How Trump Echoes Marc Antony

Sir John Soanes, "Marc Antony Reading the Will of Julius Caesar"

Sir John Soanes, “Marc Antony Reading the Will of Julius Caesar”


Over the weekend Mark Thompson of The New York Times compared Donald Trump’s speaking style to that of Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and said that this gives him a rhetorical advantage over Hillary Clinton. His speaking technique conveys a sense of authenticity, which is how Antony is able to turn the tables on the far more sincere Brutus.

Here’s Thompson’s argument:

It may feel like a new phenomenon in contemporary American politics, but the “I just want to tell it like it is” maneuver is a familiar one in the annals of rhetoric. It’s what Mark Antony is up to when he says to the Roman crowd in “Julius Caesar,” “I am no orator, as Brutus is; / But, as you know me all, a plain, blunt man,” in the midst of his “Friends, Romans and countrymen” speech, one of the most cunning displays of technical rhetoric, not only in Shakespeare, but in the English language.

Rhetoric is the language Rome’s elite used to debate; by denying that he knows the first thing about it, Mark Antony is in effect tearing up his gold membership card and reassuring his plebeian audience that, though he may look rich and powerful, he is really one of them.

Thompson observes that the authoritarian Italian president Silvio Berlusconi used this technique to great effect, so it’s not surprising that Trump would gravitate to it as well:

Nearly four centuries after Shakespeare wrote those words, Silvio Berlusconi successfully struck the same pose in modern Italy. “If there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s rhetoric,” he told the Italian public. “All I’m interested in is what needs to get done.”

But for all its protests, anti-rhetoric is just another form of rhetoric and, whether Mr. Trump is conscious of it or not, it has its own rhetorical markers. Short sentences (“We have to build a wall, folks!”) that pummel the listener in a series of sharp jabs. This is the traditional style of the general (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) or the chief executive, a million miles from the complex and conditional — and thus intrinsically suspect — talk of the lawyer/politician. Students of rhetoric call it parataxis and it’s perfect, not just for the sound bite and the headline, but for the micro-oratorical world of Twitter.

In contrast to Antony, Brutus makes a nuanced case, drawing a distinction between the valiant Caesar who is his friend and the ambitious Caesar who is angling to become a dictator:

If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honor him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honor for his valor; and death for his ambition. 

At first the crowd is persuaded by Brutus, but Antony then cunningly bypasses Brutus’s nuanced reasoning by appealing directly to the mob’s pleasure center. Brutus is dismissed with a sarcastic wave of the hand:

But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

Clinton may not be the noblest Roman of them all but, like Brutus, she goes in for fine distinctions. As a result, she comes across as an inauthentic politician and lawyer, so much so that her equivocations and white lies seem worse than Trump’s outright fabrications. Thompson notes,

In many ways, her problem at the mike is the opposite of Mr. Trump’s — cerebral, calculated, stripped of all spontaneity and risk, her style epitomizes what fans of “tell it like it is” bluntness think of as untrustworthy.

He also cautions that, while Clinton may be currently leading in the polls, “authenticism” has recently registered some significant victories:

Authenticism scored a victory in Britain’s vote on European Union membership, and authenticist anti-politicians and ultra right-wing parties are polling strongly in many European countries. It would be wrong to assume that any one election will see it off this time.

Root for Brutus.

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