In an analysis of ancient myths and power, Daniel Ogden, professor of ancient history at University of Exter, suggests that the Greeks represented power in forms of flawed, or even evil, incarnations. Their abnormalities and lack of traditional values motivated and empowered them. I would argue that the Crooked King is far from ancient history. We live among them still today. And no better example stands before us than Donald J. Trump.
It is precisely because Trump is almost literally flailing his way to power, crushing the conservative narrative as he co-opts it, that he is — whether he continues to win or not — a Crooked King.
People refer to Trump’s campaign — very correctly, I think — as a matter of performance art. It really is all of that, but it is much more, as well. His performance is accomplishing something, whether for good or otherwise; he has entwined his performance into political praxis and whether Trump intended this to be the case hardly matters. His art is the vessel for his message and his mission. His performance is no longer art for the sake of art. It is art that is shaking the foundation of very old and tired established conservative politics. There might even be some good in this, but the opportunity for Trump’s revolution to change anything seems to be slipping away.
Indeed, most art is hardly art and only art. Rather, some art delivers more consequences than others, good or bad, and nearly all of it can be read at some political level. Then comes along Trump! He’s a step ahead of Green Eggs and Ham, he’s doing a fine job stealing the spotlight and dominating the stage even when his performances come off-stage via a Manhattan phone line. Trump doesn’t even have to show up!
Turn on the Sunday morning talk shows and the talk is about delegates and Trump. Making “America Great Again” — whatever that means — hardly comes up. Policy? Republicans have been horrible with details about policy because they proudly offer none. Trump, on the other hand, has a lot of ideas and they’re not at all original. He’s simply saying what the others tacitly hold and practice in their own shallow political performances. Indeed, the kingmakers on the right might be a little jealous of Trump’s unpunished freedom. Who knew how far you could really push things? Trump is discerning that boundary for his party.
But as Daniel Ogden points out, the crooked kings become exiled, banished, their deformities too much. And even this makes sense in the Trump cosmos. But it is where his revolution ends. Ultimately, established party power appears able to regain control of the Trump revolution and in turn co-opt the co-opter.
In the end, Trump has another relationship with rites and rituals of the ancient Greeks, one that will have a more lasting impact on American politics, especially if we forget where Trump’s outrageous message found its willing audience. Trump is the classic ancient Greek pharmakon, the scapegoat that is sacrificed as a form of purifying catharsis in times of crisis. It is meant to restore order and atone for sins. Trump’s arrival by this measure is overdue, but not surprising. After all, it doesn’t take a sharp imagination to see the Republican Party now in a state of crisis. It is in this context that Trump might be a hidden blessing to his party establishment, a paradoxical answer to the crises he exposed.
Trump is a scapegoat for the sins and failings of his party. By dragging into the light much of the party’s sordid ideology it can be attached to Trump and disposed of. This is a ritualistic performance. There are no signs that the party is fundamentally changing — not in any tangible way (cf. Ted Cruz) — but it can release its demons in the form of Donald J. Trump.
In short, Trump is much more than a performance artist and more sinister than a party-wrecking headache. He is a distraction from his more established competitors and the people rallying behind them. The risks here are high. Donald Trump is creating excellent cover for regressive conservative politics at all levels, but most directly and significantly in the presidential nomination. When guys like Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and even John Kasich seem like reasonable, balanced politicians, Trump has tipped the scales too much. Thus , Trump isn’t being scapegoated to purge the party of its darker ideology, he’s being scapegoated to put it back in the box.
On the right you can count on people distancing themselves from Trump as if he were some anomaly. For the rest of us it is important to remember that while his performance might have been unusual, his message really was not.