Shakespeare on Trump: Money Made the Man

MADISON, AL - FEBRUARY 28:  Donald Trump campaigns for President of the United States at Madison City Stadium on February 28,
MADISON, AL - FEBRUARY 28: Donald Trump campaigns for President of the United States at Madison City Stadium on February 28, 2016 in Madison, Alabama. (Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage)

Donald Trump -- as anyone not blinded by celebrity and wealth can see -- is a mediocre man: homely, boorish, romantically inept (he's on his third purchased spouse!), inarticulate, not very bright, and an underperformer who owes his financial success to luck, both of birth and circumstance. Despite inheriting a three or four hundred million dollar real estate fortune some forty years ago (which would have made him a billionaire today if he'd done nothing but give the money to a competent investor!) -- and even inheriting it before the biggest run-up in New York real estate prices ever -- his business acumen and investing has underperformed the stock market since 1988, and he has had to file for bankruptcy four times. In the real world, a spoiled rich kid who screws up so badly is, at best, a laughing stock, at worst, George W. Bush.

And yet this buffoon and blowhard is not seen that way in large swaths of the media and society. How could so many miss the obvious? One central reason is that wealth obscures the man who possesses it.

Several centuries ago Shakespeare had already aptly diagnosed the Trump phenomenon, namely, the way in which the possession of wealth distorts perception of a man's actual qualities. In Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (1623), Timon, a wealthy Athenian loses his fortune, and thus his friends, his status, his reputation. When he subsequently acquires a great amount of gold, he is now rather self-conscious about the distorting effect of wealth. Speaking of his "gold," Shakespeare's Timon declares:

[M]uch of this will make black white, foul fair, wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant....

This yellow slave will knit and break religions, bless the accursed, make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves and give them title, knee and approbation

And so has wealth served for the pathetic Donald Trump, erasing the man's actual qualities and producing a transmogrified image, in which the mediocre child of fortune appears as the epitome of competence and accomplishment, entitled to "title, knee and approbation."

Picking up on Shakespeare's Timon, a young 19th-century German philosopher, then unknown, a student of Hegel and Democritus, wrote about the effects of money in 1844 in terms even more relevant to our current misfortune:

Money's properties are my - the possessor's - properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness - its deterrent power - is nullified by money...I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

It may seem uncanny to us in the year 2016 that this passage was not written with Donald Trump explicitly in mind: ugly, bad, unscrupulous, brainless, and yet his money erases the ordinary effects of his actual qualities and gives them the appearance of the opposite! Is that not a fair summation of the life story of Donald Trump, inept heir to the real estate fortune of Fred Trump? His money insulates him from his homeliness, his inarticulateness, his stupidity; it even insulates him from the ordinary consequences of being an insulting blowhard.

The phenomenon that Trump represents, alas, is ancient, and the only question is whether Americans in the year 2016 will be the latest "suckers" and "losers," as Trump would say, to fall for the illusion that money alters the real nature of the man. I share most Americans' exhaustion with the sickening and dishonest platitudes of "professional" politicians, from Jeb Bush to Hillary Clinton. But the answer surely can not be a man whose lifetime of incompetence and failure has been masked only by the fortune of birth. I would take Bush or Clinton in a heartbeat over a narcissistic clown gleaming with gold. Voters should remember Shakespeare!