WASHINGTON – Having quoted Freddie Blassie of professional wrestling fame in a recent column critiquing Donald Trump’s debate performance, and having still been accused of elitism, I consider all bets off. So let’s consider William Shakespeare’s view of the 2016 election.
It is not quite (though almost) as absurd as it sounds. “A plague o’ both your houses” from “Romeo and Juliet” seems to fit. And there is this from “Henry V”: “The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.”
But there are lessons apart from the Shakespeare quote game. As anyone who took in some plays at a summer festival will tell you – and a surprisingly egalitarian range of Americans, in a surprising variety of communities, actually did – Shakespeare often employed political settings for his dramas. He was consistently drawn to questions about leadership – examining the inner struggles of men (and, here’s to you, Lady Macbeth, women) who seek power, and exploring how that thirst elevates or debases them.
Abraham Lincoln was fascinated by “Macbeth,” a play about political ambition, being quietly ferocious in his own. During the fight against apartheid in South Africa, the prisoners on Robben Island secured a volume of Shakespeare that they passed around, marking passages that particularly spoke to them. Nelson Mandela signed his name next to these lines from “Julius Caesar”: “Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once.”
And then there is this from Trump’s book, “Think Like a Champion” (p. 49): “I’m not proposing that you spend years studying Shakespeare, but a topical knowledge of certain things will greatly enhance your capabilities for dealing in the major leagues with people who are well educated in a variety of subjects. Don’t be left out!”
Not wanting to be left out, this summer I saw a fine production of “Julius Caesar,” a world of plots, betrayal, villainy and the emotional manipulation of the angry masses. Or, as we call it in Washington, campaign coverage.
In the decisive first debate between Brutus and Marc Antony, Brutus employs careful arguments in the expectation that reason will prevail over passion. He is public spirited yet boring. He has an emotional range that reaches from A to B. You make the comparison. Marc Antony, in contrast, is emotive and deceptive. He moves in a cloud of chaos. He promises bread and circuses. He has considerable gaming assets in Pompeii and promises to build a wall across Gaul. You get the picture.
For friends of the Roman republic, this confrontation does not end well. When the votes of the masses are (figuratively) counted, voting itself ceased to count. Shakespeare is arguing, according to Allan Bloom, that “the corruption of the people is the key to the mastery of Rome.” This argument takes a darkly comic turn when the mob, thirsty for blood, is out looking for Cinna “the conspirator” but chances upon a different Cinna, this one “the poet.” “It is no matter,” says the crowd. “Tear him! Tear him!”
Should we see ourselves in Rome’s rabble? An extraordinary political argument is now on the table: that the old order is corrupt and inept and that we really need a man on horseback who will smash the establishment and serve the people. This type of populism has a certain appeal because our political establishment, in an infinite variety of ways, has failed. But America’s founders – who both read Shakespeare and studied the sad end of Roman republicanism – feared and repudiated the Caesarian option. (See Federalist No. 10.)
As they intended, American institutions that restrain the executive branch – the courts and legislature – are strong. So there is no need for hysteria. But we should be suspicious of leadership that promises impossible benefits, organizes malice, proposes restrictions on press freedom, threatens political enemies with retribution and offers a single leader as the embodiment of the national will.
It is a national blessing that America’s Antony has none of Antony’s (actually Shakespeare’s) mad rhetorical skills. Trump has essentially abandoned the field of rhetoric and rational persuasion. His definition of political authenticity is the impulsive expression of half-baked ideas and popular prejudices. This may be enough to sustain a Twitter account. As we have seen, it is not enough to hold up one side of a 90-minute debate. And it would not be nearly enough to hold up four years of a presidential administration.
This is populism without eloquence. Thank God for that. And thank Shakespeare for clarifying the democratic threats to democracy.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.