How many books and articles have we read about the rise of Donald Trump in America, Doug Ford in Ontario and Jason Kenney in Alberta?
How many more historians, political scientists and armchair experts do we need to tell us how we got into this mess and how to get out of it?
Only one it turns out—his name is William Shakespeare.
Tyrant, Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt is a remarkable book about a remarkable playwright who tackled the rise of tyranny at a time when it was treasonous to refer to a ruler as a tyrant.
To be clear, Ms Soapbox is not suggesting Jason Kenney is Richard III writ small, only that Shakespeare’s insight into the rise of ruthless politicians in troubled times is still relevant today.
The black storm
The villain in Shakespeare’s plays is often a cunning nobleman determined to become king by doing away with his rivals. This requires the nobleman to unleash what the Duke of York describes as a “black storm” to enflame the public, making it ripe for manipulation.
Alberta’s version of the “black storm” is a faux political crisis—we’re victims, we’re suckers, we’ve been used and abused by the other provinces and the federal government which is particularly devious by pretending to support pipelines while actually hating them and manipulating Harper’s equalization formula to rip us off (insert Alex Jones rant here).
Albertans are desperately trying to make decisions under what Greenblatt describes as “unbearable pressure…conditioned by emotional currents beyond their rational control.”
In other words, they’re being manipulated by a big fat lie.
Kenney ratchets up the “black storm” with a laundry list of Trudeau transgressions, everything from the border “crisis” to Trudeau’s apparel on his last trip to India, in an effort to cement his role as savior of the province.
Albertans are angry, some want to separate from Canada. This is beyond ridiculous. The last thing Kenney would do is let Alberta leave Canada and jeopardize his chances of becoming Canada’s next prime minister, but hey, Alberta separatism fuels Alberta rage, right?
Like the Duke of York, Kenney is happy to let others do the dirty work, some like John Carpay compare the Pride flag to a Nazi flag and launch lawsuits characterizing gay-straight alliances as “ideological sex clubs”. Kenney issues mild rebukes and Carpay continues to hold his UCP membership.
Greenblatt asks why people are drawn to leaders unfit to govern. He examines why “evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty” isn’t a fatal disadvantage but a lure, attracting ardent followers.
Greenblatt calls these supporters “enablers”.
Some are dupes and victims, too small to play a significant role in politics. In Alberta many of them are our neighbours who are so busy earning a living and raising their families they “don’t have time” for politics.
Others don’t believe the tyrant is as bad as he seems, trusting that at the end of the day things will revert to normal. They believe there will be “enough adults in the room to ensure promises will be kept, alliances honored and core institutions respected”. In Kenney’s case they’re blind to the fact that his trusted advisors are in a bunch of sycophants who march out of debates en masse rather than risk offending their leader and that Kenney is on record saying he, like Doug Ford, would invoke the “notwithstanding clause” to suspend Albertans’ Charter rights in the appropriate circumstances (leaving us to speculate what those circumstances might be).
Greenblatt says some supporters simply lose focus and provides the example of Richard III. “They know he’s a pathological liar and he’s done this or that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting, as if it were hard work to remember just how awful he is”. Greenblatt’s reference to “ghastly things” reminds us of Kenney’s proud description of the role he played in defeating a proposition that would have granted same-sex couples hospital visitation rights at during the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. In 1992 AIDS became the number one killer of American men between the ages of 25 to 44. Instead of excusing Kenney’s “ghastly” behavior by saying he’s evolved, Kenney’s supporters should have demanded he beg the LBGTQ community for forgiveness.
Some of Richard III’s supporters expected to get rich from his rise to power, convinced they could stay one step ahead of him along the way. This is the only possible explanation for Kenney supporters who stand by him because he promises economic prosperity notwithstanding his shameful record on pro-choice and LGBTQ rights. Apparently, the promise of tax cuts is sufficient to justify what Greenblatt calls taking a “moral vacation”.
Finally, there’s the hoi polloi who carry out a tyrant’s orders simply because they enjoy “the cruel game of making his targets suffer…” The viciousness of Kenney’s supporters’ attacks on Sandra Jansen and Rachel Notley springs to mind.
What’s it going to be?
Shakespeare pulls no punches when he describes what happens when a tyrant ascends to the throne.
Everything descends into chaos.
The tyrant is wary and suspicious. Fearing traitors and double-crossers he surrounds himself with “fat, sleek-headed” sycophants who are of no use to him. He’s restless and prone to failure because he lacks the diplomacy and administrative skills to govern well. His promise to unite the country goes up in smoke because the public, polarized by his rhetoric, sees no reason to cooperate to make things better.
But all is not lost.
Despite this bleak prognosis, Shakespeare believed in “the sheer unpredictability of collective life, its refusal to march lockstep to any one person’s order. He thought “the best chance for the recovery of collective decency lay…in the political action of ordinary citizens.”
Which brings us back to where we started.
Albertans are not subjects of the realm but citizens free to vote on how our story will unfold. We can choose a politician who inflames our fears or we can choose a politician who cares about all Albertans regardless of where they come from, who they worship and who they love.
Chaos or caring government.
I know what Shakespeare would advise.