Aristotle tells us that tragedians value probable impossibilities over improbable possibilities. It is possible Mexico, China, Iran and all others Donald Trump proposes to bend to his will will acquiesce in his ambition to “make America great again”. But let us acknowledge it is supremely improbable
The other day, I went with my family and a couple of friends to see a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe, or, the Peer and the Peri (1882), the seventh of the baker’s dozen Savoy Operas on which the inspired duo collaborated. The performance was by the excellent Blue Hill Troupe, a dedicated band of (mostly) amateur singers who, since 1924, have been staging an annual performance of Gilbert and Sullivan to provide a wholesome alternative to the demotic entertainments competing for the attention of the delicately brought-up and also to raise money for various New York charities. To date, they’ve handed over some $4 million to sundry worthy causes. What started as a hastily put together show on a yacht in the harbour at Blue Hill, Maine, gradually evolved into an elaborate society affair involving scores of musicians and thespian-minded enthusiasts whose day jobs lubricate the engines of industry, finance and the legal machinery that holds it all together.
For as long as I can remember, the chief Blue Hill Troupe production in the spring has been at the Teatro del Bario, a charming theatre decorated with scenes from children’s fairy tales in a nearly marginal neighbourhood at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street in Manhattan. The decoration was particularly appropriate for Iolanthe, whose plot features a squadron of fairies tripping hither, tripping thither through an Arcadian landscape before they descend, in Act II, on Westminster to ensorcel a “very susceptible” Lord Chancellor and other peers of the realm.
When the opera opens, a sadness prevails in fairyland. Iolanthe, the life of the fairy party, has been banished these five and twenty years for the tort of having married a mortal. Boredom has finally gotten the better of the traipsing troop of tinkerbelles. They plead with their fairy queen, who did the banishing, to recall Iolanthe from exile. They finally prevail upon her. Iolanthe returns, and she comes with a surprise: the shepherd Strephon, a strapping swain of twenty-four, who is her son and who is in love with the beautiful Phyllis, a Ward in Chancery, who has also beguiled the Lord Chancellor and the entire House of Peers.
As befits his mixed parentage, Strephon is “a fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal”. I’ve always wondered if Strephon was the inspiration for Cyril Connolly’s observation that Vera Brittain was “Lady Chatterley from the waist up and Mellors from the waist down”. The record is obscure on that point. But what seemed peculiar in Victorian London is simply business as usual in twenty-first-century New York, many of whose denizens betray a Strephon-like polarity, though according to many authorities the location of the fairy essence often starts at the waist and travels south.
Against the unlikely contingency that there exist readers of Quadrant unacquainted with Iolanthe, I will forbear to discuss the denouement. But I can reveal that much of the drama ensues from a series of dreadful political vicissitudes, including the prospect of determining membership of the House of Peers not by inheritance, as hitherto, but by a public test. “Peers shall teem in Christendom,” threatens the Queen of the Fairies,
And a Duke’s exalted station
Be attainable by Com-
The Peers respond, “Oh, horror!” and they are right to do so, for appointing peers by merit rather than inherited privilege, opening up that club to talent rather than primogeniture, would of course revolutionise political and social life. No more would they be able to chorus,
Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!
Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses!
Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses!
The Lord Chancellor (said he to himself, said he) offered some keen observations about this eventuality:
The Law is the true embodiment
Of everything that’s excellent.
It has no kind of fault or flaw,
And I, my Lords, embody the Law.
Nice work if you can get it. But it is left to Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards to plumb the depths of the situation. “I often think it’s comical,” he sings as he stands guard, thinking,
How Nature always does contrive …
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Indeed. And then there’s Private Willis’s further reflection that
When in that House M.P.s divide,
If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,
They’ve got to leave that brain outside,
And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.
Like any good caricaturist, Private Willis exaggerates, but in exaggerating reveals something essential. When we step into the topsy-turvy world of Gilbert and Sullivan, we are not only taking a holiday from the pedestrian concerns of everyday life: we are also entering a world in which those concerns are accurately, if comically, anatomised.
The great matter concentrating the attention of New Yorkers these days—and not only New Yorkers—is the 2016 presidential primary. The prospect of hanging in a fortnight, Dr Johnson remarked, does wonders to concentrate the mind. The New York primary, with a prize of ninety-five delegates to the Republican National Convention in July, takes place just about a fortnight from the moment I write. At stake is not the fate of a single neck, but the collective noggin of the United States. And as one looks around, one wonders whether the topsy-turvy extravaganza of this primary is any more absurd than the world dramatised by Gilbert and Sullivan.
In one corner we have an unreconstructed Stalinist battling an as-yet-unconvicted felon whose campaign focuses heavily on “women’s issues” but whose philandering husband almost destroyed his presidency and put an entire generation off cigars when his dalliance with a White House intern became the talk of the town. Whatever you can say about Bill Clinton from the waist up, in the other direction he ostentatiously embraces Strephon’s mortality. Looking over the receipts of the Clinton Foundation or contemplating Bill and Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees—between them, they’ve raked in more than $153 million since 2001—one longs to enlist them to join in Iolanthe’s March of the Peers (“Bow, bow ye lower middle classes …”).
But of course the real show this season is the Donald Trump Cavalcade. In Iolanthe, the Queen of the Fairies engineers Strephon’s ascension from piping shepherd to powerful MP. Through the intercession of the fairies,
Every bill and every measure
That may gratify his pleasure,
Though your fury it arouses,
Shall be passed by both your Houses!
Explains one fairy: “We influence the members, and compel them to vote just as he wishes them to.” “It’s our system,” says another. “It shortens the debates.”
If Donald Trump were to be believed (in Latin, that would be a contrary-to-fact conditional), he would be like Strephon, magically enlisting hoi polloi (that’s Greek) to catapult him to a position of irresistible eminence. The Mexicans would pay for a wall along America’s Southern border. The Chinese would stop making all the things American workers want but wouldn’t be able to afford if they were manufactured in the United States. The Iranians would buy their missiles from the United States and when they discovered they did not work as advertised, Trump would tell them that was just too bad and he had already cashed the cheque.
Aristotle tells us that in the writing of tragedy, probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities. I suppose it is possible that the Mexicans, the Chinese, the Iranians, and the rest of the world community that Donald Trump proposes to bend to his will will acquiesce in his ambition to “make America great again”. But let us acknowledge how supremely improbable any of it would be.
Like Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump is riding a wave of populist anger. Sanders picks up acolytes by promising to punish successful people. The Queen of the Fairies warned the Peers, “You shall sit, if he sees reason, / Through the grouse and salmon season.” That’s the voice of Bernie Sanders speaking. Penalise success. Trump is peddling a different nostrum. His scapegoats are not successful Americans but the rest of the world. He will make such “beautiful” deals that our rivals will scramble to assure American pre-eminence. The Queen of the Fairies waved her wand and Strephon, a Tory down to his waistcoat and a confirmed radical below, was instantly transported to the head of every debate. Donald Trump waves his not-small hands and “waste, fraud and abuse” will be banished from the workings of the US government. Illegal immigrants will cease to be, and the problem of ISIS will just go away. Which do you find more improbable, Strephon’s magic, which is powered by the Queen of the Fairies, or Trump’s magic, which is powered by the sheerest demagoguery?
Donald Trump is a most curious figure on the American political landscape. Others have compared him to Huey Long. As I have explained elsewhere, I think a closer parallel, from the world of fiction, is to be found in Roderick Spode, the Mosleyesque aspiring dictator that P.G. Wodehouse skewered to such comic effect in The Code of the Woosters and elsewhere. Spode called for “an immediate ban on the import of foreign root vegetables into the United Kingdom”. Donald Trump, on alternate Tuesdays, calls for a 45 per cent tariff on the importation to the United States of goods made in China. Which is sillier?
If you want a real-life parallel to Donald Trump, you might start with Beppe Grillo, the Italian clown, television personality and political activist. Grillo transported himself to the centre of Italian politics with his huge populist “vaffanculo” (“f*** off”) rallies, which involved more than two million people. Donald Trump, a bogus billionaire plagued by a string of bankruptcies and ongoing class-action law suits, promises to clean house and “make America great again”. Grillo, a clown with a shady legal record, does something similar in Italy. Donald Trump is the front-runner in the Republican primary. Which is funnier? Which is more improbable?
Iolanthe has a happy ending. One peer says to another: “Well, now that the Peers are to be recruited entirely from persons of intelligence, I really don’t see what use we are down here, do you?” To which his friend replies, “None whatever.” And with that, the Queen of the Fairies waves her wand and wings sprout from the backs of the Peers and they fly off to fairyland.
We do not have the final pages of Donald Trump’s new reality show, so conjectures about the happiness or otherwise of the ending must be provisional. It will not, I think we can safely say, be quite so neat as the ending of Iolanthe, where “Every, every, every, / Every one is now a fairy!” But my prediction is that it will be reasonably happy. Donald Trump will not get the 1237 delegates he needs to clinch the Republican nomination outright. The hopes of those praying for deus ex machina in the shape of a John Kasich or Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan have just been dashed by Paul Ryan himself, who announced what the columnist George Will called the “Ryan principle”, namely that only those who competed in the primary should be eligible for the nomination. Ryan, as Will pointed out, thereby took not only himself but also everyone else except Ted Cruz and Donald Trump out of contention.
And here’s where the magic known as organisation comes in. Ted Cruz has it (just as Barack Obama had it in 2008). Donald Trump does not. George Will is right: “Running for President is hard work. It is supposed to be hard. It is supposed to test presidential attributes. One of which is to plan ahead, look over the horizon.” Ted Cruz has done this. Donald Trump has not. Which is why I can end with this applause line: Ted Cruz will get the Republican nomination in July; as things stand now, he will also win the Presidency in November. No, this ending is not inevitable. But it is what we might call a probable possibility. And in this sublunary non-magical world, that’s enough to be getting on with.
Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of the New Criterion and Publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St Augustine’s Press).