In my political writing, I very rarely find much use for my study of Ancient Greek language or philosophy, but lately I’ve been thinking more and more about Nemesis, the “goddess of indignation” who exacted retribution for foul acts and brought down to size anyone enjoying an undeserved good fortune. Another culture might call this karma or “just deserts.” The Book of Proverbs says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” I think every culture knows the feeling that someone deserves a good comeuppance. Indignation is a universal emotion.
The Greeks had a word that we now use for prideful and haughty spirits: hubris. Those filled with hubris are arrogant, conceited, overconfident, and ultimately blind to the true human condition. The original use of the word hubris was related but different. Here’s how Aristotle defined it:
To cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to you, nor because anything has happened to you, but merely for your own gratification. Hubris is not the requital of past injuries; this is revenge. As for the pleasure in hubris, its cause is this: men think that by ill-treating others they make their own superiority the greater.
In this sense, hubris wasn’t a condition but a specific act (and criminal charge). It could be mocking a man after you’ve beaten him down. It could be sexually assaulting someone just to humiliate them. It could be giving a less powerful person a demeaning nickname and joking at their expense on Twitter. It really describes the pleasure a sadist gets out of being sadistic.
The antidote for this kind of bully is Nemesis.
But Nemesis is more satisfying when someone who richly deserves it has already experienced their fall. That’s when the goddess seems to be active in the world and doing her job. When someone emerges on the world stage and collects immense power and commits one egregious act after another with seeming impunity, that’s a direct challenge to faith in Nemesis.
Donald Trump has had a long stretch of impunity and it’s causing a huge spike in indignation. That’s why I don’t think of him as the tragic hero whose downfall evokes pity. King Oedipus had no way of knowing that he’d killed his father and married his mother so the Gods’ wrath seemed something less than just. Trump knows exactly what he’s done wrong and he’s tempted fate for so long that he might just sense that his luck will run out. I think of him more as Narcissus:
One day Narcissus was walking in the woods when Echo, an Oread (mountain nymph) saw him, fell deeply in love, and followed him. Narcissus sensed he was being followed and shouted “Who’s there?”. Echo repeated “Who’s there?” She eventually revealed her identity and attempted to embrace him. He stepped away and told her to leave him alone. She was heartbroken and spent the rest of her life in lonely glens until nothing but an echo sound remained of her. Nemesis (as an aspect of Aphrodite), the goddess of revenge, learned of this story and decided to punish Narcissus. She lured him to a pool where he saw his own reflection. He did not realize it was only an image and fell in love with it. He eventually realized that his love could not be reciprocated and he melted away from the fire of passion burning inside him, eventually turning into a gold and white flower.
This seems appropriate not just because Trump appears to suffer from some narcissistic personality disorder but because he seems fated to die a political death born of tragic sins of character: the seeds of his eventual downfall were instrumental in his initial successes. And, like Oedipus and like Narcissus, one of these flaws is a distorted and incomplete picture of reality.
Think of how Trump continually incriminates himself in statements and tweets. What is that if not a false sense of impunity? How is that not an example of the (modern usage of) hubris?
But maybe Frank Bruni is onto something with his take:
The genre usually invoked to describe [Trump’s] presidency is reality television. Science fiction is more apt. He’s an entity whose components split off to form independent existences that now threaten to undo him. His hunger for attention became Rudy Giuliani; his thirst for pomp, Scott Pruitt; his taste for provocation, Avenatti; his talent for duplicity, Manigault Newman. They’re an army of emulators, adding up to Trump. And they’re on the march.
That take reminds of the old standard Me & My Uncle, the song played more than any other by the Grateful Dead:
My uncle starts winning, the cowboys got sore,
One of them called him, and then two more,
Accused him of cheatin’, oh no it couldn’t be,
I know my uncle he’s as honest as me,
And I’m as honest as a Denver man can be.
One of them cowboys he starts to draw,
And I shot him down, Lord, he never saw,
Shot me another, right then he hit the floor,
In the confusion, my uncle grabbed the gold,
And we hightailed it down to Mexico.
Now I love those cowboys, I love their gold,
Love my uncle, God rest his soul,
Taught me good, Lord, taught me all I know,
Taught me so well, that I grabbed that gold, and
I left his dead ass there by the side of the road
I can picture Michael Cohen or Omarosa Manigault Newman singing that song: “Trump taught me so well that I grabbed the gold and left his dead ass there by the side of the road.” To me, it would sound like an Ode to Nemesis.
I write a lot about the justice I expect Trump to face, and I’m met every time with skepticism that he’ll ever be held accountable. I confess to having a bit of an Ancient Greek worldview on things. Show me the prologue and parode and I’ll show you the stasimon and exode. In other words, I’ve seen this play before and it doesn’t end well for the protagonist.
But, you know, the man from Denver gets away with his uncle’s gold. There is never perfect justice and justice isn’t guaranteed. It’s just that we all need to have some faith in something. My faith is in Nemesis.