All the world is but a stage and at times the drama of life involves more than the constant battles for power between political parties. There are times when the basic human struggle for meaning takes center stage and demands that people see the value of life more clearly. The root meaning of the word theater suggests a “place for seeing,” as in seeing into and seeing through. The theater was originally a place for people to learn to see the deeper truths about life, both the agonies of the soul and the follies of society.
On the stage of life the inner character of each player eventually comes out, revealing those who are intended to play the lead and those who simply pretend to do so. In the case of Donald Trump playing the role of president, the first hundred days have proven to be enough time to reveal his true character. There is a need to be outspoken about these issues, for as others have said, there are things in this world that deserve no mercy and the top three may just be hypocrisy, fraud, and tyranny.
The issue is not that he is simply unprepared to lead, although that is already demonstrably true. It is not a matter of the time it takes for any new president to acclimate to the complexities of the office. The greater issue develops when a second rate actor pretends to be a first rate player and somehow lands a leading role on the world stage at a crucial time in human history.
Originally, taking the leading role was not a reference to popularity or top billing, but an indication of a genuine ability to suffer the heart of the human drama and help reveal the agonies and ecstasies of life on earth. Protagonist was the title for those who took center stage in acting out the tragic-comic human drama. Proto refers to “original and exemplary;” but protagonist also has “agony” at its roots, as the lead actors exemplified the battle between light and dark and the struggle between truth and falsity in the human heart.
In Greek theater the name for those who played minor roles was “hypocrites.” Hypo refers to “under or lesser,” as in hypothermia, meaning too little heat in the body or a hypochondriac who has few symptoms, but pretends to have the full disease. Pretending and being pretentious are keys to recognizing when hypocrisy has become the main dynamic in a person’s life. Thus, a dyed in the wool hypocrite cannot help but say one thing and do another or promise things that cannot be delivered. As the playwright Somerset Maugham put it: Hypocrisy cannot, like adultery or gluttony, be practiced at spare moments; it is a whole-time job.
Donald Trump has been playing pretentious roles for most of his life and it was while playing the role of successful businessman on Celebrity Apprentice that he became a national celebrity. Where most people look to develop character, he simply seeks to advertise a trumped up and false sense of himself. Since most people feel constrained by the need to tell the truth, Trump’s indifference to it can give him a strange advantage in many situations.
Having been a faux author, a faux philanthropist and a faux populist, Donald Trump has also become the world leader of making faux pas and peddling outright false statements. The French word faux translates as “false, fake, counterfeit, fabricated or imitation,” all words commonly used to describe Trump’s statements, claims and now policies. A faux-pas is a comment that reveals to others that you are ignorant about a subject or have no idea what you are talking about.
Lacking any true center, Trump becomes more of a brand than a genuine person. Trump as huge winner, as successful businessman, as cagey politician, and now as commander in chief presents a remarkable case of an arch hypocrite winding up with a leading role in an actual drama which has life and death consequences and this may be the new height of hypocrisy.
Hypocritical has “crisis” in it as if to warn that those who pretend to be something they are not will become revealed to be deeply flawed characters in moments of crisis. Anyone with but a bit of common sense already fears what disasters might happen to all of us should Donald Trump actually have to face a genuine crisis of leadership. Disaster means “to follow the wrong star;” in this case it means following a reality TV star all the way to the White House where he assumes the power and position to create world-wide disasters even as he builds his personal brand. Pride may go before a fall; but hubris at this level could bring the whole house down.
The idea of a review after the first hundred days might provide a turning point in how people understand the topsy-turvy drama that has become the state of play at the Trump White House. Just as the failed Trump University has been declared a fraud by most after being a tragedy for some; there is a great danger that the entire country could find itself defrauded and entangled in greater and greater tragedies.
It’s not that people over seventy can’t change, for many can. Rather, the problem is that for Trump to change would mean that he would have to drop all the pretensions and admit to many failures, fraudulent schemes and a parade of false claims. He would have to eschew all the conspiracy theories and stop laying all the blame on others. Such a genuine moment of change is very unlikely to happen; there is no “other Trump.” As the writer William Hazlitt put it, “The only vice which cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy. The repentance of a hypocrite is itself hypocrisy.”
At this stage, the change from ignorance to a new state of knowledge must happen to other players in this crucial drama of the republic. Those who need to acknowledge this great and growing state of hypocrisy of course includes the Republican leaders, many of whom seek to gain something political or personal by participating in the public charade; but also others of any political persuasion who allow themselves to be persuaded that this too shall pass.
In many ways, Trump is the symptom not the cure. When there is lack of genuine leadership and a loss of meaning at the heart of culture hypocrisy can become a collective illness. An old idea suggests that hypocrisy on the part of powerful people is more dangerous than other crimes; but self-deception on the part of common people is more dangerous than hypocrisy. There is some hope in the fact that recent polls show that a growing majority of people, including Independents and Republicans, feel that Trump is both untruthful and untrustworthy.
Continued self-deception can lead to tragedy on a wide scale; especially as the stakes on the world stage have become so great when it comes to climate change and cultural healing. The word stage comes from roots meaning “to stand” and there are times when it is important that we each stand up for something genuine, truthful and valuable. We are each intended to become a genuine protagonist in the drama of our own lives and learn to see more clearly what diminishes the human spirit and what helps to sustain the politics of inclusion and a culture of imagination and creativity.