“Julius Caesar” Is Only Too Relevant

Mob scene from “Julius Caesar”

Wednesday

New York City has announced it will open this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park with Julius Caesar, and its description of the play makes clear why:

“Rome’s leader, Julius Caesar, is a force unlike any the city has seen,” the description reads. “Magnetic, populist, irreverent, he seems bent on absolute power. A small band of patriots, devoted to the country’s democratic traditions, must decide how to oppose him.

My question is whether black shirts will be worn.

My reference is to the famous 1937 Orson Welles production, which was staged with Mussolini’s black shirted followers in mind. The black shirts don’t save Caesar but they do get used by Marc Antony, who effectively applies demagogic rhetoric to rile them up and topple the senators who are trying to save the republic.

It won’t take much for New York audiences to apply the lessons. Donald Trump has proven effective at circumventing Republican senators by appealing directly to his base. Just as Antony promises the mob 75 drachmas per citizen, as well as public walks, private orchards, and new-planted orchards (all this in accordance with Caesar’s will), so Trump has promised a return of manufacturing and coal-mining jobs, affordable health care for all, and a return to white America.

In the play the mob goes wild and, next thing Brutus knows, he’s a Never-Trumper on the run.

Incidentally, I saw a smart reference to Antony’s speech in a recent Kevin Kruse tweet. Referring to a Paul Waldman column in The Week about the Trump administration’s Russia contacts, Kruse called it “the best benefit-of-the-doubt shade since Mark Antony’s eulogy.” I’m putting excerpts of them side by side to see if you agree:

Marc Antony:

He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
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.

Paul Waldman:

We should say that it’s possible that Sessions’ conversations with the ambassador were perfectly innocent, even if one has to wonder why he would deny that they had occurred if that were the case. And it’s possible that there was nothing wrong with Michael Flynn’s contacts with the ambassador, or the money he got from Russian state television. And there may be a reasonable explanation for why Trump campaign officials suddenly softened the Republican platform’s language about Russia during the GOP convention. And there may be nothing wrong with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s work for a pro-Russian strongman in Ukraine, or with Trump associate Roger Stone’s contacts with WikiLeaks about hacked DNC emails, or with the Russian ties of Trump Cabinet members like Rex Tillerson and Wilbur Ross. And maybe Trump’s people had absolutely nothing to do with all the Russian hacking that was meant to help him get elected. And perhaps no Republicans were involved in the Russian hacking of Democratic congressional candidates, even though Republicans, including a PAC with ties to none other than Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, then used the information from the hacks to attack their opponents (bet you forgot about that one).

Might it even be possible that there’s nothing more to be learned about Trump and Russia, that there are no secrets lying within this web of denial and obfuscation, that it’s all above board and ethical? Sure — anything’s possible.

Yes, a great example of benefit-of-the-doubt shade.

And there’s yet another instance of Julius Caesar in the news. Apparently there is a movement underway to send the White House a million protest postcards on March 15. They’re calling it “The Ides of Trump.” Organizers of course stress that the cards should not contain any threats. The seer in the play, after all, does not threaten Caesar, just warns him of the gathering wrath.

If you wish to join, write to The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006.

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