Michael Gerson, one of the most eloquent and principled critics of Donald Trump, insists that we are at June 1973, the moment when John Dean’s testimony broke the dam that a year later swept Richard Nixon off into disgrace. Others agree: This is an inflection point. And yet an equally well-informed friend insists, “I no longer believe in political inflection points and neither should you.” Who knows? But even if we do not recognize the turning points in the moment, we can anticipate what the end will feel like when it does arrive.
To be sure, Trump could hang on until the 2020 election. It is even possible, if considerably less likely, that he could be reelected and march off into a glitzy retirement at Trump properties in Florida and New Jersey, his retreat from public life punctuated only by bursts of increasingly senile bombast. But it does seem more likely than it once was that he will go down in disgrace.
The mood of that moment was given to us in an episode now faded into the remote, pre-Paul Manafort-conviction, pre-Michael Cohen-guilty-plea world, when Omarosa Manigault-Newman, the flashy villainess of more than one Trump reality-television show, turned on her benefactor with juicy and not entirely incredible revelations. A puerile justice this: the secret taper of others taped, the once upright Marine general caught trying to bully the only black woman close to the president by locking her in the Situation Room while threatening her with legal consequences to force her resignation. Her betrayal of her benefactor proved a tawdry but revealing final episode in this particular show.
But to really get the feel for the Trump administration’s end, we must turn to the finest political psychologist of them all, William Shakespeare. The text is in the final act of what superstitious actors only refer to as the “Scottish play.” One of the nobles who has turned on their murderous usurper king describes Macbeth’s predicament:
Those he commands move only in command,
Nothing in love. Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.
And so it will be for Trump. To be clear, these are very different people. Macbeth is an utterly absorbing, troubling, tragic, and compelling figure. Unlike America’s germaphobic president, who copped five draft deferments and has yet to visit the thousands of American soldiers on the front lines in Afghanistan or Iraq, he is physically brave. In fact, the first thing we hear about him is that in the heat of battle with a rebel against King Duncan (whom he later murders) Macbeth “unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops.” He is apparently faithful to his wife, has a conscience (that he overcomes), knows guilt and remorse, and has self-knowledge. He also has a pretty good command of the English language. In all these respects he is as unlike Trump as one can be.
But in the moment of losing power, the two will be alike. A tyrant is unloved, and although the laws and institutions of the United States have proven a brake on Trump, his spirit remains tyrannical—that is, utterly self-absorbed and self-concerned, indifferent to the suffering of others, knowing no moral restraint. He expects fealty and gives none. Such people can exert power for a long time, by playing on the fear and cupidity, the gullibility and the hatreds of those around them. Ideological fervor can substitute for personal affection and attachment for a time, and so too can blind terror and sheer stupidity, but in the end, these fall away as well.
And thus their courtiers abandon even monumental tyrants like Mussolini—who at least had his mistress, Claretta Petacci, with him at his ignominious end. (Melania’s affections are considerably less certain.) The normal course of events is sudden, epic desertion, in which an all-powerful political figure who loomed over everything is suddenly left shrunken and pitiful, a wretched little figure in gaudy robes absurdly too big for him, a figure of ridicule as much as, and even more than, hatred.
This is going to happen to Trump at some point. Of the Republicans in Congress it may be said of most of them: Those he commands move only in command, nothing in love. For now, admittedly, there are those who still court his favor—Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, once the trusty vassal of Senator John McCain, the bravest of warriors and noblest of dukes, seems to have switched his allegiance from his dying lord to the swaggering upstart aged prince. But that is about ambition, not affection.
For the moment, the Republicans will not turn on Trump. They fear a peasant revolt, many of them; they still crave favors; they may think his castle impregnable, although less so if they believe what the polls tell them about some of its tottering walls. But if they suffer a medieval-style slaughter on Election Day, the remnants of the knights of the GOP will know a greater fear than that of being primaried. And at the moment when they no longer fear being swept away in 2020, when the economy may be in recession and Robert Mueller’s probe is complete with revelations whose ghastliness would delight the three witches of the Scottish play, they will suddenly turn on Trump. Act V of this play will also have a nonlinear finish.
And what of Trump himself? In this respect he will be like Macbeth. Where Nixon, who was a statesman, saw the inevitable and resigned, this president is more likely to go down spitting defiance. As for the rest of us, Macduff says to the cornered king just before their final death grapple:
Live to be the show and gaze o’ th’ time.
We’ll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted upon a pole, and underwrit
“Here may you see the tyrant”
And so it will likely be, as Americans gaze back and wonder how on earth this rare monster, now deposed, ended up as their president.