaws by pointing to a nameless and faceless ruling class forgets one thing, Trump is a member of that class. In fact Trump is not only a member, he was the President and he wants to be the President again.

    When Trump cut taxes and environmental regulations set in place by Obama, who was that forgotten man whom Trump represented? I ask because it was primarily the wealthy who benefited from those actions. Only the upper 10% of Americans benefited from Trump’s economic policies. And only the wealthy benefited from cuts in environmental regulations.

    Is Trump pro-American? Well consider how Trump regards those fellow Americans who disagree with him. Consider his comments about John McCain. Or consider what, according to John Kelly who was Chief of Staff (see, Trump said about those in the military who were wounded, imprisoned, or killed in action. Consider how Trump was trying to get appointees to sign personal loyalty oaths to him. Does that remind us of a famous character in history? Perhaps Trump’s loyal assistants would like to rename history as ‘alternative fiction.’ Or consider Trump’s criticisms of The Constitution itself. He has violated and criticized the Emoluments Clause. BTW, the only beneficiary of such a violation goes to the violator. While President, he talked about extending his Presidency past 2024. Trump called for the termination of The Constitution. And Trump tried to get Pence to violate The Constitution in the counting of the votes of the Electoral College.

    And so how can we say that Trump is merely a necessary flawed man whose flaws are necessary in battling the ruling class for the benefit of the forgotten man? When Trump and the wealthy are the primary beneficiaries of Trump’s actions and policies, who is this forgotten man whom Crenshaw talks about?

    When Crenshaw calls Trump a ‘Tragic Hero,’ Crenshaw is 1 out of 2. And what is tragic about Trump is what is tragic for Trump; he believes that the rules do not apply to him and so he recognizes no limits in how he wants to react to people. It would seem to me that tough times would necessitate a leader who is exceptionally self-controlled. That is because tough times provide less margin for error than ordinary times do.

    1. Curt, I’m disappointed this comment is almost 24 hours behind the publication of the article. This could be your finest hour, but you’re slacking! I expect better in the future–next Wednesday, 8am EST sharp. Get ready.

      1. Ben,
        I have a life and so be prepared for late responses in the future. Of course, I am always curious about responses that do not deal with the issues I bring up. But at least this response is a benign one.

        BTW, I am not the one who determines my finest hour, God does. And my finest hour is found in what God has done for me rather than in what I have done.

        So do you like serious responses to humorous notes?

    2. Curt’s CNN talking points are on full display! Fear the orange man! He’s literally Hitler!

      1. Duke,
        Talking points? You mean mentioning Trump’s cutting of Obama’s clean air and water regulations are only talking points? Mentioning what John Kelly reported as being Trump’s descriptions of veterans are mere talking points? Or mentioning Trump’s criticisms of The Constitution are just talking points?

        There is much to fear about Trump. And though he and his movement have some similarities to Hitler and the Nazis, such as emphasizing traditional values and nation first policies along with some other traits, he is no Hitler. But like Hitler, he tried to overthrow the government by trying to steal a fair and legitimate election.

        And so why try to use a straw man to distract from who Trump really is?

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