The Peripatetic Preacher Petulant Leaders: Saul and Donald Trump

The Peripatetic Preacher Petulant Leaders: Saul and Donald Trump November 18, 2020

I have thought and written about King Saul of Israel a great deal, including my little-read 2015 novel, King Saul. I have argued as strongly as I am able that Saul’ s supposed troubled spirit was not merely the result of some tragic flaw in the king, a moral depravity that too many readers have created for the man. I have suggested that in the main Saul’s flaw was in fact the prophet Samuel, the self-serving aging religious fanatic who refused to relinquish power to the first king of Israel, insisting instead that his wastrel sons should follow him as leaders of the land (see 1 Sam.8:1-6, 12:2). As a result of Samuel’s single-minded conviction that YHWH was against Saul from the beginning, a claim patently untrue, the prophet drove Saul first to attempt to talk back to the prophet, and finally led him to become unhinged, isolating him from the people and leading directly to his suicide on Mt. Gilboa. Saul’s story is indeed tragic, but not precisely in the way many readers have assumed to be. The tragedy consists of a power struggle between one man who claims divine inspiration in all he does and the other man who cannot stand up for himself against the relentless assaults against him. Instead of rejecting Samuel’s characterization of him as weak and finally deeply mistaken about his kingship and his power, Saul becomes petulant, moody, sour, in short small-minded and frankly pathetic in his relationships with all who come near him—his son, his daughters, his wife, and most of all, his rival, David.

A very similar portrait is even now being drawn by the defeated candidate for the presidency in 2020, Donald Trump. The now ex-president soon to be, rather than accept the reality of his election loss, is instead living in the White House, treating it as some sort of bunker, making few public statements or appearances, save a wild tweet or two, or an occasional march to the presidential podium to repeat again and again that his victory was stolen, and that his small army of lawyers will soon show the widespread fraud that cost him the win. This is the very definition of petulance, a bilious, bad-tempered, splenetic display of behavior that may only be called childish in the extreme, recognizing that even children rarely act so crabby and peevish as this. And while all this is transpiring before the world, the COVID pandemic is raging, having increased in some places three-fold, both in infections and hospitalizations. Meanwhile, the so-called leader of the free world says nothing about the tragic death toll, has apparently ceded his leadership completely, residing in a fantasy bubble where he has in fact won the election, will not in fact have to vacate the White House in January, 2021, will be able to continue unabated his narcissistic slog through the world, hearing only those who love him, who revere his antics, who long for his tweets and testiness. Nevertheless, come January, Mr. Trump will no longer be president of US America, and will need to head back to his Florida mansion as a private citizen once again.

Saul, too, became testy and petulant when he felt the walls of the world closing in. He, too, found a certain solace in the dark of his tent, longing for relief from his perceived pain, anxious to hear the beautiful strains of David’s limpid harp. Instead of the plucked strings of a harp, Donald Trump longs for the call of Rudy Giuliani, telling him at last that he has won, and that Joe Biden, “Sleepy Joe,” has not defeated him after all. Unfortunately, for Saul, David’s harp proved only a temporary relief; as for Trump the Giuliani call will never come.

One particular scene of the Saul tale is indicative of the petulance we are now seeing from our president. His son, Jonathan, was deeply attracted to the warrior/hero David, whom Saul saw rightly as a rival to his throne. At their first meeting, Jonathan stripped off all his military regalia, his sword, his belt, his bow, his armor, even his outer robe, and handed them to the slayer of the giant, Goliath (1 Sam.18:4). The text describes Jonathan’s deep attraction to David in particularly vivid language: “the life (soul in NRSV) of Jonathan was bound to the life of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own life” (1 Sam.18:1). Surely, Jonathan felt a connection that moved him profoundly, and from that day forward he was dedicated to the care and comfort of a man he viewed as nothing less than glorious.

Later, after Jonathan has thwarted an attempt by Saul to capture and attack David, he finds himself at a festal meal with his father. David has not come to the feast, though he was specifically invited, and Saul especially notes that his usual place at table is empty. He turns to his son and demands to know why “the son of Jesse” (not David, we note) has not come to the feast, either yesterday or today. Jonathan, who knows perfectly well where David is (he is hiding in a field from Saul’s fury against him), lies that David had asked to be excused to attend a family feast in Bethlehem. Saul senses the lie from his son, and lashes out in a towering rage. “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman,” he screams at Jonathan (1 Sam 20:30). Petulant people often begin discussion with name- calling. Saul has just claimed that his son may not finally be his son at all, but rather the child of some nameless prostitute, foisted into Saul’s family. Similarly, Donald Trump regularly resorts to name-calling in order to belittle those he considers enemies. From “Sleepy Joe” to “Monster Kamala” to “loser Marco” and on and on, Trump rarely uses anyone’s given name without some demeaning adjective attached to it.

Saul continues his disgusting assault on Jonathan by suggesting that the relationship between him and David is somehow repugnant. “Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness” (1 Sam.20:30)? It is difficult to know precisely what Saul is implying by this attack, but it appears to be a charge that David and Jonathan have a relationship that is not wholesome, not completely acceptable in the ways of Israel. We need not immediately assume that Saul is claiming that the relationship is a homosexual one, since our understanding of same sex relationships in ancient Israel is minimal at best. Still, the charge holds the implication that some sexual perversion may be involved, because whatever it is, Saul sees it as a shame to Jonathan’s mother’s nakedness. Note, too, that Saul’s wild charges lead him to contradict himself within the charges themselves: first he accuses Jonathan of not being his son at all, and then accuses him of shaming his mother, presumably Saul’s wife. Saul then warns Jonathan that as long as David lives, his own future kingship will be in jeopardy. Hence, he calls for David’s death, thus driving Jonathan from the feast and to rush to the hidden David to warn him that his life is threatened by Saul, a reality that both had feared.

Here petulance and bilious behavior leads directly to the threat of death. In Donald Trump’s case, petulance and peevish behavior may also lead to death. As the president-elect Joe Biden said just yesterday (11/17) in response to a reporter’s question concerning Trump’s unwillingness to allow the transition between old and new administrations to begin in earnest, and the effect that unwillingness may lead to, Biden said, “More people will die.” Just as in the case of Saul long ago, Donald Trump’s petulance will indeed lead to death. The many jokes that can and have been made about the absurdity of imagining a settled election result might miraculously be changed, are no longer funny. Donald Trump’s petulancy will lead directly to the deaths of more citizens from the virus, because he has abdicated authority as president yet will not allow the newly elected president to begin the hard work of trying to get the virus under control, nor will he join that work that needs desperately to continue and to expand.

Petulance is a terrible human trait, and our current president is displaying it in full, while people suffer and die. This is tragic and inexcusable. Whatever good will Mr. Trump may have salvaged from a presidency of chaos and disorder, he is now squandering before our eyes. Such behavior simply cannot any further be countenanced, even by his most ardent supporters. He has lost! Let him now admit that, and join his successor in the fight against this public health crisis. There can be no room for further petulance, no time for the loser to obfuscate and delay the inevitable. Buck up, Mr. Trump, and be the man of the people you have so long claimed to be. Our patience with this ridiculous petulant game is over! Like Saul of old, your memory will be forever tarnished by your childish, cantankerous, and crabby actions. I take no pleasure in saying that you are showing yourself to be a very poor excuse for a man and an especially pathetic one indeed.


(Images from Wikimedia Commons)

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