For Mike Pence is an Honorable Man: Trump’s Deadly Rhetoric and Shakespeare’s Caesar
The wannabe tyrant faces an uneasy crowd. He is a “plain, blunt” man who speaks from the heart. The crowd becomes enraged. Rioters storm the streets; swarming into marble-columned buildings. They call for the blood of those politicians who are “traitors”. Soon, innocents are murdered by that mob.
This scene describes the tragic events for January 6th. However, it has precedence. The vivid, violent imagery was first put to parchment by William Shakespeare. His masterful “Julius Caesar” examines how rhetoric leads to violence. The action takes place in Ancient Rome. The dictator Julias Caesar has just been assassinated. Mark Antony, Caesar’s second-in-command, is in a tight spot. He is out of power and at the mercy of the Senate. But Antony has one trump card left to play.
The Senate permits Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral. However, he is explicitly forbidden to criticize the senators. Otherwise, the legal consequences could be dire. So Mark Antony chooses his words carefully. He calls the senators “honorable men”. These “honorable men” have criticized Caesar as overly ambitious, and if ambition means feeding the poor and making Rome glorious again, then who is Antony to disagree?
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.
The crowd begins to stir and grow uneasy. Mark Antony sarcastically begs them to stay calm. He asks that they NOT take violent revenge against the Senators. Because that would be wrong. Fully justified, but wrong.
O masters, if I were disposed to stir
Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,
I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong,
Who, you all know, are honorable men:
I will not do them wrong; I rather choose
To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you,
Than I will wrong such honorable men.
As tempers flare, Mark Antony provides himself with plausible deniability while simultaneously feeding the crowd’s rage. The crowd is at full fury, screaming: “Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay! Let not a traitor live!” Antony pretends to calm them down.
Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up
To such a sudden flood of mutiny.
They that have done this deed are honorable.
He then proceeds with his finishing move. Antony claims that he only wants peace, but that a different speaker “would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue in every wound of Caesar that should move the stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.”
The Roman people rise and mutiny. Antony watches over the chaos with satisfaction, proclaiming:
Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt!
We will never give up;
We will never concede,
We will stop the steal.
We’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, and
We’re going to the Capitol…
We’re going to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones…
The kind of pride and boldness that they need
To take back our country.
Yet, even as he called for insurrection, Trump still attempted to deflect legal responsibility by disingenuously asking for peace. As rioters stormed the Capitol, Trump cynically tweeted: “I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence!” This derisive ploy appears to be working. Already, legal scholars are defending Trump because he didn’t explicitly call for violence. Neither did Mark Antony. But their motives remain clear. Trump, just like Mark Antony is a master of implicitly violent rhetoric. Consider Trump’s description of Mike Pence at a Georgia rally, 48 hours before the riots.
I hope that Mike Pence comes through…
I have to tell you.
He’s a great guy.
Of course, if he doesn’t come through,
I won’t like him quite as much.
Nah, Mike is a great guy.
He’s a wonderful man
and a smart man
and a man that I like a lot.
Trump’s supporters cheered. Two days later, these supporters searched for Pence through Congress halls, demanding he be hanged from makeshift gallows erected outside the Capitol.
Words can lead to bloodshed beyond the intended scope of the demagogues who vomit them forth. Mark Antony’s incited insurrection leads to the murder of an innocent poet, Cinna. The mob mistakes Cinna for a senator. When rioters learn that he’s a poet, they don’t care. “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses” they scream as they tear the poet apart. Their bloodlust, once unleashed, cannot be stopped.
Donald Trump’s incited insurrection led to the murder of Brian Sidnick, a war veteran and cop. His blue life did not matter to the Trumpists who bludgeoned Brian to death. Who will answer for this crime?
Eventually, Mark Antony faces his comeuppance. Mark burns too many bridges. His allies turn against him. Alone, with no way out, Mark takes his own life.
What does history have in store for Donald?