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King Lear, populism and the coronavirus

Michael Kirwan SJ is a theologian with a particular interest in political theology who lectures in the Loyola Institute of Catholic theology in Trinity College Dublin.

This interview by Zoom with Pat Coyle on Wednesday 3 June 2020 took place against the backdrop of the anti-racist protests across the United States of America after the murder of George Floyd by white police officers. Of particular concern was the militarised response to those protests at the behest of President Donald Trump.

Michael begins by exploring the rise of what some commentators are calling ‘new fascism’. He says that it appears today as if we are almost replicating the processes of a century ago, with a similar mix of populist fear and resentment, aligned with a crisis of identity and disillusionment with democracy.

Politics is regarded more and more as spectacle, Michael argues. There is a fascination with strong charismatic leaders, and the issue is exacerbated by the presence of social media and a new culture of ‘post-truth’.

It is crucial in plotting a way forward, Michael insists, that we analyse the present situation correctly. This will require identifying ways in which our current situation is similar to and different from a century ago. Whilst looking back to those times is instructive, there is also a deeper level to be addressed that requires looking at ‘unfinished business’ from the last five hundred years, involving a process of political secularization and a shift in the understanding of sovereignty. Once seen to belong to the divinely ordained monarch, sovereignty is now understood to lie with the people. This transference, however, has not been anywhere near as successful as we might imagine. “With a fairly high percentage of our population,” Michael notes, “there is an unacknowledged nostalgia, if you like, for absolute monarchy, which is a yearning for divine power.”

Michael cites Donald Trump as someone who is attractive to his supporters because he carries himself like a king, not a president – as do other leaders, of course, such as Putin in Russia and Bolsonaro in Brazil. Even today, then, political authority still carries traces of the ancient sacred power of the monarch. Firstly, it involves an exceptionalist claim – that the monarch is different from and above everyone else.

This is why the claim to immunity on the part of the King or leader is important. It most obviously means immunity from judicial and constitutional norms, but it also extends to immunity even from disease. In this regard Michael flags Donald Trump’s insistence on not wearing a face mask as protection from the coronavirus.

Secondly, the claim of immunity is a bid for glory as well as power. The link with the spectacular dimension of fascism is obvious once again, says Michael. It is a recognition that sacred power requires not just votes, but an enthusiastic, liturgical ‘amen’ – “whether that’s masses of people at a rally or Twitter ‘likes”.

But there are other leaders who are emerging, with a different agenda, and they are the people who value the dignity and worth of every individual. He cites for example the health care and frontline workers around the world, and how, for example, they were acclaimed in the Rio de Janeiro statue of Christ dressed in a medic’s uniform. See photo above.

In the final part of this interview, Michael looks to Shakespeare’s tragic monarch, King Lear. The play, written by the bard of Avon during lockdown at the time of the plague, exemplifies the demise of the myths of monarchy and the processes Michael has been outlining in his interview.