The Rise of Trumpism: Enter the Rat King

In this bleak, post-election landscape — a kind of Verdun of the spirit — satire and parody are gradually sinking away, disappearing in a sea of mud. They’re not dead yet. Both are putting up a fight. But who can hope to parody a figure as odious as, say, a Mitch McConnell? How can any satirist compete with the prospect of an American president as reckless, juvenile and shockingly unqualified for office as a Donald Trump?

That said, as parody and satire muster and regroup, one of the very oldest figures of speech — metaphor — might still cast light on the shady maneuverings of Mr. Trump and his right-wing cohorts.

And as it turns out, the one metaphor that best captures the shape and the nature of Trump’s ascendance is that medieval horror, the Rat King.

Note, right off the bat, that we are not discussing a king of the rodents here. As neatly as that particular image might fit Mr. Trump and the gangsters — large and small, elected and appointed — in his thrall, it’s also a little too easy. A little too pat.

No. The Rat King in question is an altogether more arcane and more appalling entity than mere rat royalty. In the words of our friends at Atlas Obscura: “Imagine a horde of rats with their tails twined and tangled, dragging their writhing bodies in one hideous snarled mass of rodents. This folkloric phenomenon of the Rat King goes back to the plague years, when rats were spreading the deadly disease, and a whole nest that lived so close they became inextricably twisted together was a horrible omen of death.”

Friedrich Wilhelm Schmuck, c. 1683, via WikiCommons

That the Rat King might be largely or even wholly mythical hardly detracts from its creepy power as an emblem. In fact, its power endures precisely because of its mythical qualities. (A few natural history museums around the world claim preserved Rat King specimens in their collections. Those specimens are, unsurprisingly, utterly repulsive. Caution: You will not be able to unsee the picture that pops up if you click on that link.)

But myth or no myth, as metaphors go, the picture of the Rat King that has come down to us through the centuries might have been created with Mr. Trump’s personal history, his candidacy and his eventual, goosed-by-Mother Russia victory in mind.

Let us examine, then, this particular Rat King through the lens of Trump’s political ascendance:

At the very center, of course, is Donald Trump himself. Remember: a Rat King has no liege or lord. In some ways, it is the most democratic entanglement imaginable, as any action by one member instantly and materially affects all the other members. Nevertheless, if one figure stands out in this many-limbed abomination, surely it’s the reality TV star and shrill anti-Streepite soon to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (Or maybe not.)

Over there, meanwhile, as tightly bound to Mr. Trump as a noose to a tree branch, is the alt-right — represented for our purposes by an unhealthy-looking middle-aged man in fashionable, black-rimmed eyeglasses. His longish gray hair falls over one side of his face. His seemingly constant smirk resembles nothing so much as a poised hatchet.

Hard against the alt-right is a blonde figure, tailored, manicured, as neat and bright as a pin. As she turns to snap at her neighbors, we glimpse the blurred features of a veteran mistress of obfuscation and fable — Mr. Trump’s right-hand gal. The redoubtable Kellyanne.

The Rat King is taking shape.

Hey! Look! There’s a chimera with three heads. First: the spitting image of a once-relevant governor of New Jersey. He appears to be asleep, or perhaps he’s just very sad. The second is a former Speaker of the House from Georgia, seeking a way out. He has none. He is forever linked with the Rat King. His legacy as a loyal Trumpkin, and nothing more than a loyal Trumpkin, is secure.

As for the third head, it belongs to a man who still refers to himself, if only in private, as “America’s mayor.” It’s hard to recall that, once upon a time, for a few months in the fall of 2001, he was respected, if not quite liked or admired, by millions of New Yorkers. Today, a sneering, omni-directional anger seems to fuel his waking hours. He is at home here, enmeshed in the Rat King.

Over here, we have an angry white couple that has survived, barely, on public assistance programs for years. They blame “Mexican” gardeners and day laborers for stealing good-paying jobs from “real Americans.” They rail against the depredations of the Nanny State (see: public assistance). They have never quite gotten around to reading the Bible, but are sure it’s all true. They are convinced that global warming, the theory of evolution and calculus are hoaxes perpetrated by liberal eggheads. They believe, despite a decades-long record of greed and bankruptcy, that Donald Trump actually cares about their plight. They have heard of Vladimir Putin, and think he might be a mixed martial arts fighter.

The rest of the elements comprising the Rat King — a smiling grandmother in a Klan hood; a Russian petro-oligarch; a pseudo-populist who looks an awful lot like a multi-multi-multi-million-dollar-a-year Fox News anchor; a son-in-law waving a Chinese flag emblazoned with dollar signs; and so many more — are ensnared, one with the other.

What’s striking about this Rat King, though, is that none of the figures appears to be struggling to break its bonds.

In fact, if one looks closely, the mass of figures doesn’t seem to be struggling at all. Instead, the figures are writhing in what looks to be a kind of stomach-churning, triumphant delight. And that, in the end, is the most unsettling aspect of the whole spectacle.

For all of its snarling and for all of its entitled, xenophobic, nationalist bile, this Rat King is happy. After all — it won.

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