by Joseph Suglia
NOTE TO THE READER: The first draft of this text was composed in 2017, when I was a much different person than I am today; I have modified it somewhat since then. I would like to emphasize that this text does not concern Donald Trump as a human being or as a political leader; it concerns Donald Trump as a representation.
“Nackt kann die Wahrheit vor dem Volke nicht erscheinen.”
—Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Zweiter Band, Kapitel 17
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America gives further evidence, if needed, that Americans wish to be led by cartoon characters. It was not Trump the human being who acceded to the presidency. It was his screen double, which is all the American electorate has ever known of him. It was Trump the Rich Man of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). It was Trump the Boss of The Apprentice (2004-2015). It was Trump the Billionaire of Wrestlemania 23 (2007). Donald Trump is every bit as unreal as Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl or Colonel Sanders—all three of these characters are strategic unrealities. All are holograms, shadows of living beings rather than living beings themselves. They are not human beings; they are human seemings.
Since the accession of Trump to the presidency, there have been multiple stagings, visualizations, stylings, dramatizations of the decapitation and even of the assassination of the forty-fifth President of the United States. Such simulated deaths must be understood not as calls to actually decapitate or to assassinate the living human leader–indeed, the leader of the world’s sole superpower–but rather as simulations of the death of a holographic projection, stylizations of the death of a clownish figure no more real than Donald Duck. Trump belongs to Nineteen Eighties trash culture alongside other two-dimensional caricatures of human beings such as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Joe Piscopo, and Morton Downey, Jr. If any of these characters had been assassinated, their deaths would seem as unreal as these figures themselves are. One thinks of Hegel’s meditation on the derealization of death in the time of the French Revolution and wonders if Hegel’s remarks aren’t still as fresh as the paint on our computer screens: Death in the time of the French Revolution, Hegel writes, was the “coldest, shallowest of deaths, with no more significance than cleaving a cabbage head or swallowing a gulp of water.”
In J. G. Ballard’s great novel The Atrocity Exhibition, public figures such as Ronald Reagan and Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy are subjected to the morbid and sordid fantasies of the main character. Since human beings are often dark creatures, their fantasies are often dark fantasies. Why should Trump be immune from the processes of dark-fantasization and fetishization? The imaginary assassinations of Donald Trump are simulated assassinations of a character who is already a simulation. The simulated deaths of Donald Trump are nothing more than the deaths of a simulation. Donald Trump does not exist. You cannot kill something that does not exist. Just as money is the abstract representation of desire, Donald Trump is the abstract representation of a gatherer of abstract representations. To become sentient of this simulation is to become something else: to become aware that what we are witnessing is a holographic image.
I will now turn to discuss the simulated assassinations of Donald Trump. I am excluding from this discussion the real attempt on Trump’s life on 18 June 2016 by a young Briton, as well as the subornation of Trump’s murder by celebrities such as Johnny Depp (a Kentucky-born actor with an affected European accent) and Madonna, who are themselves also unrealities.
In a 2016 promotional video for his tenth studio album Heaven Upside Down (a much better title than Say10, the original name of the album), Marilyn Manson chimerized the decapitation of Donald Trump. This is the first and most artful chimerical execution of the president. The other representations of the assassination of Trump could safely be classified as agitprop or as artless publicity stunts.
In a video for the song “Lavender” by the Toronto-based electronic jazz band BadBadNotGood, Snoop Dogg (also known as “Snoop Lion” and “Snoopzilla”) can be seen mock-executing a clown who resembles Donald Trump. Incredibly, Snoop once had a congenial relationship with Trump, who sang dithyrambs in his honor: “You know Snoop Dogg? He’s the greatest. One of the nation’s best-selling hip-hop artists. And I’ll tell you what: He’s a great guy. And he’s a lot different than you think. You know, you think he’s a wild man? He’s a very, very smart, tough businessman, in addition to being a great musician.” The director of the video, professional YouTube videographer Jesse Wellens, was wise not to directly represent the execution of the president.
The most sanguinary simulation of the assassination of Donald Trump was performed by comedienne Kathy Griffin, who arranged a photograph of herself in which she raised a severed wax head that resembled the head of the Commander-in-Chief. Her hair the same shade of red as the hair on the blood-bespattered head she holds aloft, her facial expression joyless, and her skin alabaster, she seems like a French revolutionary a few moments after the guillotine chops off the head of the monarch. At the press conference which she must have anticipated, Griffin said tristfully, as if in explanation, “I’ve dealt with older white guys trying to keep me down my whole life, my whole career.” One cannot suppress the question: Was she thinking of her father when she said this? Did the disembodied wax head perhaps summon memories of her father? Does she have a conscious or unconscious hatred for her father? Her real father, John Patrick Griffin, died in 2007 of a heart failure at the age of ninety-one. In any event, the performance piece was condemned by almost everyone on the Right and on the Left. CNN announced that Griffin would not be invited back to host its annual New Year’s Eve program. She was unwise to do worse what Marilyn Manson and Snoop Dogg did better.
Right-wing activists pretended to be scandalized by the 2017 open-air dramatization of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by New York’s Public Theater. During the performances, which took place in Central Park, Julius Caesar is dressed up as Donald Trump. The fictionalized murder of this Caesar-Trump is nowhere near as bloody as it is alleged to have been by Plutarch in his Lives, where, it is written, the body of Caesar was mutilated, mangled, and hacked to pieces. Plutarch even records that Caesar’s genitalia were stabbed. On 17 June 2017, Laura Loomer—one of the video personalities of Rebel Media, the Canadian rightist video company—jumped on stage during a performance of the play while live-recording herself. She screeched: “Stop the normalization of political violence against the Right! This is unacceptable. You cannot promote this kind of violence against Donald Trump.” She was joined by Jack Posobiec, former Washington correspondent for Rebel Media, who bellowed: “You are all Goebbels! You are all Nazis like Joseph Goebbels! You are inciting terrorists!” Goebbels, then, is equated to each spectator in the audience, in the same way that Trump is equated to Caesar. One imagines a grid of 1,000 cultural references: An invisible line connects one point on the grid to another point on the grid. The historical context of each point of reference is ignored. History is neutralized, reduced to space.
By disturbing the performance of the play, both of these people resembled those whom the Right hates—those who discommode performances and presentations. How are they any different? Even worse, they shattered the dramaturgical illusion that the architects and the performers of the play were struggling to create. Loomer twittered about the incident breathlessly: “The moment I rushed the stage of Julius Caesar. Listen to the violence and stabbing of ‘Trump’ that occurred right before. It is revolting.”
Before I consider the question as to whether Shakespeare’s Caesar has anything in common with Donald Trump, I will turn my attention to the text of the play itself.
* * * * *
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599) is Shakespeare’s attempt to explain the motives behind the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E. and to show the baleful consequences that emerged from this assassination. (The Ides of March: the fifteenth of March on the Roman calendar, the day of settling debts. The day on which Caesar is forced to pay his debt to the conspirators.) The play also passes judgment, I believe, on the conspiracy to assassinate the Roman leader. In doing so, it passes judgment on all such plots to overthrow monarchies, dictatorships, and tyrannies. It is the antithesis of Measure for Measure (circa 1603), Shakespeare’s most politically liberal play, and one almost as politically conservative as The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1605-1608), one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite works of literature.
When we hear of him in the first scene of the play, Caesar is fresh from destroying the sons of the previous emperor, Pompey, in the Battle of Munda, the last battle against the optimates of the old Roman Republic. Caesar has been anointed the “perpetual dictator” of Rome, a dictator with no term limit. He is slated to become king. But there have been no kings in Rome, not since Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and that was in 495 B.C.E., over four centuries ago, and most of the Roman senators and tribunes worry that Caesar will become overweeningly arrogant and sodden with his own godlike authority. Above all, most of them envy Caesar.
The assassination of Caesar leads to self-assassinations, lynchings, pogroms, purges, and civil war. The play culminates in a Jonestown-like mass suicide. The same blade that Cassius stuck into the emperor is plunged into Cassius’s own torso. He does so on his birthday. The anniversary of the day of his nativity coincides with the day of his self-imposed death. I cannot think of a clearer example of cosmic irony in Western literature than that of Cassius’s suicide—the fact that Cassius murders himself with the same blade that he sunk into the body of the Dear Leader. Titinius follows him. Brutus expires while exhaling Caesar’s name: “Caesar, now be still” [V:v]. Portia “swallows fire” [IV:iii], literally—a ghastly death that mirrors her husband’s inward bursting, his imploding. She is burning up on the inside literally; her husband is disintegrating on the inside metaphorically.
The crowd turns mobbish, and mobbishness takes over Rome. The mob tears an innocent man to pieces in the street (the Poet Cinna). This scene (Act Three, Scene Three), which quickly moves from the comic to the hideous, recalls the opening moment of the play, in which a crowd of plebeians jeers at Flavius and Murellus, sneering tribunes of the people. The point seems to be that democracy, when it uses antimonarchical means, is indistinguishable from ochlocracy. The city descends into mob violence as the result of the antimonarchical violence of the conspirators.
Until tyranny takes hold once more. Octavius, the new tyrant, and Antony are motivated not so much by revanchism, by the desire for righteous vengeance and for the restoration of the ancient regime, as by political ambition, or, what amounts to the same thing, the hatred of subjection. Their “love of Caesar” is really a lust for power or is coterminous with the lust for power. The senators fail at establishing a constitutional monarchy (assuming that this is what they desired to begin with). Such the cosmic irony of the play: One tyrant replaces the other.
The reconstitution of tyranny is brought about by rhetoric—by swaying the crowd with words. Rhetoric is the art of persuading people to do what you want them to do—not to do what you would do yourself. Rhetoric is the art is the art of persuading people to believe what you want them to believe—not to believe what you believe yourself.
When Antony says that his heart is in the coffin with Caesar, this triggers an emotional response in the audience. Brutus’s introductory speech is weak (it is logocentric). Shakespeare intentionally writes it weakly. Antony’s speech soars on the wings of pathopoeia (it is pathocentric) and thus throws the crowd into a frenzy. A classic exercise in rhetoric, pathopoeia is an emotionally provocative speech or piece of writing, the content of which is insignificant. It is not a speech in which the speaker cries, but a speech that makes the audience cry. As such, it is pure manipulation: Notice that Brutus says things that he could not possibly know—for instance, where on the body each conspirator stabbed Julius.
The point seems to be that democracy fails. Human beings are political animals, and the lust for power supersedes the humanistic and demotic impulses. Only Brutus has a genuine love of humanity, and his role in the assassination of Caesar was motivated by a sincere desire to better the lives of the Roman people. But he is presented as politically naïve. The naïve, incautious idealist, he naïvely allows Mark Antony to speak to the crowd, which ends in Brutus, Cassius, and company being driven out of Rome. Cassius, who is much shrewder politically (he is a Realpolitiker) and politically more mature, cautions Brutus against doing so. Indeed, Cassius recommends that Antony be slaughtered along with Caesar, and Cassius knows well that slicing Antony’s throat open would have saved him and his brother-in-law from their fates. “This tongue had not offended so today,” Cassius says sneeringly to Antony, “[i]f Cassius might have ruled” [V:i]. And yet Cassius is willing to give Antony political power after the assassination is done: “Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s / In the disposing of new dignities” [III:i].
Misinterpretations surround the execution of Caesar: Not only does Brutus catastrophically underestimate Antony; Antony underestimates Cassius [I:ii]. Cassius, in turn, misapprehends Titinius, which leads to Cassius’s self-murder, and Caesar, of course, underestimates those he calls his friends. He ignores the warnings of Calphurnia, the Soothsayer, and Artemidorus.
This leads one to wonder if Brutus did not overestimate the tyrannical nature of Caesar. The entire argument for Caesar’s assassination is based on a surmise, a conjecture, a speculation: “So Caesar may. / Then lest he may, prevent” [II:i]. Epexegesis: In other words, Caesar might become an unbearable tyrant; therefore, he will become an unbearable tyrant. The justification after the deed: Caesar would have become an intolerable tyrant, if he were allowed to live. One is reminded of the question asked in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: “If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?” Many would answer, “Yes.” Yet the argument that Caesar would have become a brutal tyrant and the Romans would have become slaves is a specious one.
It is the Iago-like Cassius who seduces Brutus into murdering Caesar in a way that is similar to the way in which Iago inveigled Othello into committing uxoricide. Cassius presents himself as Brutus’s own “glass” [I:ii], as both the mirror and the image that appears within the mirror, as the speculum and his specular image, as his replica, as his double, as his simulation, as the reflective surface by which Brutus is able to see himself—as the only means by which Brutus is able to see himself—and as his own reflection. Cassius imposes upon Brutus’s mind the plan to commit tyrannicide. He insinuates his own thoughts into the mind of Brutus.
(Let me remark parenthetically that Cassius even sounds like Iago. His “If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius, / He should not humour me” [I:ii] proleptically anticipates Iago’s “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.” The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice will be written five years later.)
Brutus has a divided self. A fractured self. On the one hand, he has genuine affection for Caesar; on the other, a ghostly, anonymous, impersonal voice has colonized his mind and is commanding him to kill a man toward whom he bears no ill will: “[F]or my part, / I know no personal cause to spurn at him / But for the general” [II:i]. From an external perspective, he is a freedom fighter who believes that a constitutional monarchy would be better for the Roman people than a tyranny—but this idea is not his own and does not correspond to his feelings. This self-division would explain why Brutus, with a guilty conscience, proposes to carve up Caesar’s body as if it were a feast for the gods rather than hew his body as if it were a meal for the hounds [II:i]. But what is the difference, ultimately? Killing is killing, knifing is knifing, hacking is hacking, shanking is shanking.
Shakespeare teaches us, around the same time that he begins work on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, that there is no such thing as a unified personality—that every subjectivity is fractured and complexly self-contradictory and self-contradictorily complex. Indeed, Brutus’s soliloquy is the precursor to Hamlet’s more famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Whether or not to kill himself is not yet the question; the question is whether or not to kill Caesar. Rather than ask “To be or not to be,” Brutus asks, in effect, “Should Caesar be, or should Caesar no longer be?” Brutus’s “[T]here’s the question” [II:i] forecasts Hamlet’s “That is the question.” Brutus, as the proto-Hamlet, is speaker and listener at the same time. He affects himself.
No wonder that Portia, Brutus’s wife, gives herself a “voluntary wound” in the thigh [II:i]. She is mutilating herself literally, whereas Brutus is mutilating himself metaphorically. She is a cutter, but so is Brutus. Her self-cutting mirrors his self-cutting. It is disappointing that this scene was cut from the 1953 and 1970 film versions of the play.
No wonder that Brutus will suppress his feelings for his wife after she kills herself: “Speak no more of her” [IV:iii], he says with mock coldness to Cassius. He suppresses his feelings for the emperor, after all. But this does not mean that Brutus is cold-blooded; far from it. I believe Brutus when he says to Portia that she is as “dear to [him] as are the ruddy drops / [t]hat visit [his] sad heart” [II:i]. He is a Roman Stoic (with Platonist leanings), and Stoics do not betray their feelings—another sign that Brutus is divided against himself.
Not merely is Brutus divided into warring factions; Rome is divided into warring factions. When Brutus says in Act Two, Scene One that “the state of man” is suffering “the nature of an insurrection,” he is referring both to himself and to Rome. Two acts later: As the conspirators run for their lives and fight from the outside, Octavius, the adopted son of Caesar, comes to Rome, and Mark Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus form an unholy triumvirate and will divide the spoils among them after the defeat of their enemies. “Happy day,” indeed [V:v]! It is clear that Antony is planning to kill Lepidus once Lepidus has stopped being useful to him. He expends more words on his horse and on asinine and equine similes than he does on the serviceable Lepidus himself:
Octavius, I have seen more days than you; / And though we lay these honours on this man / To ease ourselves of diverse slanderous loads, / He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold, / To groan and sweat under the business, / Either led or driven, as we point the way: / And having brought our treasure where we will, / Then take we down his load and turn him off, / Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears / And graze in commons… Do not talk of him / But as a property [IV:i].
Not only that: Antony threatens to curtail the benefits to the Roman people that were promised in Caesar’s will (a stimulus package for every Roman, access to Caesar’s once-private gardens and orchards)—the promise of these benefits ferments and foments the crowd, turning the crowd into a mob. (The word mob comes from the Latin mobilis, which means “movable,” and is etymologically connected to the words mobile and mobilize. A mob is a crowd in action.) Antony says to Octavius and Lepidus: “[W]e shall determine / How to cut off some charge in legacies” [IV:i]. In other words, we will reduce the number of drachmas that every Roman was promised and perhaps repossess the gardens and orchards that we promised them, as well.
Within the factions, there are factions: Cassius and Brutus squabble as if they were fractious luchadores in the third scene of the fourth act. Mark Antony and Octavius disagree on who should move to the left in the first scene of the fifth act:
ANTONY: Octavius, lead your battle softly on, / Upon the left hand of the even field.
OCTAVIUS: Upon the right hand I. Keep thou the left.
ANTONY: Why do you cross me in this exigent?
OCTAVIUS: I do not cross you: but I will do so.
Let us not forget the intrusions of the supernatural / the intimations of the supernatural: The lioness that whelps in the street [II:ii]. The graves that yawn and yield up their dead [II:ii]. The nightbird that hoots and shrieks at noon in the marketplace [I:iii]. (Why no filmmaker, as far as I know, has represented these oneiric images is a mystery to me.) The lightning storms that frame the conspiracy to dispatch Caesar—in the third scene of the first act and in the second scene of the second act. Calphurnia listens to the thunder and studies the lightning and interprets these as fatidic signs, as if she were a ceraunomancer (someone who divines supernatural or transcendent meaning from the heavens) [II:ii]. Cassius is a ceraunologist (someone who poetically or pseudoscientifically compares the movements of the heavens with worldly events): He sees the “dreadful night / [t]hat thunders, lightens, opens graves and roars” [I:iii] as the celestial complement to Caesar’s unnamed worldly violence. The ghosts, the supernaturalized beasts, the signs of the heavens that are interpreted as wonders or metaphors: The point of the supernatural is to call into question the tyrannicide.
The self-murder, the military violence, the mobbishness, the madness, the pandemonium, the infantile squabbling, the familial betrayals, the portents, the interference of the supernatural—all of this issues from the killing of Caesar or from the conspiracy to kill Caesar. All of these are symptoms of a disease brought on by the pathogenic act of violence against the emperor. Shakespeare would seem to agree with Goethe, who claimed that the murder of Caesar is “the most absurd act that ever was committed”; for Goethe, this act proved that even the best of the Romans did not understand what government is for (Nachgelassene Werke, xiii, p. 68). Seen from this perspective, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a politically reactionary play, one that justifies authoritarian dictatorship, if not outright tyranny. Again, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most politically conservative plays, second only to The Tragedy of Coriolanus, one of the most reactionary plays ever written.
If the play is politically ambiguous (neither endorsing statism nor rejecting it), then why do we see so little evidence of Caesar’s unbearable tyranny? The play shows us more instances of Caesar’s feebleness than of his tyrannousness (all in the second scene of the first act): Caesar’s epileptic fit in the marketplace, his poor hearing, his feverishness in Spain, his near-drowning in the Tiber. Save for the sole instance of the banishment of Publius Cimber, there is no evidence that Caesar is oppressive. There is much more evidence that the play condemns the assassination of Caesar than there is evidence that the play takes a neutral stance on the assassination. Indeed, one could write, without fear of repudiation, that the play takes a stand against the assassination of Julius Caesar—and thus, a stand against the overthrow of authoritarian dictatorships.
Despite its title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is not the tragedy of Julius Caesar. (Nietzsche knew well that the play was given the wrong title. See The Gay Science, Paragraph 98.) Caesar only has 130 lines and, in spite of what Whoopi Goldberg claims, does not die at the end of the play, but in the middle. The execution of Caesar divides the text into two parts: the first deals with the motives behind the deed; the second deals with its consequences. It is the tragedy not of Caesar, but of Brutus, whose desires are not his own and who is not his own.
* * * * *
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar anticipates its reception by future audiences. Like the atrociously underrated Troilus and Cressida (1602), characters are conscious that they are the unreal representations of real historical human beings. In Troilus and Cressida, Achilles spreads the fake news that “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain,” and the reader / the spectator gets the impression that Achilles is aware that the legend will be printed and become historical. In Julius Caesar, characters (Cassius and Brutus) are conscious that the play will be performed for centuries after the death of their author in countless different languages. Cassius: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?” [III:i]. And why else would Julius’s final words be retained, untranslated, in the original Latin? The characters look backward into the dizzying abyss of history.
Did Shakespeare ever anticipate that Caesar would be costumed as a buffoon?
To return to the Central Park staging of Julius Caesar: There are at least three reasons why Caesar has nothing in common with Trump.
Reason One: Trump panders, but does not debase himself
Caesar debases himself at Lupercalia, the Festival of the Wolf, by refusing a crown that is offered to him three times and—after swooning, foaming at the mouth, and falling in the public square—by begging “wenches” in the street for forgiveness [I:ii]. (Lupercalia took place on 15 February on the Roman calendar and celebrated Lupa, the lactating Wolf Goddess who suckled Romulus and Remus in the cave of Lupercal, and the Goat God Lupercus, the God of Shepherds.) But his self-debasement is staged. It is the staged inversion of relations between the powerful and the powerless. It is not genuine, sincere self-mortification. His repeated refusal of the crown, in particular, is what rhetoricians call accismus: the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.
Caesar is beloved of the people (we see this in the first scene of the play). There is no question that Caesar was friendlier to the people than his predecessor, Pompey. According to Suetonius, Caesar supported the plebeians and the tribunes, who represented the interests of the people. Caesar endorsed the redistribution of land and opposed the optimates, who wanted to limit the power of the plebeians. He was called a popularis for a reason. Pompey, on the other hand, favored a much stricter authoritarian rule.
Trump styled himself as a populist political candidate, and this no doubt contributed to his triumph over Hillary Rodham Clinton, the establishment Democratic candidate, in November 2016. Is Trump, then, a man of the people in the way that Caesar was a man of the people?
Trump’s language is the language of the people—of inarticulate, slow-witted people. His grammatical skills are those of an unremarkable eleven-year-old boy, according to a 2016 study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University. He used a relatively sophisticated language in the 1980s and 1990s, however. Many of his sentences had an admirable rotundity—for instance, “It could have been a contentious route” and “These are the only casinos in the United States that are so rated” (qtd. in Sharon Begley, “Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change?” STAT, 23 May 2017). While campaigning for the presidency, his verbal skills appeared to decompose. On 30 December 2015, Trump peacocked to a South Carolinian crowd: “I’m very highly educated. I know words. I know the best words.” He might have dumbed down his language for purely political reasons, for purely demotic purposes. This has the effect of flattering those with low linguistic skills.
Dumbing down, however, is not self-abasement. Trump never speaks in a self-deprecating manner. He never displays the false humility of Caesar. Trump reflects the vulgarity, the vaingloriousness, the cupidity, and the rapacity of the crowd. He is endlessly trumpeting his own excellence. He does not debase himself. He represents himself as someone who demands that his glistening manliness be acknowledged and respected.
Reason Two: Trump is not constant
Caesar is nothing if not pertinacious. Trump is nothing if not inconstant.
Caesar holds on to his decision to banish Publius Cimber, despite the senators’ entreaties to rescind his banishment. He is as “constant as the northern star” [III:i]. Suetonius praised Caesar for his steadfastness.
Trump, on the other hand, is a syrupy waffle. He has waffled on the travel ban and on the unbuilt Mexico-American Wall. Incidentally, Trump loves waffles “when they’re done properly with butter and syrup.” He rhapsodized: “There’s nothing better than properly done waffles with butter and syrup all over them.”
Reason Three: Trump is the betrayer, not the betrayed
Julius Caesar was betrayed by his intimates, even by his favorite, Brutus. Though I cannot find the source of this citation, I remember reading a saying attributed to Caesar: “Against my enemies my guards can protect me; against my friends, they can do nothing.” This saying has been repeated, without acknowledgement, by Voltaire (“Let God defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies”) and Charlotte Brontë: “I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!”
Trump, on the other hand, has betrayed members of his inner circle—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, James Comey, Sally Yates, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon—in a series of Night of the Long Knives-style purges. One thinks of The Apprentice’s slogan and mantra: “You’re fired.” I am revising this essay on 12 May 2019. Who else in his administration will Trump have fired, what other faux-resignations will be announced, by the time you read my words?
Trump shares nothing with the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare. There is nothing wrong with contemporizing art—I myself have done this with Hedda Gabler—but there must be reasons for specific contemporizations. Those who believe that Julius Caesar can be reasonably dressed up as Donald Trump are the same people who think that a text-message Hamlet or a dubstep Macbeth is a good idea. I have descanted at length on the play’s political stance: If the staging equates Trump to Caesar, then Trump is exonerated by the production. The Central Park performance of the play unintentionally defends Trump.
Consumer culture idolizes the ordinary. To use Adorno and Horkheimer’s language in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the trumpery of the culture industry “heroizes the average.” In this culture, which is gradually becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth, untalented filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino are hailed as geniuses, whereas visionaries such as Michelangelo Antonioni are written off as boring. Incompetent writers such as David Foster Wallace are lionized, while truly great writers such as D. H. Lawrence are blithely dismissed as “pretentious.” Along the same lines: Trump is screened through Shakespeare not because Trump, who represents the lowest values, is elevated to the heights of Shakespeare, who represents the highest values, but because the lowest values trump those that are the highest. In the Central Park staging of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Trump is not vaunted to the heights of Shakespeare; Shakespeare is dumbed down to the status of Trump. Why is this? Consumer culture debases the high, the lofty, the elegant, the dignified, the noble. American mainstream culture vulgarizes everything, it is true, but so is the opposite. In consumer culture, what is low is elevated and what is high is degraded.