The Jester As King

King Lear and Cordelia’s Rejection

Welcome to Antonios Sarhani’s first post. I’ve got a brief post welcoming him aboard immediately above this post.

Nicholas Gruen

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.

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15 Responses to The Jester As King

  1. David Harris says:

    From where we sit within the scourge of Covid19, it really is impossible to tell which approach, of the many being tried, will be the ‘best’. When historians 5o or 100 years in the future look back with hindsight, Trump’s approach may yet prove to be the best option. It will involve many, many deaths, but these will very largely be among the old and infirm. I count myself in that cohort! He may well end up with a younger population, immune to the virus, and capable of living and working with it. Australia seems at present to be betting its future on the early discovery of an effective vaccine. Good luck with that!

    • Antonios Sarhanis says:

      I would say Trump’s approach to the coronavirus will be an illustration of the many downsides of the jester as king.

      I think he was the first major leader to close down international air traffic, even in the face of being called a racist, but other than that, his “leadership” has been poor domestically I would say.

      Time will tell, regardless.

      • David Harris says:

        Absolutely. Even as a buffoon, Trump can be expected to come up with the occasional good idea. The fact that he is also the king is the terrifying part. I’d love to be able to observe all of this from the future, but, sadly, am unlikely to have this opportunity.

  2. paul frijters says:

    Hi Antonios,

    welcome! Largely agreed, also, particularly with the observation that Trump is an insider figure and plays a recognised role in the political court of the US.

    Unlike the jester though, Trump actively dismantles internal structures. Trying to kill off Obamacare. Selling US institutions to his business friends. Gerrymandering. Victimising Mexican families who crossed the border. Fueling culture wars. That destructiveness destabilizes if it goes on too long.

    • Antonios Sarhanis says:

      Hey Paul,

      Yes, he is a dismantler. And we are in a strange political situation where at least some of the dismantling is warranted even though it can be truly scary to see how far it might go.

      I read the Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis about the workings of government departments in the Trump era. Great book — Michael Lewis can make any seemingly boring subject utterly thrilling. Absolutely frightening to think about what Trump is doing to some very essential government services.

      But other than victimising Mexican families crossing the border, I don’t think the examples you cite of his poor influence are even something only Trump has done or done any more egregiously than anyone else. As far as I can tell, a lot of the rot has always happened!

      And even on Obamacare, it seems to me, and I’m no expert, just another complicated system that the health industry will continue to game. I wouldn’t be surprised if the best course of action would just be to start again — although I also wouldn’t be surprised if Obamacare is a means by which further healthcare progress can be made. It’s certainly too complicated for me to bother trying to understand — and that’s part and parcel of why I’m suspicions about it: the only people who are going to bother to understand it are the health care companies who will profit from it.

  3. Jon Buttery says:

    There is much to agree with here. The jester is an interesting metaphor – though I wouldn’t think of Trump as an archetypal one, whose survival and success would I’m guessing require great skill and finesse in selecting jokes and targets. I find John Robb’s analysis of networked warfare with Trump as the great disruptor leading a networked insurgency to the White House against a corrupted system to make sense.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:


    • Antonios Sarhanis says:

      Oh, I disagree on Trump’s comical instincts. I find him often quite funny!

      He’s doing stand-up at his rallies. He seems totally unscripted and authentically him. He’s unhinged and buffoonish, but some of his lines hit.

      But comedy is very much a taste thing. I suppose it reflects poorly on me that I really do find at least some of what Trump says to be quite funny.

      I’d be interested to know more about John Robb’s analysis. As Nicholas asks, do you have a link?

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I think Trump’s funny too – and not just to laugh at how crazy he is.

    But he has no real sense of humour. So what’s funny is his outsized charisma which has a Muhammed Ali quality to it. He’s a kind of rap artist – as Ali was. His derogatory names for opponents can be quite good too.

  5. Jon Buttery says:

    Sorry – I wasn’t referring to humour, more his capacity to read the room, which on reflection contradicts myself as he is clearly very very good at it at his rallies.

    John Robb’s writings are mainly on Patreon these days I’m afraid (where I follow him). He is also on Twitter and has done a number of podcasts. Historically he was here:

    Here is a post of his before Trump’s election:

    and another afterwards:

  6. Antonios Sarhanis says:

    It appears Trump might go after the universities now via their tax-exempt status:

    He’s a a scoundrel, a jester, but only a disreputable buffoon such as Trump can target a bloated and corrupt university sector.

    • paul frijters says:

      yes, his exploration of the levers of powers at the disposal of the President will have long-term consequences. Power is centralising in the US system.

      Bloated and corrupt indeed. I think it is actually that corruption that fans the PC culture: the management of universities has an incentive to have students powerful relative to the faculty. So students are allowed to bully staff, so they of course do. It’s not (much of) the staff that indoctrinates the students, but the actions of university management that encourages them to play local cops towards the academics.

      • Antonios Sarhanis says:

        Yes, hadn’t made the connection between the pay-for-service model and PC culture. Grade inflation, standards falling and the rise of PC culture can be seen to go hand in hand.

        Am also wondering with the Ghislaine Maxwell situation if Trump has been lining things up to lay out some bombshells closer to the election and truly shake up people’s trust in institutions.

        Pure speculation on my part, but it seems authorities knew exactly where she was all this time and were just waiting.

        Trump certainly had his own connections to Epstein and is clearly not a clean skin, but he’s got the least to lose by dragging everyone else into the muck with him.

        • yes, wouldn’t surprise me about Trump. We are almost certainly in for a well-publicised mud-slinging match till the next US elections.

          Trump’s irony is that the one issue he hass probably been on the right side of history about (covid) will get him booted out. If he had just kept lying and played along he’d have been fine.

          It’s also interesting he’s started to wear face masks. Like his bible and his stance towards the Palestinians, he is essentially highly pragmatic.

  7. Jon Buttery says:

    This might be a better summary of John Robb’s thinking if you are interested:

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