Opinion: A political comedy or tragedy?

By CHARLES HUCKELBURY

Published: 08-30-2023 6:00 AM

Charles Huckelbury lives in Henniker.

Last week we were treated to three preeminent examples of Shakespearean drama. The only problem was deciding if they were comedy or tragedy.

On Wednesday night, the GOP presidential debate opened Act I, although it still remains a mystery how so many candidates expect to win while lavishly praising the one man they hope to defeat. Mike Pence even praised Trump as the “best president in the 21st century.” Then why is he trying to replace him?

Perhaps the highlight of the event was the response to the moderator’s question about supporting the ex-president if he were convicted of any of the 91 criminal charges he now faces. Only Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie demurred. The other six candidates obediently raised their hands, DeSantis only after counting the votes of his competitors.

While watching the show I kept thinking about Stephen Sondheim’s classic song, “Send In the Clowns.” Clowns, as we know, can induce either fear or laughter. The array in front of me had the artistic ability to evoke both simultaneously. They were absurd, certainly, but also dangerous, thus confusing traditional dramatic interpretation.

Act II was on Thursday when Trump surrendered to authorities in Atlanta. In guaranteeing his right to be treated equally under the law, he was arrested, booked, fingerprinted, and photographed just as any other criminal suspect would have been under the circumstances. But the performance didn’t stop there. As soon as his mug shot was released, Trump’s organization and backers began marketing tee shirts and other paraphernalia with the photo prominently displayed, but without his booking number. Trump himself appeared shortly after his arrest and told his supporters that he had done nothing wrong.

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His organization now solicits donations to pay his legal fees, while some of his former attorneys, including Rudy Giuliani, publicly complain that they have not been paid for the work they did on his behalf. One amusing note is the slogan ‘Never Surrender’ adopted by team Trump. That, however, is precisely what he did on Thursday in Atlanta. I’m still waiting for the resolution of that paradox. But on to Act III.

On Friday the remaining Trump co-defendants also surrendered and received the same treatment as their iconic leader. Their performance died with a whimper instead of a bang, but we were still able to see due process prevail. There were no double standards at work by some nefarious DOJ plotters. Everyone was treated equally.

After all the drama had begun to fade, I was left wondering how one figure can command such a following in the face of so much contradictory evidence. According to a CBS News poll, MAGA devotees trust Trump more than their family, friends, and religious leaders. Even Fox News can’t compete. I kept thinking about David Koresh in Waco, and how the Branch Davidians preferred mass suicide to abandoning their leader. Or Jim Jones and his ability to convince his followers to kill themselves and their children for a righteous cause.

It appears that the GOP base is now committing political suicide by its blind allegiance to Donald Trump, who exerts so much influence that a supermajority of the Republican presidential candidates would support a convicted felon to hold the highest office in the land and lead the free world.

Our democracy requires political debate to survive, not some kamikaze devotion to any single person. The final two acts of the play will be the GOP primaries and the general election next year. Only afterward will we be able to tell if we have watched a comedy of errors or a tragedy and the demise of Lincoln’s Grand Old Party.

Again I hear Judy Collins singing Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics: “Send in the clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here.” Let’s hope they make us laugh and not cry.

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