Donald Trump: the opera! Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty

June 15, 2020   6 mins

Is this Trump’s reckoning? The immutable truth even he can’t bullshit, deny, duck, obfuscate, seduce, post-truth and sliver away from? Ever since he rose to power, I’ve been waiting for the President to break a taboo strong enough for most Americans to turn away from him. It turns out it wasn’t sexism, or swear words, or loving Putin or callousness or corruption or teasing the disabled.

But in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, Trump seems to have missed some moment of ritual repentance that American leaders are expected to perform whenever the American original sin of slavery rears its head. They may just be mantras about unity and guilt, but by not repeating them with enough conviction, Trump seems to have desecrated something essential in the American Religion. His support is bleeding. He’s even losing evangelicals.

Trump’s relationship with Truth and Justice and Taboo has always reminded me of the final scenes in Don Giovanni (AKA Don Juan or The Trickster of Seville). Never more so than at the moment. By the end of the story, the serial seducer has run out of lies and lines. The graveyard statue of a dead judge, the Commandatore — who the Don has killed and whose grave he desecrated — comes to life and approaches with steps as steady as a death march to deliver justice. “I have come”, bellows the statue in a bass from beyond the grave, “Are you prepared?”

Over the past week, Glyndebourne has been showing online performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I found myself switching between the protests in America, with their mix of the horrifying and heart warming, and the opera, which flips between terror and farce. You never know how you are meant to feel with each new scene. And just as the protests are reaching their crescendo with the pulling down of statues, so the opera finishes with the statue leaving its plinth to take revenge on Don Giovanni.

Trump’s opponents have long wanted a Commandatore to turn up and deliver some truth and justice. One hope was Robert Mueller, of the Mueller Investigation. Remember those heroic, macho photos of the former FBI chief in military uniform that circulated around Facebook feeds? Here was the ‘real man’ who would take down Don Trump by uncovering his covert collusion with the Kremlin to seduce the American electorate.

But when he arrived, he fell apart. Watching Mueller’s Congressional testimony was painful: instead of a fearful bass, he had a high-pitched, weedy voice; his grasp of the facts was not an icy death-grip but clammy and nervous; his conclusions uncertain.

Then came the Virus. The Virus brings death, the only thing that is ever certain: reality becomes undeniable at the point of our obliteration. But Trump even tried to find a way to avoid that reality. His supporters questioned the numbers of those killed by the Virus: even these cold, hard facts, they claimed, are ambiguous. It’s an ambiguity amplified by the fractured American media landscape, where there’s one, demonic Donald Trump on CNN and MSNBC, and another, heroic one, on FOX, and a myriad more on social media.

Here, too, Trump mirrors the Don. There are some who see the operatic Don as a sociopath who uses the excuse of ‘freedom’ to run amok, manipulating his victims by first promising them the instant gratification of all their desires, and especially those of poor peasant wenches, then heartlessly tossing them aside to satisfy his own. He invites guests to his Mar a Lago-like palace, where he sings toasts to ‘freedom’ while planning to take a bride’s virginity, just for the sake, it seems, of getting one over on her groom. He is obsessed not so much with love, but with the numbers he has seduced; his eroticism is quantative, not qualitiative. In the ‘catalogue aria’ his servant Laporello produces a black book where he lists the women his master has seduced (640 in Italy, 1003 in Spain!), adding that:

“He seduces the old ones
For the pleasure of adding to the list”

Trump is just as obsessed with ratings and retweets (and boasts of the women he has bedded), but with no attention paid to the quality of that engagement.

But there are others who see the Don in a different light. He is a rebel, standing up to smug elites and a hypocritical establishment. In a 2010 essay on Mozart’s opera, the libertarian author John Kerns weighs up the two interpretations. Kerns initially “conceived of Don Giovanni as a (libertarian) hero… standing up against the church, against convention, against rigid social class…The Don is an operatic archetype representing the appetitive life force, and he is an emblem of liberty and independence of thought.”

Having analysed the Don’s crimes, Kerns does reconsider: “Is he a hero? He is not. His behaviour is so flawed by narcissism, irresponsibility, and dishonesty that he simply fails to qualify.”

Likewise, some of the libertarians who first lauded Trump’s rebellious role have now become deeply disillusioned. But for so many other of his supporters, the President remains a hero, exploding through the limitations of the po-faced establishment. Even his style — his ostentatious, gold-plated, baroque bathrooms with their overspill of ornamentation — challenges order and prim propriety, bursting out from constraint.

Ambiguity is amplified in Don Giovanni by the fact that there are so many different versions of the ending. The original 1630 tale, the Trickster of Seville by Tirso de Molina, was very much a morality tale, about how a “society that depends on conscience has no defense against a sociopath who has none”. In this tradition the Don, when confronted with the Commandatore, goes down humiliated, begging for mercy.

But in other versions of the story Don Giovanni is more defiant: when the Commandatore tells him to repent, he refuses to renounce his own behaviour. There are even different versions of the opera: the original Mozart one had a chorus at the end delivering the moral of the story; Romantic reinterpretations in the nineteenth century cut the moralising ending. There is a CNN Don Giovanni and a Fox Don Giovanni, just as there is a Breitbart Trump and an MSNBC Trump.

Don Giovanni is a metaphor not only for Trump, though, but also for how chaotic our media and our perception of the truth have become. Throughout the opera the characters are constantly switching identities, pulling on masks and pretending to be someone else, just as in our political life old identities don’t seem to make sense anymore: what on earth is a ‘conservative’ these days, or ‘the West’.

Trump’s talent, and it is a sort of talent, has been to fill that void. His is a world of simple but brutally effective binaries. As old identities are undermined he bundles together disparate anxieties and instincts into ‘Real Americans’ — ‘the people’ who are frustrated in their desires by a conspiracy of the Establishment, the Elite, The Commandatore. Complex clusters of debate are reduced to ‘Fake News’ or ‘Hoax’. Even the way Trump is constantly giving his detractors nicknames (Sleepy Joe and Little Marco) reduces complexity to easily managed signs. He is attractive to his supporters precisely because he can represent a coherent, almost child-like world view. For someone who doesn’t make sense he has so far been effective at generating meaning. He denies facts, but conjurs a way of seeing the world many have found seductive.

In their attempts to compete with Trump, and Trumpian politicians generally, opponents have resorted to two strategies. One is to associate themselves with the desires and frustrations of ‘the people’ even more ardently Trump. This has been the approach of ‘Left-populists’. The problem is that to be effective as a strategy populism has to be agnostic about being ‘Left’ or ‘Right’, it just adopts any seduction that works for any voter. We struggle to find political metaphors for election-winning populists like Trump because they can be libertarians to one audience while showering subsidies on another; embrace a Jewish Modern Orthodox son-in-law while peddling anti-semitic tropes about George Soros. A real populist sleeps with everyone. The Don even dresses in his servants’ clothes when he thinks a more humble look will pull a maid.

The other strategy has been to take the side of order, the status quo, against Trump — to play the Commandatore to his Don Giovanni. The problem with this is that you are still playing inside the metaphor set up by Trump. You might win one election that way, but you haven’t dealt with the whole logic of thinking. The status quo marks the space in which a Don can flourish. As Mikhail Bakhtin, the great Soviet literary critic, argued in his analysis of Pushkin’s short play about the last days of Don Giovanni, The Stone Guest, Don Giovanni and the Commandatore are actually two sides of the same character, two interrelated poles. And that means Trump can just as easily become the Commandatore too — as he is trying desperately to be now by defining himself as the President of Law and Order standing up to the Mob.

In order to truly undermine Trump, one has to undermine the structure of his metaphors, the seductive binaries through which he has built his world. We are seeing glimmers of this in the protests. Amid their chaos we see inspiring moments where the the divides between police and protesters are broken, spontaneous moments of dialogue, where the opposition between the ‘crowd’ and ‘the establishment’, is dissolved into a greater vision of a more complex public.

Trump’s metaphors are helpless in the face of a communication that jettisons the very structure of his binary thinking. His metaphors, such as blaming all the protests on a plot by Antifa, are for the moment flailing. He can’t embrace the language of reconciliation because his whole world view is based on division. Trump loses when the whole logic of pitching Don Giovanni as the opposite of the Commandatore disappears. It’s a resolution ingrained in the last scene of the story. As the Commandatore grasps the Don’s hand, the floor gives way beneath them, both are pulled together into hell — and the stage is left empty.

Peter Pomerantsev is the author of This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.
He is a Senior Fellow at the Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University and at the LSE