Hubris, Chris Christie, and Greek Tragedy

Not just Democrats and far-right Republicans, but playwrights and screenwriters, will be jumping all over Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal.


Because Chris Christie is caught in a whirlpool of hubris, and the ancient Greeks tragedians have taught us how such whirlpools play themselves out.

The biggest question that remains: Who will play Christie in the HBO bio-pic? (My vote: The Sopranos’s 260 pound assistant to Junior, Bobby Bacala.)

But let’s imagine the outlines of this screenplay: there’s the rise of Christie, Icarus-like, into the intoxicating atmosphere of hubris and omnipotence; the forgetting and offending of the gods of commuter traffic politics; the victims of hubris; the betrayal of Christie in mid-flight by harassing crows (his former friends and allies); the denial; the fall; and the dogs that will pick the carcass’s bones when it reaches ground. (Those dogs being partisans, the press, and the made-for-TV screenwriters.)

And it’s sad for Christie. He’s a likable guy. And popular. But so was Oedipus, and that didn’t save him. Being likable and popular made him more tragic, and made people want to witness his fall with still greater lust.

So it comes down to Schadenfreude (taking secret pleasure in the misfortune of others) and the revenge of the democratic furies. It may not be particularly fair or reasonable. But as Ernst Cassirer famously noted in 1946, modern politics is not about reason, but myth: “Perhaps the most important and the most alarming feature in this development of modern political thought is the appearance of a new power: the power of mythological thought” (The Myth of the State 1).

Christie is encountering that power right now. And here’s the irony: being a basically good person–even an exceptional person–makes you more susceptible to hubris, not less, for you stop seeing the sinful and flawed aspects of your own nature, and believe what people say about you. And when you run up big popularity numbers in a state, as Christie has, you grow complacent and flippant–and start imagining yourself to be a god, above the law (and even basic decency). You can do whatever you want. Richard Nixon, you’ll recall, ordered the Watergate break-in when he was at the top of his popularity, not when he had hit bottom. He wasn’t in the least desperate. In 1972, he had nothing to worry about, re-election-wise, in running against a Democrat like George McGovern. Nixon’s criminality was gratuitous; the cherry on top of his power. He did it because he thought he could. He played sloppy because he thought he was too far ahead to be caught. Christie finds himself in a similar dynamic.

Then there’s the brag factor–which makes for good screenplay dialogue. When you’re at the top of your game, you can show off among your colleagues in private conversations: “Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor won’t play political ball with us? Time to cause some lane closures in his city.” “Got it.” Chuckle, chuckle.

Can’t you just hear the dialogue writing itself? And can’t you visualize the stage sets?

So now the furies have homed-in on Chris Christie. There will be justice. Christie is (take your pick): King Pentheus insufficiently attending to the sacred altar of Dionysian democracy (keep those commuter lanes open); Creon roughing-up Antigone (the mayor of Fort Lee) and thereby destroying himself; or Icarus flying too close to the media sun.

Actually, he’s all three.

And unlike the Gospels, Greek tragedy has no consoling resurrection and apotheosis to undo the horror. There’s only purgation. The audience must leave the theatre in a sweat; in a daze of recognition. Dionysus undoes even the highest among us.

So 2014 begins the process of witnessing yet another winged-boy falling out of the media sky, splashing into the hard ocean of anonymity, and descending forthwith to Hades. Anthony Weiner will be there to welcome Christie among the political dead.

And who are those two lurking in the stage rafters? Are they bats? Well, yes. They’re the Tea Party favorites, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. And they’re grinning, for their opening has come. They’ll be the stars of the next grand and mythic production, which we’ll call The Bakkhai 2016 (or perhaps, The Oresteia 2016). With the leading moderate out of the race for the presidential nomination, the Tea Party crazies will have less hindrance in their ascent to full power within the Republican Party. (Though maybe Jeb Bush will be able to stop them.)

But do you know who is really grinning the widest in the downfall of Christie? It’s not Cruz and Paul, but the leader of the FCDA (The Feminist Cthonian Deities of America): the queen of the Erinyes, Hillary Clinton.

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The Remorse of Orestes (1862).jpg


Image source: Wikipedia Commons (William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 1862). Lesson: don’t stab your mother in the heart.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Hubris, Chris Christie, and Greek Tragedy

  1. dcyates says:

    Santi, you have got to be kidding. Fast and Furious, ACORN/voter fraud, DoJ/Black Panthers/voter intimidation, NSA spying, IRS targeting, Obamacare boondoggle, Benghazi, and Obama’s general incompetence and incessant lying (not to mention his colossal arrogance). All these scandals, costing billions of dollars, American freedom, and people’s lives (both domestic and foreign) and you’re writing about lane closures?!? My goodness.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      When I think of Obama, I think of the end of Bush-era torture, the covering of millions of formerly uninsured Americans through Obamacare, the end of pre-existing condition exclusions, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the opening of talks with Iran, the winding down of three wars (Iran, Afghanistan, and the drug war), the reduction of nuclear stockpiles, the saving of GM, the run-up of the stock market, the back-to-back defeat of Republicans through two election cycles, gay marriage, pot legalization in Colorado (which the feds are not stomping down on), etc.

      But even if I accept your premise about what’s important about Obama, the reality is that Obama is not even on the ballot in 2016. Christie may be.

      Are you saying that you are prepared to give Christie a pass on this? That it’s okay to inconvenience and risk the lives of commuters to punish a mayor? That it’s okay to lie and play loose with the facts after they have come to light?

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