The ceremony and the circumlocutions of the kingly court is cut by the jester. As long as the jester commands no following, he is free to enjoy the privileges of court while breaking with protocol, ridiculing the courtiers, speaking that which ought not be spoken and, occasionally, even if by happenstance, uttering a truth or two.
Although we’re a long way from kingly courts, in another sense we’re still stuck there. Mannered public behaviour and Overton windows bounding inter-elite discussion take the place of courtly protocol these days. Yet unlike the courtly days of yore, the jester can do more than just speak: in a democracy, the jester can be elected king.
Trump As Court Jester
Trump is the court jester. Scandals and rhetorical overreach that would have scuppered an ordinary courtier politician wash over the jester. The flouting of courtly behavioural standards only add to the jester’s political appeal, which also grants him an unprecedented freedom to mock his opponents who are hamstrung by the need to appear respectable.
But how did we get to the point where the jester is electable? The archetypal king is stately, stable, wise and reserved. Something broke. And in the USA’s democracy, the court was voted out of office and the capricious and juvenile jester was elected king.
The Brave Jester?
Trump is notoriously thin-skinned. What’s missed in that glib description is that the ridicule directed his way doesn’t appear to affect Trump’s behaviour. Trump knows he is mocked mercilessly, more so than any other president. Despite being thin-skinned, the mocking nonetheless seems to fuel him. Is that solipsistic? Narcissistic? Megalomaniacal? Could it even be considered brave?
The jester is given licence to ridicule. But the jester must also have the wherewithal to withstand being ridiculed. To be a courtier is to never be brave enough to say anything that is beyond the pale, never so much as risking ridicule. Behind the court’s reserved and considered veneer lies an uneasy core that is attuned to the fashions of the time rather than the workings of wisdom. The jester is hardly wise, but the jester can blindly jolt, shifting the bounds of acceptable discourse in a circumscribed court.
The Truth-Telling Jester?
I need not bother listing the many ludicrous things Trump has said and done. Jesters will do all sorts of ludicrous. What’s more interesting is the many ludicrous things Trump has said and now done that might be closer to the newly accepted truth despite being once so roundly mocked.
Consider the following Trumpian actions and attitudes, largely at odds with the prevailing wisdom circa 2016, that have either turned out seemingly well or were eerily prescient in this annus horribilis (to borrow a phrase from a queen):
- The world is not a peaceful brotherhood of trading nations. Geopolitics matters.
- China is not playing fair, should not be trusted and is a threat to global prosperity.
- A better relationship with Russia is no bad thing, especially when any rapprochement with Russia can be used as a bulwark against the far greater threat of China.
- Funding the economic development of geopolitical allies in Japan, South Korea and Germany was excellent policy. Funding the economic development of a geopolitical rival in China is stupid.
- Trade wars can be won, especially by the USA with its reserve currency.
- Globalisation and free trade has big downsides. We should be wary about how trade takes place. The details matter.
- The USA needs a manufacturing base. Jobs need to be kept, supply lines need to be vouchsafed.
- Trusting a rival to build your technological backbone just because it’s cheaper is short-sighted.
- Jobs are far more important than a budget deficit (is Trump the first MMT president?)
- Paying Iran billions to not build nukes while they fund terrorist organisations that attack US allies is terrible policy.
- If a personal relationship between leaders can get a belligerent nuclear power in North Korea to co-operate, why not facilitate such a personal relationship?
- Borders matter. The free movement of people can cause harm.
- The USA should exert pressure on Europe for the lacklustre funding of its own defence and be willing to upset allies in order to drive a more favourable arrangement.
- Many global institutions, such as the WHO and the WTO, are incompetent or corrupt and should be distrusted, defunded, reformed and/or disbanded.
- Foreign military engagements are costly and achieve little. The USA should disengage and be far less interventionist than the Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Reagan regimes.
In that ragtag bunch of points are a few that come straight out of the “feral” left. Remember those violent WTO protests against free trade and globalisation? Such free-wheeling is to be expected, though: the jester respects no party lines!
And that’s the point: the jester, free from the encumbrance of belonging to any tribe, can collect a ragtag bunch of points from any field and embrace them. The jester has license to flip-flop, adjust and recalibrate without penalty, just as you’d like anyone to do as circumstances, new facts or the working out of wisdom play themselves out. Granted, there is no hint of wisdom to the jester, but neither is there the lofty folly of a court running off track.
The Court is Dead, Long Live the Court
There are countless downsides to the jester as king. The established norms and stability of the court should not be jettisoned lightly and certainly not for a lengthy period of time. Etiquette smoothes processes, makes action across distributed systems of power easier and ensures really bonkers stuff — like maybe advising the reduction of COVID testing because too many active cases have been found — never becomes policy.
Although the jester is rightly ridiculed, the court also knows on which side the bread is buttered. Without fanfare, whatever the jester has brought into courtly conversation via japeries that has nonetheless proven fruitful will be adopted. Maybe come November a long-time card-carrying member of the court will be elected king. It doesn’t entirely matter. Whatever happens, a number of the jester’s best points have already become the established norm regardless of whether this is acknowledged silently by Biden or boastfully by Trump.