What the rise of the grovelling politician says about the state of democracy

Whether it's Trump grovelling, May grovelling, or Britain refusing to grovel to Brussels, the word "grovel" seems to be everywhere. But what does it mean?

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During Theresa May’s visit to the White House in January, Vince Cable tweeted: “Appalling error by May to grovel to #Trump for trade deal.” This idea of the Prime Minister grovelling made headlines in the UK and the US. It was notable how swiftly the authoritarianism displayed in Donald Trump’s first week as president infected the language of our politics, inevitably casting the encounter in its ugly image. Grovelling is not part of the vocabulary of a mature democracy: it implies a strategy for success within an unstable, capricious regime of power. Grovellers inhabit the shadowy side of monarchies, tyrannies and corrupt oligarchies.

Grovelling is one of Trump’s preoccupations. In November 2015, he was criticised for appearing to mock the American journalist Serge Kovaleski’s disability. “What I was indicating was a man that was grovelling,” Trump told Fox News, adding that the journalist “was grovelling to try to change a story he had written many years before so it worked out badly for Trump”.

After Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes in January, in which she condemned his imitation of Kovaleski, Trump reasserted his “grovelling” defence. This instinct to classify behaviour as grovelling is just one of many causes for concern in Trump’s diction. It transports us far from the long-held consensus that people’s actions are not entirely dictated by their spinelessness or ambitions.

“Grovel” is one of hundreds of words once believed to have been invented by Shakespeare, although advances in text-searching software have debunked many of these attributions. But at the very least, Shakespeare preserved and popularised this Middle English word, which derives from grufe, the Old Norse term for one’s face or front. The cognate phrase á grúfu means “face downwards”.

Shakespeare understood the temptation for power-mad courtiers to prostrate themselves before their rulers and thereby slither inside the circle of influence. In Henry VI Part 2, Eleanor imagines her downcast husband, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, brooding on King Henry’s crown, as if it were lying before him on “the sullen earth”. She urges the duke to “gaze on, and grovel on thy face,/Until thy head be circled with the same”. Together, she promises him, they will reach for that crown and, “having both together heaved it up/We’ll both together lift our heads to heaven”. In other words, their days of grovelling will be over. (It doesn’t end well for them.)

This Shakespearean world of machinations and treachery is the milieu from which grovelling hails, and it should not be one we try to replicate in a nuclear age. Today, such retrograde language floods public life with cynicism, conjuring a world without integrity, in which people act not out of morality or grace but out of opportunism. For the groveller, personal gain comes at the expense of dignity. Also conjured is a form of power so fragile that it brooks no dissent, a hierarchy of authority in which individual advancement hinges on flattery and appeasement.

To describe international relations in terms of grovelling, or even its opposite, “standing strong”, is to emphasise the self-interest of nation states and to evacuate the international scene of guileless solidarity or co-operation. This is the mood of the times, reflected in a newly debased language.

Last October, an Express headline read: “Britain will NOT grovel to Brussels”. The article referred to Theresa May’s claim that her Brexit strategy wouldn’t make the UK “a supplicant” to the EU. We must now demand linguistic precision at all times – a supplicant is someone who asks those in power for a favour, but while there is always something underhand about the groveller, the supplicant implores in earnest. The Express recast May’s words to suit a tabloid thirst for despotic diction, seen most clearly in the Daily Mail’s description of three judges as “enemies of the people” after the high court ruled that Brexit could not be triggered without a Westminster vote.

A contemporary equivalent of the maniacal monarch is the ruthless chief executive officer, so it isn’t surprising that Trump is importing into politics the brutal language and logic of the corporate structure. The CEO wields absolute power of the “You’re fired!” variety, while in the offices below, the “suck-ups” and “yes-people” jostle for position. As well as jiving with his corporate sensibility, the idea of others grovelling is perhaps so compelling to Trump because he, too, grovelled before a rising spirit of fearful prejudice, wilful misinformation and paranoia on his path to power.

In Henry VI, Eleanor experiments with the dark arts to help her campaign for the throne. During a “conjuration” to show Eleanor a “spirit raised from depth of under ground”, the necromancer Roger Bolingbroke instructs Margery Jourdain (based on a real-life figure known as “the Witch of Eye Next Westminster”) to lie “prostrate, and grovel on the earth”. Sure enough, a spirit appears and offers enigmatic prophesies. Shortly afterwards, guards arrive and arrest Eleanor for treason. Here, grovelling is part of the recipe for summoning dangerous energies. This calls to mind another buzzword of these dreadful months of Trump, in which, amid a deteriorating language of traitors and grovellers, there is the sense that something terrible has been “unleashed”.

This article appears in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again