God no, don’t save the king

It’s fine to swoon over the Marvel Comics monarch of Wakanda in “Black Panther,” but a real-life facsimile is dreadful.

Wed, Mar 7, 2018 (2 a.m.)

Can you love “The Crown,” but hate the throne? Can you find young Queen Victoria adorable, while never forgiving her for how deplorable her kingdom was during the Irish famine? Can you be enthralled by the advanced nation portrayed in “Black Panther,” but appalled that it’s still governed by the backward institution of a hereditary monarchy?

Yes, to all of the above, though it’s a struggle at this cultural moment. Our country was born in violent revolt against the idea that power is determined at birth. But every now and then — and this is very much a now time — you have to remember what that violent revolt was against.

While burnished renditions of British royals dominate the small screen, and a super-powerful African king owns the big screen, the monarchal narcissism of the American president shows why we have a constitutional clause banning any title of nobility.

It’s damn explicit, as well, from Article 1: “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States.”

The closest thing to a throne will have to be the solid gold toilet that the Guggenheim Museum helpfully offered President Donald Trump. If Trump were king, opponents would be jailed for failing to clap during his speeches. He calls that ageless act of defiance treason. The Constitution calls it something else.

This president is also the nearest approximation of the mad king since the original sovereign to wear that title, George III, was booted from oversight of our shores. As the saying goes, King George lost the colonies, then lost his mind. Trump is doing it in reverse order, with a middle-aged democracy.

Globally, authoritarians who act as if they rule by the divine right of kings are on the rise. China’s Xi Jinping just rigged the system to allow him to be emperor for life. To that end, his internet censors have been working overtime, banning Winnie the Pooh references to keep the masses from slyly making fun of him.

And that blood-chilling image of Turkey’s Islamist strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, embracing a sobbing 6-year-old as a potential martyr, shows what can happen when you let monarchy creep back into your country.

I love “The Crown,” on Netflix, absorbed as much as any Irish-American can be by a series about a bejeweled and inbred elitist who heads both church and state. Her Majesty, QE2, the world’s longest reigning monarch, is a pretty nice girl but she doesn’t have a lot to say. The young Queen Vic and her doomed husband, Albert, as played on the high-rated PBS drama “Victoria,” are charming and hot in the royal sack — while the morbid inequality of the Victorian age rages all around them.

But let’s get real. Elizabeth would be living on a civil servant’s pension, waiting in line to get that hip replacement, were she not born into the House of Windsor. Victoria married her first cousin, which is banned in half the states of America.

And even with three of Victoria’s grandchildren at the table of global power — the Russian czarina, the British king and the German Kaiser — they could not prevent the senseless slaughter of World War I. Royal slights may have actually contributed to its outbreak.

The nicknames are nauseating — Porchey and Bertie and the like for do-nothing viscounts and earls. Talk about affirmative action for white people: These toffs are trained from birth to recognize a fish knife from a butter knife, a bouillon spoon from a melon spoon.

It’s fine to swoon over the Marvel Comics monarch of Wakanda in “Black Panther,” but a real-life facsimile is dreadful. That would be King Mswati III of Swaziland, the last absolute monarch of sub-Saharan Africa. He has 15 wives and 13 palaces — or maybe it’s the other way around — and is worth in excess of $50 million. This, while his tiny landlocked kingdom has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, and the average person gets by on less than $1.50 a day.

Sure, Kate and William and the kids are sooooo cute. And the coming royal nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle — a woman of color, divorced and raised Catholic — shows that the British monarchy has moved beyond its medieval restrictions, thanks to a 2015 change in succession law.

Those royals, at least, are decent role models, and high-minded celebrities. If the United States granted titles to the children of its rulers we’d be forced to fawn over Donald Trump Jr. and his brother Eric — two of the least likable men in public life. Ivanka certainly acts the part. But she wants royalty with real power, something even the Brits don’t grant to their first clan. Barron, thankfully, spells his name with two r’s.

Trump’s vainglorious, vandalistic and vulgar presidency makes some people pine for the unity, continuity and dignity of a royal family. Don’t. He will pass, by will of the people. If we had a monarchy, we’d be stuck with the Trump line for centuries.

Timothy Egan is a columnist for The New York Times.

Back to top

Share