Jonathan P. Baird: ‘Rhinoceros’ is now

  • French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco addresses the French Academy (Academie Francaise) in Paris, France, on Feb. 25, 1971.

For the Monitor
Published: 9/15/2020 6:54:42 AM

In his theater of the absurd play Rhinoceros, the Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco presents an allegory about how fascism and authoritarianism advance and conquer a society.

In a sleepy French village, townspeople at first hear reports of a rampaging rhinoceros charging through their streets. Then there are reports of a second rhinoceros who has trampled a cat. Soon rhinos are spotted all over town.

The townspeople are perplexed about how to respond. Initially, they believe people are seeing things that are not there, but then they evolve and grow upset about the presence of the rhinos. Some think the rhino invasion is a hoax to sell papers. Others think the residents are too intelligent to let rhinos dominate the space. Others, however, venerate the strength and power of the rhinos.

People in the town suffer rhinoceritis and start morphing into rhinos. Instead of being able to think critically, townspeople start repeating cliches. When townspeople realize they cannot stop the transformation, some say it is their individual right to make up their own mind about becoming a rhino. Others become a rhino because they cannot bear to be an outsider.

The play ends with Berenger, the protagonist, being the only one left in town who has not become a rhinoceros. Everyone else has been taken in by the lure of dramatic change represented by the rhinos. Even though he entertains the notion of becoming a rhinoceros, Berenger, Ionesco’s Everyman, shouts, “I am not capitulating.”

Ionesco was inspired to write Rhinoceros out of his own personal experience. He had Jewish background on his mother’s side but he hid his Jewish background and was baptized in the Orthodox Church. He witnessed the spread of anti-Semitism and the growth of the Romanian fascist Iron Guard movement. As a university student, he saw his own philosophy professor use lectures to recruit young people into the fascist movement. Ionesco wrote: “University professors, students, intellectuals were turning Nazi, becoming Iron Guards one after another. We were fifteen people who used to get together, to find arguments, to discuss, to try to find arguments opposing theirs. It was not easy. … From time to time, one of the group would come out and say ‘I don’t agree at all with them to be sure, but on certain points, I must admit for example, the Jews’ … And that kind of comment was a symptom. Three weeks later, that person would become a Nazi. He was caught in a mechanism, he accepted everything, he became a Rhinoceros. Toward the end, it was only three or four of us who resisted.”

In the late 1920s, the Romanian radical right argued that Jews were illegal immigrants in Romania. The Romanian fascists said Jews had obtained Romanian citizenship fraudulently. Many Romanian Jews were of Ashkenazi descent and had moved from Poland to Romania in the 19th century.

Before World War II, Romania had a Jewish population of 700,000. The Jewish community was one of the oldest in Europe. It became a target for xenophobic feelings. The Romanian fascists and their Nazi allies murdered an estimated 280,000 Jews during the war years. Fewer than 9,000 Jews remain in Romania today.

President Donald Trump’s demagogic arguments about illegal immigrants mirror the same type of arguments made by the Romanian fascists against the Jews in the 1920s and 1930s.

Donald Trump is an angry, rampaging rhinoceros. He is best known for his verbal charge where he tries to scare everyone. The Trump rhino is unusually obese. Most rhinos are herbivores but the Trump rhino exists on a steady diet of fast food. Although lumbering, he has been known to charge in the direction of dollar bills.

In his younger years, during rutting season, he was infamous for hanging out with his rhino pal, Jeffrey Epstein, surveying the herd of very young female rhinos, looking for 10s. The Trump rhino has a history of gravitating to low places.

Highly unusual in the animal kingdom, this beast demonstrates both a high degree of self-absorption and a very short attention span. The Trump rhino seeks wide-open space on golf courses while experiencing a notable fear of enclosure in a zoo-like pen.

The creature has a nasty, vengeful temperament. Due to his mean streak, the Trump rhino can place babies and children in cages for months at a time. He ignores their cries.

As an elderly member of the rhino tribe, he does appear to be experiencing a mental decline. Conspiracy theories have replaced logic. While the ability to delineate truth from lies has always been a problem, as the Trump rhino gets closer to an election, lying goes into hyper-drive.

One branch of the Trump rhino family named QAnon has descended into madness entirely.

Those humans who have morphed into Trump rhinos follow the herd blindly. They have no difficulty swallowing all varieties of snake oil. Escaping freedom, they long for submission and surrender to a Dear Leader. The rhino followers love strength and hate weakness. Capacity for empathy has been replaced by a love of cruelty. Brute force is their guiding star.

The Trump rhino pretends to religiosity but winning at all costs is his only religion. And love of money.

If mention of 189,000 (and counting) dead Americans gets in the way of re-election narrative, the story of the pandemic must be buried. The Trump rhino mourns no one. He sees no money in public health.

Ionesco described engaging the fascist true believers in Romania. He said first they regarded him as an alarmist, then a nuisance and finally an enemy to be run down. He said, “They looked like they wanted to lower their head and charge.”

2020 has become an effort to promote reason and to fight a fascist advance in America. The Trump rhino is not a buffoon – he is a skilled authoritarian politician who should not be underestimated.

We are living our own theater of the absurd. Rhinoceros is now.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)




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