Once as tragedy, once as farce

The recent announcement that the New York State Attorney General’s office is looking into the Trump Foundation, one of Don John of Astoria’s more dubious enterprises, reminds me of Marx’s famous dictum that historical situations occur twice, once as tragedy, once as farce. The Clinton Foundation is tragic; it has done a great deal of good, but as a project of people who are planning to return to the White House has also become a lobbying venue. Not only do its connections to the State Department during HRC’s tenure as Secretary raise eyebrows, but its practice of running its own projects rather than distributing money to established charities and the substantial amounts it has spent on luxurious gatherings of its super-rich donors are red flags.

The Trump Foundation, by contrast, lacks the grandeur of scale and the mixture of heroic achievement with moral ambiguity that are essential components of tragedy. It is simply farcical, a scam that has enabled Mr Trump to obscure the fact that he does not give nearly as much money to charity as a person who is as rich as he claims to be typically would.

The same could be said of the Trump and Clinton campaigns respective practice regarding information about the health of their candidates. Since cellphone video surfaced of HRC having some kind of medical episode the other day, the Clinton campaign’s unwavering insistence that any questions about her health are signs of derangement on the part of those asking them has become laughable, but I would still say that her apparent physical decline and her refusal to level with the public about it do attain to the dignity of the tragic. HRC is a major figure in the last quarter-century of history, and that she and Bill Clinton were as youthful as they were when they first appeared on the world stage did mark a transition from the Cold War era to the present time. That Clinton-world obdurately insists that she is still in her prime therefore represents, not an individual shortcoming on her part, but the difficulty with which the entire Baby Boom generation admits that the sun is setting on the period of history in which leadership rightfully belongs in its hands.  So the tragic scale of HRC’s pretense that nothing is the matter with her health comes not only from the threat of another presidency, like that of Franklin Roosevelt in 1944-1945 or Woodrow Wilson in 1919-1920 or Chester Arthur in 1883-1885, in which the White House palace guard refuses to admit that the president is gravely ill and thereby creates uncertainty as to who is really in charge, but also from her place in history.

As for Mr Trump, what he has made available to the public about his health is a statement from a guy who looks like this:

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As the man said, once as tragedy, once as farce.

The two foundations and the candidates’ health are in the news today. If we cast our minds back a few weeks, we will recall Mr Trump saying that as president, HRC would appoint left-of-center federal judges, and that no one could stop it- “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know- but I’ll tell you what, that will be a horrible day.” There was a great deal of parsing and analyzing this remark, though it seemed clear to me that it started in Mr Trump’s head as a joke about political assassination from which he recoiled when he heard it (“that will be a horrible day.”) Mr Trump’s opponents rightly expressed dismay at a potential US president making jokes about political assassinations.

Mr Trump’s tendency to say whatever pops into his head is suitable for a character in a low farce, not for a US president, and this joke about political assassination shows why. But what of HRC? She also has publicly joked about political assassination. Although in her case, it was not the hypothetical assassination of an opponent, but an already-accomplished assassination which she was instrumental in bringing about:

Considering the lack of provocation for the intervention that overthrew the Gadhafi regime and the catastrophic consequences of the Libyan war for the whole of North Africa, to say nothing of the gruesome manner of Colonel Gadhafi’s death, it is difficult to watch this gleeful boast without revulsion.

Still, low and coarse as HRC’s behavior might have been in this moment, it still qualifies as tragic. A phrase like “war crimes,” as in “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole,” does betray a certain lack of imagination. “Crime” names something inescapably small and grubby, and death as the result of crime is an unworthy end to one bearing the dignity of a human being.  War is the greatest of evils, but there is a greatness even in its evil. Thomas Aquinas developed a concept which he called “the law of the fomes of sin,” that even the darkest sin mimics the law-governed structure of God’s living creation. Nowhere is the law of the fomes more compellingly demonstrated than in the spectacle and efficiency, the awe-inspiring scale and undeniable bravery, with which even the most unjust of wars is waged. Responsibility for an unjust war is, therefore, a tragic guilt, not a farcical one.

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