February 14: Trump’s latest impeachment drama and his threat to democracy

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Early on in the Trump “presidency”, New York Public Theater staged a production of Julius Caesar as part of their annual summer season in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre (in June 2017), while Nick Hytner also directed a promenade version of the play at the Bridge Theatre six months later (in January 2018) — both offering up versions of Trump in their portraits of Caesar himself.

As Jesse Green wrote in his June 2017 review of the Delacorte production in the New York Times (pictured above), “Hang on to your comb-over because the theatrical Trump storm is now approaching gale force.” He then listed a series of five productions, from George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House and the import from the West End of a stage version of 1984 to Faust 3: The Turd Coming, or The Far of the Deal, a satire of Trump performed by a company of clowns, before writing:

“But the loudest alarm in this cacophony of cautionary Trump tales is the one now sounding from the Delacorte Theater in Central Park… Its depiction of a petulant, blondish Caesar in a blue suit, complete with gold bathtub and a pouty Slavic wife, takes onstage Trump-trolling to a startling new level.”

In a column in the London free daily City AM, meanwhile, Steve Dinneen made this observation:

“With its relatively nimble production schedule, theatre writers and directors were among the first to examine the Trump years, especially through the timeless prism of Shakespeare. With their universal themes of pride and corruption, theatreland’s Shakespeare aficionados gleefully riffed on Donald Trump, with actors hamming up the President’s already hammy delivery.

One of the more overt references came in Nicholas Hytner’s blistering Julius Caesar at Bridge Theatre, in which the play’s ageing demagogue wears the now depressingly familiar dark suit and long, red tie. Moreover, the play began with a rally, the audience standing amid a boorish crowd of jeering political acolytes wearing red “Caesar” caps (which were available to buy).”

Brutus (Ben Whishaw, above right) and Mark Antony (David Morrissey, above left) argue over the body of Julius Caesar (David Calder, behind) in the Bridge production of Julius Ceasar

In a programme essay for the Bridge’s production, political columnist (and former editor of The Spectator) Matthew d’Ancona wrote,

“Cowards die many times before their deaths: / The valiant never taste of death but once”. On 16 December 1977, the imprisoned Nelson Mandela signed his name beside these lines from Julius Caesar in the hidden copy of Shakespeare’s works that was known as the ‘Robben Island Bible.’

That the play spoke to the Elizabethan audience of 1599 – animated by rebellion, political turbulence and the question of royal succession – is no surprise. More striking is its endurance as a text for subsequent ages, and a guidebook to power and its exercise in our own times.

To an almost uncanny extent, the great rhetorical argument over Caesar’s corpse between Brutus and Antony mirrors the fundamental divisions revealed by the extraordinary upheavals of the past two years and, more specifically, the rise of ‘Post Truth’, online populism and fake news.

As one of the Senators observes, “it is a strange-disposed time: / But men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purposes of the things.” In other words, reality has become fungible, an option capriciously chosen from a buffet according to taste. Rome, like Donald Trump’s America, has succumbed to the allure of what the presidential aide Kellyanne Conway famously called “alternative facts”.

And his piece concludes with this:

….It falls to a lone plebeian to issue one of the core warnings of the play: “I fear there will be a worse come in his place”. What matters more than Caesar’s fall is what follows him. “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!” cries Brutus, as Rome descends into violence and he grasps the vicious irony that the conspirators, by killing Caesar, have made him a god and ensured the ultimate victory of Caesarism.

The same dilemma is posed by contemporary politics: what happens when the Brexiteers have done their work? Who will succeed Trump? Such questions nag at the conscience like ragged nails. It is tyranny, not just tyrants, that we must fear. It is our own weakness that allows charismatic leadership to become autocracy.

Julius Caesar remains so unsettlingly contemporary because its ultimate challenge is not to those who seek power, but to the rest of us. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

We are now, of course, at just this inflection point, with the Senate impeachment trial concluding yesterday, and resulting in — surprise, surprise — Trump’s acquittal, despite overwhelming evidence that he did, in fact, incite the insurrection.

Even Mitch McConnell, Republican senate minority leader, stated in the Senate yesterday: “There is no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day. The people that stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president. And having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.”

And yet — in a classic case of trying to have your cake and eat it — he also voted to acquit, on the grounds that the Senate should not try a former president, even if the offence he was accused of was committed while he was, in fact, in office, and the only reason he wasn’t tried while he was still in place was because McConnell himself refused to call the Senate back into session to start the trial.

As a reader letter in the New York Times published last Tuesday and written by Michael Meltsner, a professor of constitutional law at Northeastern University, put it,

“Donald Trump’s defenders argue that in his Jan. 6 speech he did not incite the violent invasion of the Capitol by his supporters. Despite telling them to fight for him again and again, he also said ‘everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.’ But it is the height of naïveté to believe that words in a political speech can be understood in isolation from their context.

Consider the most famous example of mob incitement in literature, Shakespeare’s unforgettable rendering of Mark Antony’s oration at the funeral of the assassinated Julius Caesar. Prohibited from criticizing the killers, Mark Antony makes nice. He gets the violence he wants from the Roman crowd with a famous irony, praising the conspirators and insisting that Brutus is certainly an honorable man. His rhetoric unleashes a riot.”

In his review of the New York production of Julius Caesar already cited above, Jesse Green went on to talk about the reactions that the production was provoking in some quarters:

“Naturally, some right-wing commenters are revving up their outrage over what they assume is an incitement to violence against the president. A recent Breitbart article about the show was headlined ‘Trump’ Stabbed to Death in Central Park Performance of ‘Julius Caesar’. Uh, spoiler alert?

Even a cursory reading of the play, the kind that many American teenagers give it in high school, is enough to show that it does not advocate assassination. Shakespeare portrays the killing of Caesar by seven of his fellow senators as an unmitigated disaster for Rome, no matter how patriotic the intentions.”

And he added, in a paragraph that now has a chilling prescience,

“The Delacorte production, vividly staged by the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, bears the same message and, for good measure, comes with careful usage instructions. ‘Those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods,’ Mr. Eustis recently explained in a statement, ‘pay a terrible price and destroy their republic’.”

That’s exactly what very nearly occurred on January 6 in the Capitol, not of Caesar’s Rome, but of the radically-divided Congress. Trump’s argument, in his typically mendacious re-writing of history, is that he was only seeking to secure the legitimacy of the election; one that multiple court cases and recounts had already established that he’d lost.

But then this was an election that was only legitimate if he won it. He said the same thing about the 2017 election. The day after his final presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, he spoke at a rally, declaring: “I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election, if I win.”

When critic Dominic Cavendish interviewed Tony Kushner in October 2016, he remembered in a Telegraph column last month that the author of Angels in America was smiling, “because Donald Trump was slipping in the polls ahead of the November presidential election. That week it looked like a shoo-in for Hillary, and the premature relief at what might have been averted was palpable. ‘No one like this has ever been anywhere near the White House,’ he said of Trump. ‘The institution isn’t constructed to withstand someone who has never been in government and is not a stable human being.’ In his eyes, the Republican candidate was the ‘grotesque linear descendant’ of the toxic Reaganism he had been yelling about in his epic ‘gay fantasia on National Themes’. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Cavendish also wondered aloud, “But would Trump commit mass crimes against humanity? Some of those pushing for impeachment in his final days, as a precaution against harm, appear to think so, but the disposition to conclude the worst seems bound up with a self-contradictory hysteria. If the danger were that grave, there’d be no ‘lighter side’ to the sniping cultural reaction. If your response to a perceived fascist is a ‘blimp’ balloon, aren’t you assisting in the ‘circus’?”

As has often been quipped (and it applies equally to the electorate in Britain as it does in America), “Elect a clown — get a circus”. Well, the Trump circus has finally been run out of town in America, even if his Republican enablers in the Senate sought once again to let him off the hook as they act as jury over their own man’s prosecution; even though Mike Pence, the President of the Senate during Trump’s tenure, was personally threatened on January 6, with the mob who invaded the Capitol calling for his hanging — and an impromptu gallows even built outside the building (pictured above).

As Jim Bourg, a Reuters picture editor, said on Twitter:

That threat was fortunately not carried out. But the threat to the very foundations of American democracy were violently shaken; and all but seven Republican senators (who joined the Democrats in voting Trump guilty) have now chosen to do absolutely nothing about it. We may never forget the Trump inspired insurrection; but we will also never forget those who’ve now allowed him to get away with it, either.

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