Last night, I finished reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. The Cromwell trilogy is, as so many others have already pointed out, a remarkable achievement.
Not pictured is my first book of the year, Stephen Greenblatt Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (2018). Brilliant.
Populism may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation. The unscrupulous leader has no actual interest in bettering the lot of the poor. Surrounded from birth with great wealth, his tastes run to extravagant luxuries, and he finds nothing remotely appealing in the lives of under classes. In fact, he despises them, hates the smell of their breath, fears that they carry diseases, and regards them as fickle, stupid, worthless, and expendable. But he sees that they can be made to further his ambitions.
He promises to make England great again. How will he do that? He shows the crowd at once: he attacks education. The educated elite has betrayed the people. They are traitors who will all be brought to justice, and this justice will be meted out not by judges and lawyers but in a call-and-response between the leader and his mob.
But Shakespeare grasped something critically important: although the absurdity of the demagogue’s rhetoric was blatantly obvious, the laughter it elicited did not for a minute diminish its menace. Cade and his followers will not slink away because the traditional political elite and the entirety of the educated populace regard him as a jackass.
Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.