For four years and more, we watched a disaster coming to a boil, many of us anxiously bingeing on the accumulating outrages, as if we were trapped in a perpetual season of “Homeland.” Those scenes last week on the U.S. Capitol steps of an angry mob, whipped into a frenzy by a seething president, were carried live on television. You felt, as you observed the rampage unfolding in real time, that this riot and all that had come before it had been inscribed in the country’s calendar since that January day in 2017 when the words “American carnage” echoed on the Mall.
“Everything Trump touches dies” was the phrase that one of the president’s most incendiary antagonists, Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson, made the title of his 2018 book about the catastrophic folly of electing Donald Trump — the only president now to wear eternally the descriptive disgrace of “twice impeached.” That image of a lethal touch stretches back millennia, of course, to Greek mythology and the classical exemplar of arrogant overreach — King Midas.
You recall the curse of the Midas touch? Bizarrely and brazenly, Trump made “Midas touch” the title of a 2011 personal finance book, co-authored by Robert Kiyosaki. What the authors were summoning in that reference was the notion that some people have an ineffable gift for profit and riches. The original myth, though, carries quite a different connotation: Worshiping lucre, Midas is visited by the god Dionysus, who grants his wish that anything within his grasp turns to gold.
Like all such wishes though, this one is double-edged. When Midas reaches for a grape, it turns metallic. When he foolishly embraces the daughter to whom he is devoted, she turns to gold, too. Tony-winning director and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Mary Zimmerman conceived and staged a version of this myth in her 1996 play “Metamorphoses.” Set in a shallow pool, the scene of the king’s tragic comeuppance — his gilded footsteps around the pool timed to the tones of a gentle chime — was unbearably sad. It is the hollowness of that chime that remains with me.
Midas, at least, recognizes his transgressive behavior and the gods reverse the curse. We are given no similar opportunity to see redemption in our own unrepentant would-be king, who seems consumed in a belief in his own magic touch. So in what condition does that leave us? We have been living in this dissonant world — Trump world — for so long that I wonder how lasting the scars of these years will be. We have been a captive audience to incompetence and lies of a magnitude that even the most hard-bitten and cynical among us struggle for language to describe. This unfathomable dimension may help to explain why there is no end to the pile of books about the Trump period. (My colleague Carlos Lozada has even written a book about all of the books.) Perhaps what the mountain of words says is that there are no words.
The beauty of myths and morality plays is that they recognize the universal need for a frame to explain human behavior, even the errant kind. They embody eternal truths, and we are conditioned to sense these narratives coursing through the current of our daily lives — and in how we perceive the people who lead us. A thriller like “Homeland” — a kind of telegenic morality play — depicted the repeated upending of a moral universe and then the corrective action taken by a righteous, if ethically challenged, heroine to restore order.
In our government now, though, we’re confronted with a political party intent on obliterating truth. I watched the entirety of the impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, as one Republican after another attempted to rewrite the script they’ve been reading from daily since 2016.
“We should be focused on bringing the nation together,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) declared from the House floor with a straight face. “This,” he added of the impeachment, “is about ‘getting’ the president of the United States.”
Jordan’s performance reminded me of the maestro of skewering hypocrites, Moliere. About the title figure in his “Tartuffe” — an utterly venal soul posing as pious — another character observes: “People whose own conduct is the most ridiculous are always readiest to detract from that of others.”
The nation is in the final stages of preparing to replace a liar and sower of division with someone who seems far more suited to leadership — who has pledged to adhere to the norms embedded in a less hypocritical national script. At this moment, though, one is compelled to ponder the fate of our modern-day Midas, and whether the humiliation that now seems to envelop him is apt ending enough. Does there yet need to be a cathartic moral attached to the years-long turmoil he’s encouraged? That’s a cliffhanger, it seems, for the courts and the nation as a whole.