A Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Ibsen’s Peer Gynt

for Manuel Giner



The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Revelation 6:1-8, by Matthias Gerung, circa 1530-32. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The humiliation of the US democracy is now complete. The candidate who won the most votes in the recent presidential election lost to the candidate who will win the most votes in the Electoral College. The woman who dedicated her life to public service lost to the man who dedicated himself to becoming rich. The Secretary of State who mishandled her e-mails lost to the TV celebrity who stiffed his contractors and defrauded the students of his fake University. The candidate endorsed by Planned Parenthood lost to the candidate supported by the Ku Klux Klan.

The primary system produced two candidates for the two major parties (Democratic and Republican), neither of which was desirable to a majority of the American people. Two candidates from minor parties (Libertarian and Green) were never allowed a platform for their views in the national debates. 45% of eligible American voters did not vote.

The candidate who received most of the attention of the electronic media won; the candidate endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the print media lost. Truth was indistinguishable from lies during the presidential campaign, confirming the Orwellian dictum: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” (“Politics and the English Language,” 1946). 


Gösta Ekman Sr. in the title role in Ibsen’s drama Peer Gynt. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The wife of the winning candidate was shamed by the publication of photos of her naked body taken during her career as a model; the husband of the losing candidate was embarrassed by repeated denunciations of old charges of sexual assault by aggrieved women.

George Bernard Shaw held that the fatal flaw of democracy was the election of the superior by the inferior. Readers of this blog will suspect that for this observer, the spectacle of the recent election can only be compared to the lunatic asylum scene in Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Robert Brustein, former Dean of the Yale School of Drama and later Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, describes Ibsen’s hero:

Peer [Gynt]’s much-vaunted self, being merely a capricious and unstable public face, suggests he has personality without character, ego without identity. Peer … emerges as the essential opportunist. Infected with the disease of halfness, he is always prepared to adapt himself to circumstances; and dedicated to pure appearance, he must find beauty in ugliness, courage in cowardice, truth in illusion, nourishment in excrement.[1]

Sound familiar? The German Gentleman who leads Peer Gynt in Act Four to “a madhouse in which the lunatics have broken loose and locked up their keepers” exclaims in delirium: “Absolute Reason passed away at eleven o’clock last night.” Explaining to Peer the Philosophy of the Self which rules the inmates of the insane asylum, the German Gentleman further expounds:

Here we are ourselves with a vengeance;

Ourselves and nothing whatever but ourselves.

We go full steam through life under the pressure of self.

Each one shuts himself up in the cask of self,

Sinks to the bottom by self-fermentation,

Seals himself in with the bung of self,

And seasons in the well of self.

No one here weeps for the woes of others.

No one here listens to anyone else’s ideas.

We are ourselves, in thought and in deed,

Ourselves to the very limit of life’s springboard.

So, if we are to have an Emperor,

It’s obvious that you are just the man.

As a crown of straw is forced on Peer Gynt’s head, he is summarily hailed as “Emperor of the Self.” [2]


In May 1911, the Moscow Art Theatre orders Nicholas Roerich sets and costumes for Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt”. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like Peer Gynt, Donald Trump may be a scoundrel and a self-absorbed narcissist, but we cannot escape responsibility from the fact that we have crowned him Emperor of Ourselves. It took a cruel civil war of three years duration for Fascists to take over Spain in the 1930s; it took a bloody revolt—and the decided encouragement of the United States—for Militarists to do away with the tradition of stable democratic government in Chile in the 1970s. But we, as a result of the recent election—lunatics in an insane asylum—have welcomed Trump to the chair of Abraham Lincoln and the seat of American power.

What a fix we’ve gotten ourselves and the rest of the world into, without anyone justly to blame but ourselves!

Whatever else Trump may be, he is the walking cadaver of ideas back from (for some of us) the good old days when America was WASP, women knew their place, black people were oppressed, immigrants were hunted down in the southern border, gay and lesbian Americans were kept in the closet, and we ruled the devastated post-WWII world with the strength of our industrial economy and the threat of nuclear war. Like the monster in a cheap horror movie, this walking cadaver has come back to haunt us just when we thought we were done with it. It parades in the shambles of the US democracy, and bays like an unchained creature from the demi-world. And it will not do to simply get rid of it again: Vice-President Mike Pence is a corpse from the time of Herbert Hoover.

Many suns will go down before we get rid of the stench of Donald Trump. But this great country has survived Peer Gynts before, and the terrible consequences of their actions. My son Manuel had occasion to remind me recently that Edward Murrow once confronted Joseph McCarthy with a courageous assertion: “We are not descended from fearful men.” Indeed we do not descend from fearful men and women. And if we do not confront, the fault will lie, as Murrow reminded us by quoting Shakespeare, “not with our stars, but with ourselves” (Julius Caesar).

The trumpet of Gabriel has sounded to signal the end of days! For this we write this Primer for the Apocalypse, which will appear in succeeding posts: a manual for survival to walk in beauty through the End of Empire to the Dawn of a New Democracy.


[1] The Theatre of Revolt (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1964), 60.

[2] George Bernard Shaw, The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1913; New York: Hill and Wang, 1957), 64; Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt, trans. Michael Meyer (1867; New York: Anchor Books, 1963), 104.


“Last Judgment – Tuba angel” by Johann Georg Unruhe, 1780. Located on the ceiling of Saint Michael parish church in Untergriesbach, Germany. (Credit: Wolfgang Sauber)



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