In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, a scandal emerged at the end of last week when the media reported that four US senators may have engaged in insider trading by selling off their shares in hotel stocks after learning in confidential hearings of the likely effect that the virus would have on the stock market. Three of the senators — Richard Burr, Kelly Loeffler and James Inhofe — are Republicans and one, Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat.
What It Means to be a Wartime President
When the press confronted US President Donald Trump on the issue, he avoided any mention of the Republicans’ names and focused only on the Democrat. But he excused all of them for something he clearly thought of as unworthy of concern.
The president explained: “I saw some names, I know all of them. I know everyone mentioned Dianne Feinstein, I guess, and a couple of others. I don’t know too much about what it is about, but I find them to all be very honorable people, that’s all I know, and they said they did nothing wrong. I find them, the whole group, very honorable.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Probably guilty of various kinds of social injustices and even crimes, but rich and powerful enough not to be taken to task for those infractions
In answer to a further question, Trump repeated, “I find them to be honorable people.” Then, after insisting on naming the one Democrat among the four legislators cited, he responded: “Well, it also includes Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, you didn’t mention her name. Why didn’t you mention her name? I think she’s a really honorable person, by the way.”
In a little more than a minute, Trump used the adjective “honorable” four times. Nothing could better illustrate either the poverty of Trump’s literary culture or the subtlety of his rhetoric than the fact that he wasn’t the first person in the history of the English language to insist on designating somewhat suspect individuals as “honorable.” Four centuries ago, William Shakespeare provided a precedent that most English-speakers, including children, are familiar with.
Shakespeare’s play, “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” tells the story of the conspiracy organized by the Roman senator Marcus Junius Brutus to murder Caesar, the official ruler of Rome whom the senate had honored with the title dictator (the term didn’t have the same meaning for the Romans that it has today). After the assassination, the conspirators allowed the young Marc Antony, Caesar’s ally, to address the Roman people. They hoped that by accepting the assassination, he would calm the public’s fears. In his famous oration, Antony at first appeared to excuse the conspirators. Five times, with increasingly cutting irony, he referred to Brutus as an “honorable man” and to the conspirators as “honorable men.” The people quickly understood Antony’s not very hidden meaning: that what the “honorable” men had done was, in fact, disgraceful.
At the press conference where Trump was asked for his thoughts on the accusations against the four senators, the president did the best he could in a limited time. But he couldn’t quite match Antony’s record for the number of “honorables” in the shortest period of time. The final score: Antony 5-4 Trump.
Marc Antony’s speech in Act III, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar,” which begins with the words, “Friends, Romans, countryman, lend me your ears,” remains one of the most famous passages in English literature. For that reason, it’s highly unlikely that Donald Trump, prior to his press conference last week, had never read the oration or heard it spoken by an actor. On the other hand, it’s very likely that he never considered it important enough to preserve in his long-term memory.
One might think that today’s politicians would find it wise to follow the example of Antony, whose irony had a powerful impact on the crowd — powerful enough to start a civil war that only ended at the battle of Actium 10 years later. The two chief assassins whom Antony insists are honorable, Brutus and Cassius, proved their sense of Roman honor in Act V by committing suicide.
As the first-century historian Plutarch relates the story in his famous “Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans,” Brutus opposed the co-conspirators’ intention of assassinating not just Caesar but Antony as well. Plutarch accuses Brutus of two costly “faults” that amount to underestimating the threat Antony posed. The first was Brutus’s refusal to assassinate Antony and the second, his permitting Antony to go ahead with a funeral oration.
Here are Antony’s five invocations of the idea of an “honorable man” as penned by Shakespeare:
“Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man…
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 honourable man.
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.”
Politicians could do worse than study Shakespeare to learn how to deal with unruly crowds or disreputable conspirators. It’s true, however, that Antony’s irony wouldn’t go over well in the US today, where the media and armies of tweeters tend to take everything literally in the belief that people should always say what they mean and mean what they say. Irony will always be misinterpreted and so politicians have learned to avoid it. Therefore, though it is tempting to speculate on, nothing justifies thinking that Trump intended to be ironic by subtly alluding to Shakespeare’s play.
There may, however, be a different ironic twist to meditate on in the light of Trump’s performance. It may even imply tragic irony. Antony’s speech set off the civil war that was eventually resolved by the demise of the Roman republic in favor of an empire ruled over by the general Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, who, when all the smoke had cleared, in 27 BC assumed the title of Emperor Augustus.
The extreme polarization of politics in the United States today has reached a point that had already begun to resemble a nascent civil war, even before the devastation brought about by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. The current pandemic and the confused decision-making it has spawned has drawn attention to the fragility of the two ideological pillars of the American political system: democracy and free market capitalism. Can either respond to human needs in times of crisis? Can they even do so in what people consider to be “normal” times?
The drama of climate change had already created a climate of anguish around this historical dilemma. How can a political and economic system built around the goal of transforming the environment, guided by the sole objective of maximizing private profit, restrain itself from depleting all the vital resources of the planet? COVID-19 has both aggravated and highlighted the fundamental dilemma, a question humanity as a whole must answer in the coming years.
As desperation increases around the consequences of COVID-19, we must ask ourselves two related questions. First, is the US undergoing a political shift that could lead to a civil war? Second, could the current situation in any way be comparable to the transformation of the Roman republic into an empire? Many Americans, who are busily stocking up on guns and bullets (as they tend to do whenever there’s a national drama), may well be preparing for civil war, though, given the lack of commandment structure, it is likely to look more like “Mad Max” than the rivalry of armies led by Roman triumvirs.
We might even wonder if the process hasn’t already achieved its effects. After all, the US has been acting like an empire for the past 75 years. And recent presidents of the US, perhaps starting with Ronald Reagan, have adopted attitudes and methods of governance that may at times resemble those of some of the first-century Roman emperors. These include, alongside the illustrious Augustus, two other notorious names: Nero and Caligula. Some people find Donald Trump to bear a remote resemblance to certain of those emperors.
As to what will happen to the four “honorable” senators, the scandal attached to them has at least momentarily been overwhelmed by the drama of voting for a comprehensive bailout. And though history tells us that Brutus and Cassius — the honorable leaders of the conspiracy to kill Caesar — both committed suicide at Actium, it is unlikely that any of the four senators accused of insider trading will be tempted to follow the Romans’ example.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.