When the Three Estates convened at Versailles in 1789, the Nobility and the Clergy played hard to get with the rest of France – the Third Estate. Its delegates then wished to constitute themselves as the body representing the nation of France. What should it call itself? Assemblée Nationale or Représentants du people? But if the latter, who were the ‘people’? Many feared that the King and the Court and the Clergy would regard the peuple as the plebs rather than the populus, or, as Michelet framed it, le peuple inférieur. So, they went for the name Assemblée Nationale.
Similar questions arise when you ask who is in the populus that populists appeal to? If you answer that they are the plebs or the ‘inferior people,’ you may get into trouble, if not a fight. Even the terms ‘commoner’ or ‘common people’ are tricky in a nation that claims to prize equality.
For the purposes of this note, I will say that the ‘people’ that Donald Trump appeals to are those who welcome his pardoning of a government officer who boasted of running a concentration camp for people who he thought were ethnically inferior, who ran up a bill for the people of Arizona of $70 million in defending his racial profiling, and who was then sentenced to jail for defying a court order. The ‘people’ that Farage appeals to were those who loved that photo of their leader grinning in front of a large poster with a long line of towel-heads threatening to inundate the Fatherland. These folks didn’t think the poster was racist, and would turn more nastily against those whom they call ‘elite’ if anyone dares to say so. With Pauline Hanson, you have a smorgasbord, but for Australia generally, you might say that the ‘people’ that someone like Cory Bernardi might appeal to are those who think that Peter Dutton is a good Minister of the Crown and a man worthy to be Prime Minister of this great nation.
What did our greatest playwright have to say about the ‘people’? Quite a lot – and it is hard to find anything favourable either to the people or those who appeal to them.
In a book I wrote some years ago, I said:
When Banjo Paterson came to stigmatize mindless youth in the then equivalent of our outer suburbs, he referred to gilded youths who sat along the wall:
‘Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all’.
This is a recurrent nightmare for us now, made worse on our trains and buses by sullen looks coming from vacant spaces between iPod exit points. It is not that education has failed them– they have rejected education. There is nothing going on at all there. What might happen if that lot got into government? The nightmare would be made real.
You can make up your own mind whether you think that that nightmare has become real in the U S or elsewhere, but the figure of Jack Cade in Act 4 of Henry VI Part II does look frighteningly prescient.
Cade is a demagogue from Kent. We see him first as a pawn of a faction leader in the Wars of the Roses. Cade appeals to the mob, but he has ideas of his own. He thinks he can be king. (He is no democrat, but dictators rarely are.) Although he says that he is waging a class war, he still wants to be king. But like Hitler, the ascent of Cade is by carrot and stick: give the masses what they want and purify the rest by terror by killing anyone who gets in the way. ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers.’ (4.2.75) and ‘make it a felony to drink small beer’ (4.2.66).
The descent into Fantasyland is immediate: ‘Strike off his head’ (4.7.112). This was the short answer of Robespierre, but at least Robespierre, who was a lawyer, was not terrified of writing. Jack Cade will kill those who can write: only one who has to apply his mark may be considered an ‘honest plain-dealing man’ (4.2.100). The Nazis went further and burnt books, but by and large these did not exist at the time of Jack Cade. How often do we see this victimhood on the part of the mindless, pretending that only they are pure? It’s as if you have to be a victim to be good. And Cade can link class vindication to ideological cant:
And you that love the commons, follow me.
Now show yourselves men; ‘tis for liberty.
We will not leave one lord, one gentleman,
Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon. (4.2.180-184)
‘Clouted shoon’ means hobnailed boots. This is Romper Stomper six centuries ago. Our nightmare was alive back then. The reference to ‘liberty’ is moonshine. Cade is in this only for himself. He even wants the droit de seigneur (4.7.120-125). But almost immediately, the fickle mob drops him and he is dispatched – unconvincingly – by another more orthodox son of Kentish soil. ‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro, as this multitude?’(4.8.56-59).
Cade loathes literacy. That and his capacity to hide behind a joke if he gets caught is something else Trump has in common with Cade. In the destruction of the Savoy and the Inns of Court, and the burning of the records of the realm, Cade prefigures the mob in Paris in and after 1789.
Jack Cade then is the template for the loud, stupid, selfish populism of the Trump brand. We see the mob being seduced in Richard III; Richard II is worried about the appeal of Bolingbroke to the mob; Henry IV lectures his son on how to present to them; and Joan of Arc has a popular appeal that Henry VI could not even dream of; but I shall confine my remarks to the Roman plays.
The gross political naivety of Brutus and the duplicity of Antony enabled the latter to convert and then unleash the mob in possibly the most famous speech for the stage in Julius Caesar, Act I Scene 2. Brutus was silly not to have taken out Antony with his patron. He was sillier to allow a disciple of Caesar to open his mouth in public about the murder. Then he was even sillier to accept Antony’s promise not to ‘blame us’ (3.1.245). Within minutes, Antony is speaking of letting slip the dogs of war. The speech plays on the words ‘honorable’ and ‘ambition’ – lethally. Then this masterpiece of political deceit plays on the word ‘mutiny’ – three times. Inciting mutiny was of course Antony’s sole purpose in making the speech, and Brutus and the other killers would pay with their lives for their political innocence.
Many of those who are familiar with this speech forget its aftermath. In the next scene, the hysterical mob becomes a lynch mob, and then we are shown the big hitters sharing the spoils of revenge. They calmly decide which of their families will have to die. Act 4 Scene 1 commences with Antony saying ‘These many men shall die; their names are pricked.’ Octavius responds ‘Your brother too must die; consent you, Lepidus?’ The murderous cold-bloodedness of these power brokers might remind you of a passage in Antony and Cleopatra. When the world beaters are getting drunk doing their big deal to split up the world, the aide to Pompey asks him if he would be lord of the whole world. He then offers this amazing but sober proposal:
These three world-sharers, these competitors,
Are in thy vessel. Let me cut the cable;
And when we are put off, fall to their throats.
All there is thine. (2.7.73-74)
These rulers not only play with the mob – they kill them as if for sport.
The action in Coriolanus takes place during the class wars that sickened ancient Rome for so long. We still are inclined to label some people ‘patrician’ and some ‘plebeian’ after the Latin terms for the two classes who were at each other’s throats in Rome. Neither now is a term of affection.
Coriolanus was as patrician as you could get. He loathed the plebeians – and he could not help himself from revealing his loathing – indeed, reveling in it. If you regard the ‘people’ with contempt, and if you are happy to show them that contempt, you can hardly expect to achieve political success if the constitution decrees that you must appear before the people and obtain their assent to your appointment to the office you seek. Since that’s what the Roman constitution provided, the play Coriolanus is inevitably a tragedy.
A dramatic high point comes when our hero erupts astoundingly when a tribune says ‘shall’ – a plebeian being imperative to a noble! (3.1.87). Coriolanus spits the word ‘shall’ back at them four times. The man who takes Coriolanus in and then turns on him knows what the word ‘boy’ will do (5.6.101). The representatives of the ‘people’ are the ‘tribunes.’ They get a shocking press in this play. They are like union organizers – Jesuitical or communist, depending on your phobia or fancy. The film reeks of 1789. ‘What is the city but the people?’ and ‘The people are the city.’ (3.1.198-9). That is pure Robespierre. The tribunes are cold blooded, self-interested, manipulative cowards. Here is how they go about their work in steering the populus.
To the’ Capitol come
We shall be there before the stream o’ th’ people;
And this shall seem, as partly ‘tis, their own,
Which we have goaded onward. (2.3.267-271)
Coriolanus is a sustained hatchet job of the puppeteers of the populus. And it is another reason why we regard this playwright so highly for his insight into our politics. The main lesson from this play for us in seeking to understand Trump is that if a person comes into political office with a character that makes him unfit for that office, you are kidding yourself if you think he might change character on the job. Indeed, the likelihood is that he will only get worse the longer he stays in the job. Power rarely improves people it and never makes them humble.
Tony Tanner referred to Plutarch speaking of Coriolanus and saying how an education might lead a man who was ‘rude and rough of nature’ to be ‘civil and courteous.’ He went on:
During the Renaissance, there was much discussion concerning the proper education, duties, and responsibilities of the good prince or governor – what qualified a person to exercise ‘the speciality of rule’. As Plutarch stresses, it is precisely these qualifications which Coriolanus so signally lacks: he is a prime example of what Renaissance thinkers regarded as the ill-educated prince, a man from the governing classes who is, by nature, temperament, and upbringing, unfitted and unfit to rule.
That is Donald Trump word for word. From Rome to Washington, and from Plutarch to the New York Times, there is nothing new under the political sun.