Objects of scorn: Donald Trump and the Trump of Ancient Athens

Objects of scorn: Donald Trump and the Trump of Ancient Athens

If one accepts the proposition that Donald Trump has some similarities with the ancient Athenian demagogue Cleon, which I argued for in a recent paper in The Conversation, then it is worthwhile to look at some of the comic attacks that their extreme political programs have elicited.

In the earlier article I argued that Cleon was the ‘Donald Trump of ancient Athens’ (and vice versa), because of their similarly aggressive rhetorical styles, and their domination of the political theatre.  In this article I suggest that comic attacks on them have some similarities too, especially the focus on their bodies as objects of scorn.

Ancient Athens institutionalised political satire in its dramatic festivals in a genre that we now call ‘Old Comedy’. This type of comedy, of which the only extant source is Aristophanes, was very ‘political’ in the sense that it thrived within the polis (‘city-state’) of Athens. The audience knew the main political issues of the day, and the personalities involved, and so the comic poets could happily make these the centrepieces of their plays.

Prominent figures in the city-state of Athens were duly lampooned – people like the philosopher Socrates, the tragedian Euripides, and the politician Pericles. Public figures were fair game, and it could be brutal.

In Plato’s Apology of Socrates, which is set just before Socrates’ death in 399BC, he complains about the treatment he received from Aristophanes in the play Clouds decades earlier (423BC), and the way that it misrepresented his philosophical position (Apology, 18b-d).

Many prominent Athenians, of course, missed out on being pilloried by Aristophanes and the other comic poets.  But such was Cleon’s power and prominence up until his death in 422BC that he was never going to be one of them.

We know that he was ridiculed in a lost play called Babylonians (426 BC), and that he reacted badly to the way that he was treated.  Not to be deterred, the young Aristophanes, who was in his twenties, attacked him even more virulently in another play two years later called Knights (which has survived).

It is noteworthy that Aristophanes’ comic assaults are represented in a ‘corporeal’ kind of way by the poet himself.  In the Clouds (549) Aristophanes says that ‘I hit Cleon in the belly when he was at the height of his power’; and in the Wasps (62-3) that ‘even if Cleon’s had a lucky break, we shan’t make mincemeat of him yet again’ (part of the joke here is that the figure of a sausage-seller [the lowest of the low on the social scale] defeats the Cleon figure in a comic contest in the Knights).

Moreover, in the Wasps (422 BC) Cleon is a dog, and presumably appears on stage dressed as one.  More generally in Aristophanes he is referred to as the three-headed dog Cerberus, ‘the jagged-toothed monster’ of the Underworld (Knights, 1030; Wasps, 1031; Peace, 313).

As Douglas MacDowell argues, the attacks on Cleon ‘are not merely jokes, but are intended to damage Cleon’s reputation and deter the Athenians from supporting him in the Assembly and courts…Aristophanes regarded his campaign against Cleon as one of his greatest services to Athens.’ (Douglas M. MacDowell, Aristophanes and Athens, Oxford OUP 1995, p.354)

There is no ‘Old Comedy’ these days, but the comic attacks on Donald Trump from various places do have some resonances with the attacks on Cleon, not the least the emphasis on the lampooning of his physical form. This often focuses on his hair, to which even the Dalai Lama has drawn attention in recent weeks. But other parts of his anatomy are the focus of attention too.

One such case is the naked Donald Trump statues that appeared in August 2016 in various American cities (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Cleveland). They were placed there by the anarchist collective Indecline. There is a genital omission in each of the statues, and the project is duly called ‘The Emperor Has No Balls’ (after the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen parable of the Emperor with no clothes).

Another bodily assault on Trump occurs in an episode of South Park called Where My Country Gone?, which deals with the subject of mass illegal immigration of Canadians to the US. The elements of fantasy and chaos in this episode have some definite resonances with Aristophanic comedy, in which just about anything can happen, and usually does.

In the South Park episode the Donald Trump figure is actually elected the leader of Canada, which precipitates mass emigration to the US from there. He is eventually raped and murdered, whereupon the emigrant Canadians decide to return home. The online Daily Mail reported that the episode ‘skirted the borders of decency and taste and arguably crossed them’.

The recurring interest in Trump’s private parts was also addressed during the Republican run-offs by Trump himself in a debate with Marco Rubio. Time reported that “the whole thing started when Sen. Marco Rubio made a snarky comment…about Trump’s apparently ‘small’ hands.

“‘[Rubio] hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands, I’ve never heard of this before. Look at those hands, are they small hands?’ Trump told the audience in Detroit. ‘And he referred to my hands, ‘if they’re small something else must be small’. I guarantee you there’s no problem, I guarantee it.”

The focus on Trump’s anatomy in the various comic references is quite remarkable, and even transcends Old Comedy in its intensity, which is full of lewd and bawdy jokes. Underlying these references, as with Aristophanes, is a deep-seated fear and anxiety of what might happen if power actually comes his way.

There is the hope, presumably, that comic attacks like these might sway the actual voting process against him. But who knows how it will all play out? Donald Trump clearly inspires this kind of thing, and thrives on it, keeping him at the centre of the political theatre being played out before our eyes.

Professor Chris Mackie has written widely on Roman and Greek topics, especially Vergil, Homer and Greek mythology.

Read more: