For Democrats it's always the Ides of March and Donald Trump is Julius Caesar.
In order to understand our current predicament, then, it's helpful to turn to William Shakespeare, whose "Julius Caesar" is his most accessible play. A drama offering a series of timeless comments on politics, ambition, war — and humanity.
Caesar strides across Rome like some colossus, and the jealous Cassius complains to the noble Brutus that they are reduced to peeping between Caesar’s legs. "Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed that he is grown so great?" asks Cassius, as he begins to persuade Brutus of the need to eliminate Caesar before Caesar allows his friend Mark Anthony and the Roman Senate to make him King.
Pursuing the food metaphor, a bit later in the play, Caesar recognizes the threat posed by Cassius, whom Caesar describes as having a "lean and hungry" look, and explaining to Anthony that it is better to have about him those who are "fat and sleek" because such men as Cassius are dangerous and cannot abide having anyone greater than they are in existence.
The conspirators kill Caesar because of the threat they perceive he poses to their continued political dominance. They put it in noble terms, of course, and it falls to Brutus, whom Plutarch tells us might have been Caesar’s natural son, to explain that though he loved Caesar, he loved Rome more, and thus it was his duty to eliminate the ambitious would-be King, and save Republican Rome.
In the end, however, the conspirators all die grisly deaths, Mark Anthony and Caesar’s nephew Octavian triumph, and Rome is on the way to becoming an empire rather than a republic, so that the assassination’s aim is ironically thwarted.
Could "Julius Caesar" hold a profound lesson for our own time?
The lean and hungry looking Robert Mueller (who could be typecast as Cassius) is about to issue his report on purported Russian collusion in the White House.
A plethora of dangerous members in the U.S. House, including the lean and hungry Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the once fat and sleek and now reduced Rep. Jerold Nadler, D-N.Y., and the trim and fit Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., could be poised to launch an endless series of investigations of Trump taxes, finances, and business practices designed to deliver President Trump’s death by a thousand cuts.
William Shakespeare's works are nearly always full of elegantly mixed messages, and it's not clear in "Julius Caesar" whether the greatest general Rome ever knew is put to death for appropriate purposes or whether he is done in simply by human venality and excessive self-righteousness.
If Democrats have a program other than the hatred of the man who bested them in the last presidential election, it has not yet emerged. One of the many lessons of "Julius Caesar" is that the Roman mob is too easily swayed by honeyed oratory, and Anthony turns them against the conspirators when he tells them that Caesar was prepared, in his will, to give them each money and access to his palatial parklands.
Democrats may seek, through their usual redistributionist methods, to turn the American people away from Republicans and Trump with offers of forgiving student loans and Medicare for all.
In "Julius Caesar," though, the conspirators succeed in nothing but plunging Rome into a Civil War and suffering death.
The lesson would seem to be, then, for the Democrats not to use their newfound power in the House to seek to impeach or attack the president, thus further dividing Americans, accelerating already existing fissures in the society. If Democrats hope to be able successfully to challenge Donald Trump in 2020 it ought to be with ideas, policies, and programs and not character assassination.
Better still, the president might learn from Caesar’s mistake, and, working with his majority in the Senate, and the minority in the House, fashion a set of proposals clearly designed to appeal to all Americans. What once made America great was our ability to rise above a politics of envy and discord, and our success at building a democratic republic that promoted individual liberty, tolerance for cultural, political, and religious diversity, and the rule of law.
In the time of Julius Caesar, Rome couldn’t quite bring that off, but we still might. It will only happen, however, if the President finds a way to convince his opponents to work with him, and succeeds in demonstrating to them that the way of conflict and attack is self-defeating and fatal for all. Following Shakespeare, the United States would do well to abandon the politics of envy, and seek, somehow, to broaden and solidify the prosperity the President’s initiatives have already provided.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). Presser was recently appointed as a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado's Boulder Campus for 2018-2019. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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