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Year One: Our President Ubu

Private Collection/De Agostini Picture Library/G. Dagli Orti/Bridgeman Images
A painting by Jean-Martin Bontoux of King Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, late twentieth century

The only character I can think of in the world literature who resembles Donald Trump is Père Ubu in the play Ubu Roi (“Ubu the King”) by Alfred Jarry that famously opened and closed in Paris on December 10, 1896, after starting a riot. A parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and now a classic of the theater of the absurd and the forerunner of the Dada and Surrealism movements, the play is a depiction of the lust for power, full of insolent nonsense and violent horseplay. Père Ubu is a buffoonish pretender to the throne of Poland, a brutal and greedy megalomaniac who, after killing off the royal family, starts murdering his own population in order to rob them of their money. One audience member at the premiere of the play, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, was aghast at what he had witnessed and reputedly said afterward: “What more is possible? After us, the Savage God.”

Recently going over some pieces I’ve written for the Daily since 2015, on the Republican primaries and debates, and the presidential election, I remember thinking of Ubu while watching Trump back then. Even in the company of such awful human beings as Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Carly Fiorina, Trump stood out with his boorishness and malevolence—as when he announced to rapturous cheers of the audience that he would bring back waterboarding and make it a “hell of a lot worse,” or called out to his followers to beat up a heckler at one of his rallies where those of our fellow citizens who miss the days of public lynchings came to hear their champion. I hate everyone you hate, was his message over and over again, and these numbskulls who can’t even tell the differences between an honest man and a crook nudged each other, knowing exactly whom he had in mind.

Since Trump became president, every time I told myself this man is bonkers, I remembered Ubu, realizing how the story of his presidency and the cast of characters he has assembled in the White House would easily fit into Jarry’s play without a single word needing to be changed. Everyone, I imagine, is familiar with the spectacle of his entire cabinet taking turns telling him how much they admire him. “The greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to the president who’s keeping his word to the American people,” Mike Pence said. After every member of his cabinet was through slobbering, and he himself had stopped nodding in agreement, he took the opportunity to heap additional praise on himself, declaring that he is one of the most productive presidents in American history—with perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt coming close—and everyone present concurred.

Even more Ubu-esque was that scene of a dozen pastors who came to the Oval Office to lay on hands and pray for the president, supernatural wisdom, guidance, and protection. “Who could ever even imagine,” one shaken participant said afterward, “we are going to see another great spiritual awakening?” Or how about that touching moment when the president signed a bill into law rolling back the regulation for people with mental illness to purchase guns? Or the spectacle of the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and the White House economic adviser, Gary Cohn, pledging to American people that the wealthy are not getting a tax cut under the president’s plan?

Jarry’s silly play that so shocked his contemporaries doesn’t come close to the antics we read about and see every day. At this rate, in the not-too-distant future, we may all be, in effect, lobotomized by our exposure to Trump’s presidency and not even twitch when we come across such breaking news items as these:

President Trump has ordered a naval blockade of Switzerland.

Wayne LaPierre was appointed to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Ginsberg. Asked if he plans to quit as head of the NRA, he glared at the reporters and walked out of the press conference carrying an assault rifle over his shoulder.  

Space Aliens’ Bible Found in the Nevada desert. They worship President Trump and First Lady Melania.

Jihad is over in the Middle East. The president has struck a deal with their leaders to have their followers enroll in some of the many Trump Universities that have sprung up all over the region and learn how to sell real estate in the desert.

President Trump announced today that the construction of the Wall with Canada has begun, now that the one with Mexico has been completed.

Electing as president an ignoramus who lies every time he opens his mouth, we are loath to admit, is the product of our broken and corrupt political system, our fragmented and polarized population, whose hatreds and delusions have been carefully fostered over the years by various vested interests and their representatives on Fox News, hate radio, the Internet, and social media. Alfred Jarry described his play as “an exaggerated mirror.” So is the Age of Trump: an ugly reflection of what we have become as a nation.

Everything he has done since becoming president has only confirmed what was already plain to me and many other Americans watching him during the campaign. If he is no longer a mystery, what remains unknown is how crazy those around him will let him become, before they do us a favor and let the Congress get rid of him. The hitch is that the people who have flocked to his administration are as rotten as he is. Every monster in history, as we ought to remember, has needed a lot of help to implement his policies.

One only had to watch the confirmation hearings for Trump’s cabinet to fully grasp the sort of men and women who are now in charge in all spheres of life in this country. Lacking any feeling of empathy for their fellow Americans and their problems, convinced in their minds of their superiority because of their immense wealth, eager to pillage this country even more, they are bound to do evil because that’s the kind of people they are. In the meantime, the crimes and injustices that are bound to multiply in the months and years ahead is what we have to look forward to. Ubu Roi may not be a great play, but we don’t deserve Shakespeare.


This essay is part of a series reflecting on the first year since Donald Trump’s election as president.