6 April

Our Greek Tragedy On Stage: The Actors Are Trump, Fauci, Cuomo

by Jon Katz

The Greeks would recognize Donald Trump, Anthony Fauci, and Andrew Cuomo instantly, in a sense, they invented the very idea of them. To understand what is happening to us and our civic life, it helps to look back and out of the cosmic conflict and seek some perspective.

The coronavirus is a moral virus in that it asks us to think in moral terms of others as well as ourselves, and it evokes the ancient Greek Theater, the originators of the popular culture that so influences and shapes our political-cultural life.

There are moral issues all around this disease – how much power should the government have, how much sacrifice should individuals make, should some segments of our population be abandoned to preserve the lives of others?

The major themes of Greek DramaDrama were the impact of war, the state versus the individual, the state versus family, the nature of cruelty, pride, and the role of “gods” or the polis – politicians –  in human affairs.

The coronavirus writ large.

The Pandemic and its moral and other challenges were imagined thousands of years ago and are acted out – performed if you will –  every day in our theater – television and the screen and the briefing/press conference.

To me, three remarkable personalities stand out in our contemporary drama – Trump, Fauci, and Cuomo. They are our Aeschylus, Sophocles, a Euripides in the Time of Corona; they are the faces of our moral drama, each acting a role created by the world’s first playwrights, the Ancient Greeks.

If they don’t always make sense to me on TV or my computer, they make perfect sense in the context of Greek Drama. There is nothing new in the world.

In Greek drama, the birthplace of modern drama, the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities (good and bad) rises, then falls to disaster through the combination of his own failings and disastrous circumstances with which he or she cannot deal

This protagonist is always a powerful, charismatic, and impetuous leader who is bold and feared and loved and hated. Almost always, he falls to ruin not by weakness, but by arrogance and poor judgment. He is impetuous; he can’t compromise or listen, and so is consumed by his self-destructiveness.

He is the ultimate politician, proud to lie, cheat, and steal to get his way.

There is also the Truth Teller, the ultimate public servant caught in the middle of the King, and the polis – he is Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has perhaps the most complex and unappealing job in all of America. Dr. Fauci has been at the center of every plague in modern american history; he is the lonely voice, the pure and helpless man, trapped in a nest of vipers with nowhere to go.

And then, there is the Governor – the polis as the Greeks called politicians – ruthless, brilliant, careful, willing to show his heart but not his true feelings or ambitions.  In a battle of rhetoric, he clings to facts, against bluster, he wields empathy, qualities he has not always shown. We all know what he wants, but we have to guess when and if he will reach out for it.

This fantastic drama even has its own chorus – the fevered and overwhelmed media, desperate to keep up with a changing world.

How remarkable that we have these three powerful and charismatic figures are performing in their own ways their own ideas of duty and honor every single day in one of the great dramas in modern history.

Of the three, Fauci is the most poignant to me, because the Truth Teller is almost always doomed in Greek tragedy.

In a disaster, everyone wants to believe what they need to believe, especially Kings and Emperors. Because he can’t lie, the Truth Teller is pursued by the mob, shoved aside in disgrace, and sooner or later banned from public view, exiled and reviled, sometimes jailed or killed.

He is in his pronouncements but bound by the truth and by facts that no one wants to hear. Although it is too late for him from the beginning, he becomes a hero to the people starving for truth.

The Greek playwrights understood power dynamics much better than contemporary American journalists, who rarely look beyond the fray for perspective or context, or the lessons of the past. Nothing is new, certainly not in our struggle with a global Pandemic.

Our pundits like to think that everything that happens is unprecedented, that they discovered it, that it is the end of the world, but the truth is, nothing is new, everything has happened before.

To understand contemporary politics,  you have to understand Reality TV. To understand Reality TV, you have to look back at the birth of drama, filled with the stories we now call reality TV – romance, hubris, arrogance, failure, and ruin.

Culture always leads, it doesn’t follow. The clues are always there.

Because he can’t and won’t lie the Truth Teller is obliged to challenge the King/Emperor, and every King/Emperor in Greek drama – and in human history – reacts to this in the same utterly predictable way. The Truth Tellers are pushed aside, or out the door.

Few Kings can tolerate challenges or disagreements, it’s not part of the job.

The truth-teller is driven from public life or worse.

Fauci, as honest and innocent a public servant as there ever was,  gets so many death threats now (the troll army will not forgive his challenging the King) that has been given special a special security detail to protect his life.

The President often keeps him out of press conferences or, failing that, pushes him away from the microphone if he thinks he might contradict him.

And what is Fauci’s crime? It is telling the truth, of course. More Greek Tragedy.

Cuomo is right out of Shakespeare as well as Greek Theater. He fits the role of the wily and agile polis, or politician. He is very different from his unspoken enemy, yet also very similar.

You won’t see anyone contradicting or challenge him in his press conferences either – he doesn’t let Truth Tellers in the door. Cuomo, a brilliant opportunist, skillful manager and intensely political figure is a natural enemy to the King.

In the drama, he is called to the struggle, keeps his eyes always on the King, whose vulnerabilities he senses and exploits. In the dance of serpents, they both exploit each other for a time.

Even though he and the King are natural and almost inevitable enemies,  the politician knows how to deal with the King. Flatter him praise him, speak carefully of him, act bravely, even heroically, and when the time comes, which it must,  strike.

There is no one who knows Andrew Cuomo who does not respect his political skills, media skills, and toughness. His dance with his virus-infected brother Chris is one of the great feats of political theater in modern times.

He and the King are both ego-maniacs, says a friend of both, but the Governor seeks to be an ego-maniac for good.

What King has ever pronounced great love for his brother in public?

Everyone who knows Governor Cuomo says he has been running for President his whole life, and if the opportunity presents itself, he will plunge his political dagger right into the King’s heart. But not now.

As a politician with enormous instincts for drama (so has the King), he is in the most promising position of all.  He can be a hero in his sphere, he can afford to be generously politic, and also play the innocent: he is not overtly ambitious, he is humble and self-effacing, he does not overplay his hand.

He permits the tragedy to work for him and speak for him.

I don’t know the King and the Polis in this story (I did cover Dr. Fauci briefly some years ago), and I can’t speak for their motives. I imagine both are sincere in their own different ways.

It is startling how all of them fit into the structure and emotions of the Greek Theater, in many ways, the birthplace of our culture, and thus, our political life.

In the Golden Age of Greek Drama, there were competitions between three playwrights who would submit three tragedies – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides.

Most of the Ancient Greek plays were like our modern soap operas. If you look at our soap operas (like our Reality TV programs) today, their likeness to our political system is also pretty startling. Much of our contemporary politics are framed as soap operas.

The Greek Theater had four qualities, as does our political Theater today. There is a chorus – media, and followers, and in our case, SuperPacks – who underscore the idea of the play, provide argument and point-of-view and focus on the issues raised in the play and the implications of their action.

In creating their drama,  the Greeks sought to replicate human behavior rather than invent it. Perhaps that’s why their idea of drama fits so completely in our great “war” with the coronavirus, which calls on public men to be great or to fall. In a sense, they were the psychologists of early theater.

In the daily conflict over how to deal with this awful Pandemic, President Trump, Fauci and Cuomo are all on stage every day. Each, knowingly or not, has taken up his role, as defined by the ancient Greek writers:

President Trump sees himself as a King, overbearing, bold, and fearless, brooking no challenge or contradiction. He is the classic King; he says he is blessed by the Gods and knows everything.

Governor Cuomo is also a King but adroitly portrays himself as the Anti-King, caring only about his people, willing to subsume any ambition or political instincts, and even eat crow to save lives.

In a sense, he will even submerge his true feelings – or lie, if you prefer – to preserve his vision and needs, and yes, to save lives.

The always tragic Truth Teller, Dr. Fauci, is stuck in the middle. He is the only one of the three who can’t compromise, hide his feelings, or tell a lie. Nobody loves truth-tellers for long; we love our leaders to tell us the lies we love to hear.

To me, Dr. Fauci is the noblest and ethical of all the characters in our drama. He is classically trained in process and goal. When I met him years ago during the AID epidemic, I told my editor that I had met a man in public life who couldn’t lie.

He’s toast, my editor replied.

Dr. Fauci has spent his entire life-saving lives in his clinical and methodical way. He is not capable of being the chameleon that every great politician has to be and loves to be. He is much loved and much despised.

Each of these three principals in the Corona Drama has his own following and his own value system. Bakers all over the country are making cupcakes with his face on them. It won’t matter. When the King is done, he will toss Dr. Fauci out and out of sight.

Only the Truth Teller is doomed because ultimately, the King and the Polis will need for him to go away to pursue their ambitions and plans.

If you follow the pattern of Greek Drama, the ancients were trying to tell us that the bold and arrogant King must fall. Arrogant and bold Kings, in their experience, must fail because they are built that way, it is their destiny.

And they always do fall, all throughout history. Part of being an arrogant King is to overstep because there are no boundaries that can work.

The Greeks would also have predicted – and written –  that Governor Cuomo will soon step out of his cautious and careful posture and do what he has long wanted to do – run for President. And he would be riding a pretty solid wave with a desperate Army waiting. He will have no hesitation about attacking the King then.

Cuomo is impressive.

He comes from a successful political family, and he is an immensely skilled politician and administrator. He is just as arrogant as anyone, but a lot craftier about it. And he has learned in this drama to show his heart and be vulnerable—another significant shift. In a sense, he is the perfect foil for the King.

I don’t have a crystal ball, and the Greeks didn’t either. Nobody knows how this agonizing and tragic will play out.

The caution here is that the Greeks didn’t have Super-Pacs, billionaires, lobbyists, cable news,  propaganda machines, pollsters, and social media.

We have soared past the simple Greek playwrights into a complex and corrupt world they could not have imagined. Facebook might have wiped out the Greek’s Golden Age, just as it might take down ours.

In ancient Greece, public office was a high honor, and a public official who knowingly lied could be imprisoned or put to death. In our time, the very idea of moral behavior has been upended. Lying seems to be popular and acceptable.

Their ideas of morality and ours no longer intersect. But their idea of drama holds up.

In our culture, the media treat a catastrophe like this one in much the way they treat a sporting event; there is a daily focus on who is winning, what the plays are, who is losing, who will emerge as triumphant or victorious, or who will stumble and fall.

Politicians sometimes lie, journalists make far more mistakes than they ever acknowledge. There are lots of moral issues to go around.

Gathered in vast herds in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles, they are not trained to look backward or forwards. Thus, they are stunned by almost everything that happens and are often the last ones to see what everyone else has been feeling for years.

In a way, I suppose we are all the Greek Chorus now, struggling for the lessons of the past because most of us can’t figure out just what the hell is doing on right in front of us.

The Greeks seemed to know.



  1. I like your analogy to Reality Theater and Greek Theater. Let’s hope this play gets it right and we return to a world with a moral compass.

  2. I *love* this essay. But don’t you mean “Andrew,” rather than “Mario”
    Cuomo? An easy slip to make.

  3. Perhaps when Bishop Maginn reopens you should teach a Greek literature class! Your analysis was better than most I got in college lit classes.

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