Sly Marc Antony Resembles McConnell

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

Wednesday

In the controversy about New York’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Julius Caesar, I think the two sides are missing one of the most relevant aspects of the play. While we’re focusing on the battle between Caesar/Trump vs. Brutus/Democrats, an opportunistic Marc Antony slyly steals in and wins the day.

Although last summer I compared Marc Antony to Donald Trump, today I see him as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. At the very moment when the nation is riveted by whether the Democrats can prevent Trump from sabotaging the Russia investigation, McConnell is secretly preparing to throw 23 million Americans off their healthcare plans. Oh, and give the savings to the wealthiest 1%. It’s something Antony would do.

Let’s review the Shakespeare controversy. The theater production, following in the footsteps of Orson Welles’s famous 1937 Mussolini Black Shirt production, casts Caesar as a wannabe dictator Donald Trump. Apparently Delta Airlines and Bank of America were so unnerved at the idea of Trump being assassinated that they pulled their sponsorships.

Many pointed out that Shakespeare, who always comes down on the side of social order, does not endorse the assassination. As Director Oskar Eustis put it,

Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.

Indeed, by resorting to violence, Brutus does not save the Roman Republic but hastens its demise. If anything, the play is an endorsement for, “When they go low, we go high.” Who can object to that message?

Not that such an approach entirely works. Brutus, after having sacrificed his friendship with Caesar for what he thinks is the good of the republic, doesn’t understand that assassination changes the game. Violence heightens the emotions, allowing a cynical politician like Marc Antony to take full advantage.

Which is exactly what Mitch McConnell is doing. And what the Republicans have been doing for a while.

I recently listened to a podcast that The New Republic’s Brian Beutler had with Ron Klain, who was chief of staff to the vice president in the Obama and Clinton administrations and a key figure during the 2000 Florida debacle. Klain said that, while the Democrats thought resolving Gore vs. Bush would be a legal matter, the Republicans realized it was about politics and outflanked them, starting with the Brooks Brothers riot in which Senate interns and others interrupted vote recounts. As in the play, one side thought it could appeal to reason and invoke institutional integrity while the other played power politics.

McConnell has been applying that lesson ever since, from his scorched earth resistance to Barack Obama to his unprecedented refusal to consider Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court. Now, with Trump shredding one governing norm after another, McConnell is once again using the chaos as cover for what he really wants. He may pull it off.

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, activist Naomi Klein argues that capitalism uses crises to push its inegalitarian agenda because people “are too emotionally and physically distracted by disasters or upheavals to mount an effective resistance.” The Iraq War, one of her major examples, was used to push through tax cuts, increased surveillance, and almost (although this didn’t succeed) the privatization of Social Security. McConnell may be using the Trump presidency in a similar way.

Cassius, a cynical plotter himself, understands Antony well and wants him to take him down with Caesar. The principled Brutus will not allow it:

Cassius: Decius, well urged: I think it is not meet,
Mark Antony, so well beloved of Caesar,
Should outlive Caesar: we shall find of him
A shrewd contriver; and, you know, his means,
If he improve them, may well stretch so far
As to annoy us all: which to prevent,
Let Antony and Caesar fall together.

Brutus: Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,
To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;
For Antony is but a limb of Caesar:
Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.

That humane decision will spell the doom of both of them. Antony, a brilliant orator, knows how to weasel out of a promise and how to play with language. McConnell does not have Antony’s speaking gifts, but he knows how to exploit a situation.

Don’t be fooled when, at the end of the play, Antony calls Brutus “the noblest Roman of them all.” It’s easy to be magnanimous when your opponent lies dead before you.

Previous Posts on the GOP and Julius Caesar

March 7, 2017: Julius Caesar, Only Too Relevant  

 Dec. 21, 2016: The Decline and Fall of the American Republic

August 29, 2016: How Trump Echoes Marc Antony

March 16, 2016: Will Plots vs. Trump Succeed?

January6, 2016: Rubio vs. Bush: The Unkindest Cut 

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