Opinion: What Shakespeare Tells Us About the Trump Insurrection

Will Quinn is a writer and historian based in Washington, D.CHe previously served as a professional staff member in the Senate Armed Services Committee for Chairman John McCain and currently co-hosts Bard Flies, a podcast about Shakespeare.

When New York’s Public Theater mounted a production of Julius Caesar in 2017, the title character bore an unmistakable physical resemblance to then-President Donald Trump, provoking outrage and condemnation over his onstage assassination. Now, four weeks after a MAGA-hat-wearing mob attacked the Capitol, the comparison seems even less apt: Unlike Caesar, Trump lost power in a legitimate election — and even the authoritarian Roman leader never incited an armed insurrection against the Senate.

But there is a striking resemblance between one of Shakespeare’s immortal characters and some politicians today. It’s not between Caesar and Trump, though, but rather between Caesar’s ambitious toady Mark Antony and Trump’s calculating apprentices, none more so than Sen. Josh Hawley, who embodies a class of enablers that, sadly, will be part of our politics for some time.

Antony, you may recall, is the Roman general who at Caesar’s public funeral asks for “friends, Romans, countrymen” to lend him their ears as he delivers what is ostensibly a eulogy but is in fact a call to arms, much like what we have heard from Hawley and others who slyly bolstered Trump’s claims of a stolen election. Antony stirs up the crowd by repeatedly and contemptuously referring to the “honor” of the man who slew Caesar, the Roman senator Brutus. And like any good demagogue, he demonstrates a talent for spectacle and a killer instinct: unveiling the slain dictator’s body and then dramatically reading from “Caesar’s will,” which promises 75 drachmas to every citizen.

This sounds similar to Senator Hawley’s feigned outrage and dissembling about his role in pushing debunked election fraud allegations while continuing to make big and appealing promises — $2,000 stimulus checks, the humbling of Big Tech, an infrastructure week — that never seem to materialize. But then, that’s why Hawley and Antony are so alike: They’re not so much interested in forging a genuine populist politics built on new coalitions as they are in riding to power on the tiger of rage, resentment and manipulation.

Shakespeare offers a warning about listening to such men. After Antony incites the mob to a frenzy, it lynches an innocent man who happens to share the name of one of Caesar’s assassins, tearing him limb from limb, in a scene reminiscent of the murder of Capitol Hill Police Officer Brian Sicknick. Antony’s incitement looks awfully similar to Hawley pumping his fist to the crowd and objecting to certifying the Electoral College results on the Senate floor just before the havoc began. Antony merely offered a chilling aside: “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot, take thou what course thou wilt!” Hawley was more direct. What followed went well beyond “mischief.”

Antony ultimately pays for his crimes, though it takes time. After defeating Brutus, he rules Rome with Octavian and Lepidus and enjoys the favors of Cleopatra. His downfall begins when he neglects his duties to the Republic, arrogantly asserting that “kingdoms are clay” that cannot contain him. He wants institutions that can be molded to his whims and discarded, rather than built to contain rank ambition or serve the public good. But after Antony and Cleopatra anoint themselves the rulers of Rome’s eastern provinces, the army deserts him, leading him and his lover to commit suicide in despair and disgrace.

Will Hawley’s political career also come to a shameful end? If he won’t resign, will the good citizens of Missouri throw him out in 2024? And if he runs for president, will he be met with disdain — and asked about his press releases and op-eds, which exhibit greater anger about a canceled book deal than the desecration of Capitol Hill by terrorists, thugs and rioters? In earlier days, we might have expected Hawley’s public life to be swept up from the Capitol floor along with the detritus of the insurrectionists he plied with false hope. But given current trends in the Republican Party — more than 70 percent of whose members apparently still believe the election results were fraudulent — there is no assurance that this will happen. It certainly won’t if the GOP’s leaders decline to challenge those who spread these lies.

Literary parallels are never exact, and defeating an ambitious enabler like Hawley will not restore Republican virtue. After all, Antony’s death was followed by the birth of arbitrary power in the Roman Empire. But if Antony embodies Shakespeare’s most cunning and unscrupulous demagogue, we should be doubly wary of allowing a second-rate imitator to strut across the political stage. As with so many others in Congress and the last administration who led us to this precipice, it’s hard to argue that this career deserves a second act, let alone a sequel.

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