Monday, 7 August 2017


I've been asked surprisingly often whether I think Donald Trump is some kind of re-incarnation of Henry VIII. My first reaction is that it's absurd to set the Trump mouse alongside the Tudor lion. My second reaction is that I'm no psychoanalyst, nor do I set much store by psycho-history. However, the nature of tyranny and the rise and fall of despots are certainly subjects grist to the historian's mill. So it may be worth considering whether the antics of the current U.S. president throw any light on those of the 16th century English king, and vice versa.

What 'every schoolboy knows' about Henry VIII is that he had six wives and disposed shamefully of four of them. Trump is only on his third at the moment. There are many reasons for failed sexual relationships but self-love is certainly one of the basics. Henry flaunted his masculinity - in the tiltyard, the tennis court and various displays of athletic prowess. He believed (or, at least, liked others to  believe) that he was no end of a stud. What other message was being conveyed by the best-known painted image of the king, with its thrusting codpiece? Women existed, first and foremost, for his pleasure. Although there was a dynastic purpose behind his marriages, his choices of bride were always based on sex appeal rather than policy. The French king sourly compared Henry to a coper at a horse fair who expected eligible princesses to be paraded before him for his appraisal. Only once, as far as we are aware, did Henry fall in love. His passion for Anne Boleyn is revealed in the oft-quoted love letters he wrote to her. Love involves vulnerability and also seeking the pleasure of the beloved above one's own. That's why egotists are bad at it. There is some evidence that the king was no great performer in bed. One reason for Anne Boleyn's fall was her ill-judged private mockery of her husband's sexual prowess. Trump has made no secret of his attitude towards women. His public references to them have gone beyond adolescent, laddish boasting. If we are to take him at his word, it would seem that sexual relationships exist to provide him with pleasure and boosts to his own self-esteem. Is he, too, a poor lover? I haven't the faintest idea but, as I have suggested, many egotists are.

Henry's ruthlessness extended to his ministers. Few monarchs have been served by more faithful and talented advisers. Wolsey, More and Cromwell were all remarkably accomplished and their service to the regime is beyond question but they were thrown aside when their royal master thought they had exceeded their usefulness. Loyalty, in Henry's book, was a one-way street. As well as being bad for the development and implementation of consistent policy, this encouraged political in-fighting among rival councilors. It was enough to cast doubt on the reliability of a trusted adviser for the king to remove his support. Then, the victim was doomed. In this department of Machiavellian politics Henry does seem to be outclassed by Mr President, who. I guess, learned stony ingratitude running the family firm. Trusted aids go in and out like yo-yos. The atmosphere in the court of King Donald must be toxic. An egotistical ruler needs fall-guys. It is inconceivable to any self-obsessed despot that he can be wrong. So, when policies come unstuck it has to be someone else's fault. When Henry passed the buck to his aides they they did not dare protest (it was, perhaps, a small price to pay for the considerable perks of high office).

What the despotic Tudor king got away with is quite eye-widening. Few opponents were brave enough to stand up to him and most of those who did payed a high price for their presumption. The 'bare ruined choirs' across the land and the full diaries of public executioners are testimony to the king's methods of dealing with opposition. The only individuals who consistently held up his record to scrutiny were men like Tyndale and Pole and they operated from the safety of foreign bases (not all that safe, in point of fact: Henry sent assassins after Pole and was complicit in Tyndale's arrest in Antwerp). Yet, even Henry's bravado had to face one serious challenge: though he was victorious over the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-7, the outcome could have been different. He won by a mixture of force and duplicity. Bodies hanging from church towers across the North were dramatic proof of his defiance. Capital punishment is not a weapon in Trump's armoury (much to his regret?). He has to fall back on a poor substitute - character assassination. Senators, representatives, and most of the UK and foreign news media are branded as stupid, malicious, un-American liars. They must always be wrong because Trump must always be right. Presidential inerrancy seems to be the key doctrine in Trump's creed.

His main way of imposing it on the nation is by showmanship. And here there is certainly a close comparison to be drawn with the second Tudor. Henry was a born performer. He spent hugely on court entertainments and public spectacles. The costly diplomatic farce of the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520) was only the most OTT example of the king's spare-no-expense-to-impress strategy. And in every single display Henry had to be the centre of attention (He was furious when Francis I beat him in a wrestling bout in 1520). Trump, too, lives for the limelight and cannot bear to be upstaged. He only appears in public at carefully-prepared rallies where he is supported by crowds of cheering fans.

However, mass sycophancy by itself is no guarantee that a ruler can cling to power. The king understood the need for a wide support base. It's not immediately obvious that Henry cared about what his people thought. He did - not because he was remotely interested in their wellbeing but because it made sense to keep his finger on the common pulse. So, he relied heavily on propaganda. Having taken on the power of the Church, he needed to sell his policy to the political class and even to the public at large. This he did through a campaign of proclamations, sermons, books, pamphlets and the managing of parliament, backed by an effective campaign of censorship. I can imagine Trump drooling over Henry's manipulation of the media or control of the political machine. Even with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress he can't impose his will. This, I assume, lies behind his assuming the role of one-man publicity machine, using Twitter to go over the heads of the politicians and the pundits and telling the people what he thinks they want to hear. These bite-sized statements are the equivalent of Tudor royal proclamations, with the added advantage that they don't need to be explained or justified. The principle seems to be that if you say something, however outrageous, often enough and loud enough people will believe you. Well, bombast and showmanship worked for Henry Tudor for 37 years but the political class took over as soon as he was gone. His failure to establish a dynastic autocracy was partly due to bad luck (being succeeded by an under-age son and two daughters). Today it is the checks and balances of political systems that prevent tyrants and their offspring turning democratic nations into personal fiefdoms. The American people may not like the the political establishment but at least they have the power to change it periodically.

Henry VIII inherited a considerable fortune, spent every penny of on his grandiose designs and left his country shattered, broke, overtaxed, at war and bitterly divided. Why? In his early days he may have been dazzled by stories of King Arthur and Henry V. He may have dreamed of 'making England great again'. But towards the end he was driven by what can only be described as egomania. Is Trump in the same category? Your answer will depend on how you judge his motivation. Does he love his country or himself? Is he there to serve his people with a raft of well-considered, carefully-costed policies aimed at nothing but their wellbeing or does he simply tap into populist prejudice? Are his 'privy chamber' staff men who have the capacity and the commitment to cope patiently and constructively with America's internal and external challenges or are they yes-men? Is he a shrewd politician or does he believe his own rhetoric? Egotists are so wrapped up in themselves that it's difficult to determine exactly what they do think, and why. After 500 years we're still trying to understand Henry VIII. Perhaps Trump's behaviour will give us some clues.
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