The Tyrant Banderas Meets Tristram Shandy
In the late 1920s, the Spanish writer Ramón del Valle-Inclán wrote his masterpiece, Tyrant Banderas. It was set in a fictionalized country bearing more than a passing resemblance to Mexico, and it chronicled the story of a puffed up, coarse, cruel man, a tyrant both by temperament and by act. Banderas killed because he could, he imprisoned and he hurt, he blackmailed and he set one group against another, because it was only in sowing fear and distrust that he could keep his corrupt, hypocritical hold on power.
Valle-Inclán’s style borrowed from the surrealists and other post-World War One cultural movements. He called his writing method “Esperpento,” a Spanish word that translates both to a grotesque and frightening person, but also to a “piece of nonsense.” He sought to show the ridiculousness of life when all around is reduced to tragedy.
A year ago, I wrote of Trump’s persona as being almost punk, a particularly twisted vision of the shock-for-the-sake-of-shocking ethos of the Sex Pistols. These days, increasingly it seems more an example of a true “esperpento.” Daily, the grotesque quality of his actions and his sentiments vies with the purely nonsensical aspect.
There’s the horror of the endless lies and the sordid, venal, grasping for Russian help in the 2016 election that the Mueller report documents; then there’s the sheer absurdity, the constitutional nonsense, of Trump claiming on Twitter that, if the House of Representatives begins impeachment proceedings against him, as is its constitutional prerogative, he will seek protection from the U.S. Supreme Court.
There’s the cruelty of Trump’s ramped-up assault against immigrants, combined with the utter lunacy of the notion that, on a dime, Mexico can flip a switch and end all migration from Mexicans as well as from Central Americans; or the bizarre spectacle of Trump lying about which country his father was born in, and then compounding the spectacle by talking about his “oranges” instead of “origins.”
There’s the grotesquery of Trump and his minions essentially trying to intimidate witnesses against him out of testifying to Congress, or telling the truth to investigators, combined with the craziness of the President of the United States calling those individuals “rats” for cooperating with the same government that he is, at least in theory, the head of.
In the 18th century, the English novelist Laurence Sterne wrote a sprawling nonsense novel titled The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. He also referred to it as a “cock and bull story.” Tristram Shandy is a fabulist, a continual reinventor of his own tale. He goes off on whatever tangents take his fancy, and jumps between themes and arguments in a way that may make sense to himself but often leaves the audience bewildered. He is, in modern parlance, quite simply a bullshit artist; and it is because of this quality that he continually manages to entertains those at the other end of his stories. His audiences know he is taking them for a ride, and, seeking escape from the normal, rational confines of their lives, they willingly sign on for the journey.
There is, in a way, a Tristram Shandy’esque quality to Trump’s stream of consciousness press conferences; to his spewing out of unfocused, ill-spelled, poorly punctuated, tweets; to his nomination of one manifestly unqualified person after another to critical roles in government; to his idiotic prognostications on everything from how to put out the fire that was devouring Notre Dame cathedral, in Paris, to how climate change must be a myth because of one particularly cold snap in the middle of winter.
His entire presidency is, in many ways, one vast Cock and Bull story. It is a surreal exercise in flim-flam, in the elevation of nonsense to national mantras. And to work it involves the willing suspension of belief amongst a critical number of voters and viewers.
Yet, at the end of the day, Tristram Shandy was a benign character. It ought to be blindingly obvious by now that there’s nothing benign about Trump’s presence in the White House. Which brings me back to the Tyrant Banderas.
Last week, a state judge in Massachusetts, 51-year-old Shelly Joseph, was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly letting an undocumented immigrant slip out the backdoor of her courtroom in March of 2018, so that ICE officers who had entered the court could not arrest him. That the Department of Justice would embark down such a path is, surely, the result of political pressure from on high.
The judge, if convicted of obstruction — yes, that same charge Mueller found he could not exonerate the president of, and that Congress could use as the basis for an impeachment proceeding against Trump – is facing the possibility of spending the next twenty-five years in a federal prison; a longer sentence than most of the Nazi war criminals, sentenced in the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War, received for their heinous crimes against humanity.
This coming only just weeks after Trump told the head of Customs and Border Protection that if he disobeyed the law by throwing would-be immigrants back over the border into Mexico without a court hearing, and was, as a result, sentenced to jail or prison time, Trump would personally pardon him.
What we are seeing unfold is, quite simply, the use of the law as a personal weapon, as a way of rewarding toadies and punishing the morally upright. Indeed, if Joseph is convicted, it will serve as a classic example of exemplary punishment, intended to scare off other morally decent civil servants from finding ways to not cooperate with the vilest aspects of the Trump agenda.
In the Tyrant Banderas, Valle-Inclán made those groveling for mercy quite literally croak like frogs to show their obsequiousness. And, as he did so, he made a point to tell them he was, himself, only enforcing a constitutional order of which he was a loyal servant. There is an almost unbearable hypocrisy to his every action. Banderas wanted not just to break them physically, but to humiliate them, to in a very real way annihilate their dignity and their humanity. Such is the way of dictators. Trump instinctually understands this. He has Banderas’s soul, even if he wraps it up in Shandy’s cock and bull fabulism.