Waiting for Godot, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s two act play from the Theatre of the Absurd, is a quintessential primer to understanding politics under the Trump Administration.
In the play, two men, Vladimir and Estragon, wait by the side of a desolate road, near a barren tree, for the arrival of someone named Godot. They incessantly and inanely bandy words, alternately planning or arguing, complaining or lamenting, even contemplating suicide and coming to physical blows, all while they wait. When the two are joined by two more characters, Pozzo, the oligarch-like master and his slave Lucky, led by a rope tied around his neck by Pozzo, the desultory dialogue escalates and at one point Lucky begins pontificating gibberish loudly when commanded to speak by his master. The four continue to move about the stage, coordinating awkwardly in a sort of painful vaudevillian parody. Though the conversations vary, the scene itself never changes. The characters never move from the same bleak, nondescript stretch of road with its stoic leafless tree, and they never cease their unrelenting stream of meaningless conversation. That’s it. That’s the play. There is no further plot; there is no rising action; there is no climax, and, there is definitely no resolution.
What there is, is an irritating, repeating moment in time, a limbo-filled cacophony of mindless wordplay passed off as dialogue, disjointed in meaning, delivered by darkly disturbed characters with undisclosed motives who abruptly shift emotions, forgetting everything, including, by turns, who they are, what happened the day before, and why they are even there (waiting for Godot). The fascinating effect is that their simple act of speaking and doing takes on a morbid, exhaustive, nihilistic quality creating confusion and annoyance and a shadowy unquantifiable unease that is hard to dismiss. The play eventually ends where it began: with Vladimir and Estragon still hanging by the side of the same road, with the same solitary tree, still waiting for the unknown, unseen Godot to arrive.
Since its dismal debut in 1953 post World War II Paris, Waiting for Godot, has become the hallmark of the Theatre of the Absurd, a movement of writers and dramatists of the 1950s and 60s who created works emphasizing what they called the absurdity of human existence by using disjointed, repetitious, meaningless dialogues, purposeless and confusing situations, and plots that lacked logical development.
The play has long since become a contemporary classic synonymous with the idea of waiting for something or someone that never arrives, but according to Beckett biographer and friend, James Knowlson, in his book Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (1996), when the play first premiered on January 3, 1953 at the rive gauche Theatre du Babylon, in Paris, France, it alternately disturbed and incensed audiences so much that many simply walked out of the theater.
Our Congress today is Vladimir and Estragon, one, the House, the other, the Senate. Ever in conflict with each other and with themselves, they continue waging inner party wars, their opportunistic interests in perpetual conflict, repeating senseless rhetoric and stump party platforms, proposing legislation that is transparently and consistently at odds with the well-being of the American people.
We, the citizens of the United States, are at once the players on the stage and the audience. As audience members, we cannot leave the theatre, yet as players we do not know how to leave the confusion of the stage. We are both fascinated and revolted by the astounding political theatrics playing out before us.
President James Madison in No. 51 of the Federalist Papers, addressing the means by which government should create appropriate checks and balances and a separation of powers within the legislative system and its branches wrote, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men…you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” It is obvious that the Republican held Congress cannot control itself. Upon what truths can we as citizens build our understanding of issues that affect our daily lives, issues like healthcare reform, immigration policy, taxation reform and the pressing problems of human rights and social justice, when one politician says one thing about legislation only for another to contradict that same point, while yet another is caught in a provable lie by the media about it, while continuing to claim, in the blatant face of tangible proof, that the lie is actually the truth? Would the truth about the Cassidy-Graham healthcare bill the Senate tried surreptitiously passing without the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) report on its budgetary impact have been so terrible a thing for Senator Lindsay Graham to disclose to us? Should Senator Cassidy have clearly said “nope” when he said “yup” to late night host Jimmy Kimmel’s question about whether the Senator’s bill would pass Cassidy’s own “Jimmy Kimmel Test” standard? If Senators Cassidy and Graham had told the truth about how and why they came up with healthcare legislation that the majority of Americans and the healthcare industry itself opposes, that complicates and purposely obfuscates how that legislation works, that would, by 2027 render 32 million people insurance-less, they would have seriously suffered the scorn of the American people.
Here is the one truth we can readily pick out about the hidden agenda behind the Cassidy-Graham healthcare bill to which Senators Graham and Cassidy will never own up: The latest efforts by the GOP to repeal and replace the Affordable Health Care Act has little to do with the well-being of the people and lots to do with the fulfillment of promises they made to their special interest donors. This truth is what lies behind their hidden agendas and confusing rhetoric: Most politicians care less about the well-being of their constituents or how their legislation will ultimately impact those constituents, and more about how it will impact their donors’ opinions of them. Sadly, these actions are not as much about policy and governing wisely as they are about power, and in the case of the Trump Administration and the Republican Congress, the money that will keep them there. “In our political system,” Minnesota’s junior Senator, Al Franken has written, “money is power. And that means a few can have a lot more power than the rest. That's bad news for everyone else—and for our democracy itself.”
In this experiment in democracy thoughtfully created by our founders called the United States of America, we, as the governed, have been pledged freedom of expression in exchange for allowing those that we in good faith elect to govern us. In that freedom to express ourselves and through our vote, we have been lead to believe we have a balance of power with them. Our power as citizens lies in the freedom to elect officials to a governing body who will advocate for us, for our needs and wants, not so-called public servants who are selfishly concerned with their own aggrandizement. With this comes the added understanding that as citizens, we shall adhere to the rule of law, but as Madison stated, that principle of the rule of law is also to be adhered to by the governing. Where is the safeguard for the American people when those principles by which the more Perfect Union was created are eroded by the individuals that we put in place to preserve it? And to whom can citizens turn for the preservation of those aspirations, including meting out the necessary justice to members of the governing body who bend ethics and manipulate policies to accommodate special interests rather than their constituents, thereby employing dishonorable double standards of ‘do what I say but not what I do’? Comedian Bill Murray once rhetorically put it this way, “So if we lie to the government it’s a felony, but if they lie to us it’s politics?”
According to Govtrack.us, as of September 25, 2017 there were 6,696 bills and resolutions before the 115th United States Congress. Out of that number 612 bills have to do with healthcare reform, 449 are immigration related, 1,568 have to do with tax reform including 670 having to do with the budget and 293 involving the debt ceiling, 1,999 are about human rights, and 2,540 have to do with election protection, including 111 directly related to Russia tampering. It is estimated only 7% of these will ever become law. How many of these bills are conceived with the well-being of the people in mind? How many are written simply to placate so called special interest donors?
And what of our President? Who will hold him accountable for his actions, and when? In Donald Trump, we see shades of Lucky, the incoherent rambling slave of Pozzo the oligarch. Lucky is a seemingly illogical, erratic creature who speaks with no apparent intellectual foresight or logic. He cares little about his fellow human beings and lacks both compassion and empathy. Much like watching Lucky perform his 207-word monologue, it befuddles the brain trying to find words to describe the repetitious, derelict, “non-presidential” behavior of our president. But as absurd as Lucky is, he serves to point out both the function and dysfunction in the rest of us. And, so does Donald Trump. When Lucky acts the fool, we recognize the behavior as being illogical, senseless, absurd. So too, when we see Mr. Trump tweeting combatively with the media, or sophomorically name calling anybody from NFL players to foreign heads of state. We recognize the behavior as being immature, erratic, unpredictable, unprofessional, unbecoming of the office of President of the United States. Much like Lucky, through Mr. Trump’s offensive, rogue behaviors, blatantly self-serving objectives and socio-political gaffes, we can actually see clearly what we, the people don’t want in a politician, or a president, and in which areas we need to unite further to fully eradicate from our country, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, political corruption, and other socio-political injustices.
At a speech given in Marietta, Ohio, on July 8, 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt said, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”
Over the past 10 months, since the present administration took over Washington, more times than I care to remember, I have sat in my living room on an evening speechlessly watching cable news reporting on some aspect of the bizarre circus that has become our political arena. I have been disheartened and disturbed, even angry, as politicians repeatedly bandy with the media in circular fashion, responding with Teflon-coated wordplays to questions from reporters they never answer directly. They seem to practice the same parroting of their own points of view over and over again. Do they realize how unctuous, uncaring, and uncompromising they sound?
Meanwhile, the President of the United States seems to exist in a separate universe of his own making, exhibiting frighteningly leaderless qualities in the face of both national and international emergencies, remaining solidly unaware of the politics of our democratic process, while his symptoms of disoriented madness (or subversive misdirection, depending on which “Pozzo” may be “holding his noose”), escalate as he continues to “tweet” inappropriate pejoratives indiscriminately. The rest of the world’s leaders and citizens, can do little more than sit back and watch us in baffled half-horror half-wonderment, as political and moral deterioration consumes us.
How did we get to this place along the road? How have things gotten so out of our control? To where has the promising liberal epiphany that began in the 1960s gone? Can we take cold comfort in the thought that it is perhaps just the cyclical nature of government as laid out by historian Arthur Schlesinger’s Pendulum Theory that states that history and politics swing toward one direction until they reach a tipping point, usually driven by popular mood, only to simply swing back again, always creating at the end of one cycle an evolution leading into the beginning of a new one? Presidential historian, and political analyst Jon Meachum in an interview with MSNBC’s Brian Williams said recently that we are in “historically unchartered waters” and only time will tell where we go from here.
Until that time, and through this massive, absurd wave of confusion that has become our governmental process it is paramount that we continue to make our voices and viewpoints heard, speaking out against oppression and injustice whenever possible, and most importantly using the greatest power we have been given to bring about change: OUR POWER OF VOTE.
As I continue watching fractions of the political freak show spectaculars parading before me on television news nightly, I chide myself in thinking: 2018, you cannot come too soon.