A few weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump left the American political stage for the amphitheater, following the trajectory of a Greek tragedy. The real estate tycoon who co-wrote Midas Touch: Why Some Entrepreneurs Get Rich — And Why Most Don’t is touched instead by the Midas curse.
In modern lingo, the Midas touch implies a prodigious gift: Its possessor profits from whatever he undertakes. It is named for a legendary king who prayed to Dionysus, the god of wine, for the power to transmute whatever he touched into gold. But the story itself serves as a warning. “So Midas, king of Lydia, swelled at first with pride when he found he could transform everything he touched to gold; but when he beheld his food grow rigid and his drink harden into golden ice then he understood that this gift was a bane and in his loathing for gold, cursed his prayer,” wrote the Latin poet Claudian.
In the 21st century, the gold is the news media, and they cannot help but train their gaze 24/7 upon Donald Trump. Back in March, The New York Times estimated that “over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history.”
Practically everything the man said is quoted. Trump knows how to remain on the front page no matter how popular or unpopular he is in the polls. The reality star of The Apprentice was created by the media and seems drunk by the limelight.
And he played it well. Nate Silver and his team at Five Thirty Eight noted that Trump has hacked the system: “Trump has been able to disrupt the news pretty much any time he wants, whether by being newsworthy, offensive, salacious or entertaining. The media has almost always played along.”
Disruption and chaos, after all, is the power of Dionysus, who frees people from their inhibition and endows his worshipers with hedonistic appetites, drunkenness and sexual urges, stoking their primal instinct. According to mythology, those he possesses become empowered and unrestrained.
When Trump is outrageous, his fans cheer him on. He famously said in January, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” and in February added, while rallying in Nevada, “‘I love the poorly educated!” No other candidates in modern U.S. history could possibly make such statements and get away with them.
But if old King Midas initially rejoiced in his miraculous gift, he soon despaired. The gift that kept on giving indiscriminately eventually robbed him of everything precious.
As with Trump, we now see the high price one pays for taking up permanent residence in the limelight. After all, overexposure can often lead to cancer. Everything that was recorded by the media on Trump seems to find its way into the public arena. This was the case with his now famous lewd conversation, captured by a hot mic, with Billy Bushin 2005 while doing a show with Access Hollywood. In it, he more or less boasted of sexually assaulting women and committing adultery.
As Trump’s popularity falls, we see the power of the Midas curse at work: Whatever he touches fails to gain but instead begins to lose its value, to become a damaged good.
NBC’s Today show has cut Billy Bush, for instance. Trump’s companies have filed for bankruptcy six times, according to Politifact, burning his lenders and business partners along the way. Trump University, now defunct, remains embroiled in lawsuits. Its former employees are calling it a “lie.”
And the women who didn’t want to be touched? They did not turn golden upon being groped. They turned instead into people who live with shame and the trauma of being assaulted. And they dare speak up in public? Public shaming.
But by far the institution that continues to burn fiercest and brightest is the Republican Party. After having shaken hands with the man and endorsing him, it went into free fall. And as the establishment begins to distant itself from the GOP presidential nominee late in the game, Trump goes on a scorched earth campaign to destroy it, creating a divided society.
The recent headlines say it all. The Washington Post: “Trump declares war on GOP, says ‘the shackles have been taken off.’ “ CNBC: “The GOP civil war is finally here. And Trump is winning.” Mother Jones: “Donald Trump takes to Twitter to stoke a GOP civil war.”
King Midas turning his daughter into Gold.
The Los Angeles Times last week noted that Trump, as he fell further in the polls, is sketching “out conspiracies involving global bankers, casually threatened to jail his political opponent, and warned in increasingly specific terms that a loss by him would spell the end of civilization.”
The Midas gift turned out to be too much of a good thing. In another version of the story, as told by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Midas also accidentally turned his much adored daughter into a gold statue, and because no food could touch his lips, he slowly starved to death.
Trump, who is bringing chaos to the American political scene and fanning the seed of fear and racism, should heed the old Greek tragedy. He stands to lose more than the election. He stands to lose his own humanity as well.
Andrew Lam, an editor at New America Media, is the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,“ “East East West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” and “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a collection of short stories. The above article first appeared on USA Today.
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