Why Donald Trump is the King of ‘Hubris’ for modern times…
Tamsin Flower, 18 Jan 2021.
For most of us, ‘Hubris’ is a dusty concept kept in a drawer marked ‘Useless Stuff from School.’ Far from being irrelevant to modern times, hubris lives in our communities, governments, selves, and is no more alive than in the current drama of President Donald Trump.
Concise, scholarly definitions explain the ancient Greek state of hubris as one of arrogance – in defying the Gods and law and (thereby) logic on the part of the perpetrator. Because hubris is a person’s undoing, the foreshadowing of their end. In turn, the most colourful definition of ‘arrogance’ to be found on the world-wide-web is from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
‘an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.’
There is a demonstrative, borderline exhibitionistic quality about the arrogance of hubris and nobody could be more rightfully charged of drawing attention to his freedoms and ‘power’ than Donald. Indeed, baiting antagonism has been the hallmark of so many of his power-moves, which liberals, centrists, women, minority groups, environmentalists…(almost everyone it seems) can attest to. Much of this baiting has also pushed the concept of what’s acceptable to contemporary western society into the realms of transgression.
…Prior to courting the conservative Latino vote, Trump openly described this group as ‘drug dealers, criminals and rapists.’ On Twitter, he has identified Trans people as a ‘burden to the US military’ and repeatedly referred to Covid as the ‘China Virus.’ Among official acts of defying congress, he rejected the bill that would limit funding for the wall separating the US and Mexico, and declared a ‘state of national emergency’ in order to maximise his budget.* He approved a reversal of healthcare discrimination protections for LGBTQ patients, releasing this ruling on the anniversary of a tragic mass shooting in Pulse, a Gay bar in Orlando.** Donald’s transgressions of what 21st Century US society had previously come to understand as fairness and equality are too voluminous to collate. He is larger-than-life, audacious and unanswerable…or is he?
Perhaps the most audacious and unrepentant kings of Greek legend, is Agamemnon. Determined to achieve glory and spoils in sacking Troy, he killed his daughter, Iphigenia as a virgin sacrifice to spur the wind in his sails. Far from pleasing the Gods, this provoked Artemis into a state of fury, only equalled by her disgust in Agamemnon’s mercenary treatment of his prisoners of war. The violence was gratuitous and innocents suffered. In line with divine jurisdiction, Agamemnon’s fate was ironic and tragic – killed after his victory parade, by his wife Clytemnestra, for the homicide of their daughter. Agamemnon’s incitement of blood-lust had cyclical and enduring repercussions…
Among the world of moral dilemmas surfacing during Trump’s term, was the end to a 17-yr hiatus in executions on federal Death Row.*** These, as you may have seen reported, have increased with expediency in the run up to Joe Biden’s inauguration. Hubris, alongside self-sabotaging arrogance, is also commonly observed as the ‘pride before a fall.’ A dimension of the pride associated with Hubris is the denial or resistance of one’s fate. It seems obvious to state that it is Trump’s bloody retaliation to his fate, that his impeachers hope to limit and contain.
When King Oedipus seeks refuge in the harmonic settlement of Colonus, he is welcomed as a cult hero who can bring peace to the community – saving them from conflict and plague. However, Oedipus is a classical King and, as such, the state of his mind and body is a mirror of his nation, and vice-versa. Oedipus cannot offer purification or health to the ‘body-politic’ as he unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. He knowingly ‘pollutes’ his subjects as he attempts to embody health and majesty. Finally he realises that in order to restore balance to growing civil unrest, he must give up his false identity. In Oedipus’ case, this means gouging out his eyes as this will undo the superficial appearance of Kingship. The state realises that it is only Apollo, a higher deity and God of Sun, light, poetry and healing who can save them. King Oedipus’ case is less clear than King Agamemnon – he acts without all the facts and when he is in possession of them, he engages in a self-sacrificing ritual of penitence. In doing so, all Colonus is redeemed.
The audiences of these theatrical kings would not only have judged them according to the moral blueprint of divine/religious law, but also by Attic Law – the ancient judicial system of Athens. In Attic Law, Hubris is a graver crime than physical abuse and has been interpreted from the Attic Orators as ‘insulting and degrading treatment of others.’ Punishment for hubris, however, was dependent on whether it could be proven that the defendant landed the first blow. Throughout fiction and the archives of Law, the roles of Villain and Victim are often both assigned to a perpetrator in oral narratives. ‘In his defence, your Honour, he was not given a healthy example of family life on which to model his behaviour…’
Victimhood is a role often misused in defence of heinous behaviours and Donald has adopted this mode of defence for years. We are familiar with the squeaky tone of voice and puckering of lips that tells it. He has said that his experience in the Whitehouse has been marked by ‘mean’ and ‘horrible people,’ among them the media, who he broadly describes as the ‘enemy of the people.’ Hubristic Kings in Greek theatre have little to no time for the chorus, who are the people and sing the people’s: gossip, concerns and pain. Ironically, Donald has been very focused on framing who dealt ‘the first blow’ and in being seen to deal the last. His expected absence from Biden’s inauguration is surely a very lightweight pot-shot of final retaliation.
The story of our ultimate hubristic King, Agamemnon, does not resolve in his inevitable, bloody death. His impotence in righting an army of wrongs means that his children are polluted by his actions in a disturbing generational cycle. His daughter, Electra, and her brother, Orestes, vow to avenge their father’s death by murdering their mother. In doing so, they make the wrong offerings to the Gods at their father’s grave…divine order is upset, the earth is poisoned, all is imbalanced, tainted, unhinged.
It would be wild to suggest that Donald Trump’s unhealthy body-politic will be passed on to his children. Yet, the dynastic and monarchical aspects of his presidency are impossible to refute. Four of Trump’s immediate family members have Senior Advisory positions in the White House due to open interpretations of the Anti-Nepotism Statute. In 2017, Democrat, Robert Reich, responded to the appointment of Trump’s son-in-law, Businessman, Jared Kushner:
‘Kings and despots install family members around them, to protect their power and money. Presidents do not – at least not until now.’
Traditionally, the colossal egomaniacs of European history have fancied themselves as royals, sealing the fate of their hubristic downfall…Cromwell, Napoleon, Hitler all had special relationships with the terms ‘Emperor’ and ‘God Given.’ It could be argued that the moment they demonstrated the interests of the crowd were less important than their own, was the moment of their undoing. At a recent Republican rally, Donald Trump Junior announced:
‘This gathering should send a message to them; this isn’t their Republican party anymore, this is Donald Trump’s Republican party, this is the Republican party that will put America first.’
Thereby Junior presented a ghastly reality and paradox to Republicans with faith in the system – their President was elevating himself above the consensus of the party, with a sense of entitlement and ownership. Any illusions that such a figure could put the needs of a nation first, must have been finally shattered in that moment.
By transgressing the boundaries of what civil society has come to understand as fair, moderate and democratic, baiting the rage of those who have historically been excluded and wetting the appetite of the far right for bloodshed, Donald has dictated his own hubristic reckoning. In reality, this will unfold as a trial, not by divine justice, but by his peers – one section of the society he has sought to transcend. We all know what happens to men who assume they are: untouchable, beyond reproach, God-like. The question is, can Trump redeem a small shard of decency by demonstrating remorse? Or will he hold fast to victimhood in his unending battle to appear ‘right.’ Undoubtedly, the action will be played out with the all the antithesis, high-stakes and emotion that has characterised his presidency, in the modern amphitheatre that magnifies it: