Caesar must bleed for it: assassinations, dethronings and whether they matter

Julius Caesar has been in the news of late. New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar has a tall, brash, betoupeed title character with a not-at-all-provocative resemblance to the sitting (for now) President of the United States. And once it was broken to a not-at-all-excitable subset of people that there was a Trumpalike in a four-hundred-year-old play depicting the target of a two-thousand-year-old assassination, well, it all kicked off. Sponsors dropped out, not quite remembering to clutch their pearls as they did so. Protestors brought tickets specifically so that they could disrupt performances. Other art-lovers with a readier command of capslock than Google sent death threats to various Shakespearian theatres across the country.

And if all this sounds like classic sneering liberal snobbery – oh, I’m not nearly done.

And not out of any deference to the Shakespeare in the Park Trumpaesar (Caesarump? I’ll workshop it).Honestly, I think it’s a supremely tiresome provocation to Trumpify Caesar. And lazy, besides. A fallible human figure with pretensions to dictatordom? A power-hungry demagogue? I’ve pointed out the historical parallels myself. A Trump-Caesar is the very definition of low-hanging fruit. An orange, in this case.

But, to be fair, low-hanging fruit gotta be picked by someone. And why not a summer Shakespeare production probably weeping with gratitude at the gratis publicity afforded to it by a rabble of swivel-eyed illiterates?

Because – psssst- Trump supporters. You know it doesn’t end well for Caesar’s assassins, yeah? Brutus and Cassius both kill themselves, after a long and exhausting war of attrition. Oh, well, that’s personally, you might say. But what about politically? Well, they killed Caesar because they didn’t want him (or anyone else) to be king. And in killing him they ushered in Octavian Caesar and a little-known thing known as the Roman Empire.

So maybe, pitchfork-wielders, next time use the tickets you’ve bought and actually watch the play. Or at the very least read a summary. Because if what you want is the hegemony of rich old white Christian men, Julius Caesar suggests that a Trump assassination may actually usher in a Grand Old Republican Empire.

Or would it? There’s a number of cheerfully opposing ways to think about history, but I’m concerned here with two: Carlyle’s Great Man theory, and Spencer’s counter that Great Men are the product of their times. Carlyle famously declared that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’. Certainly it feels like certain figures have to matter, doesn’t it? That certain events couldn’t have happened without a Gandhi, a Hitler, a Napoleon, a whoever? Do leaders matter?

Well, we know that identity matters – at least for the policies that get discussed or that get money. A series of papers have looked at what happens when policy changes suddenly allow minorities and/or women positions of authority in India. And guess what? More job quotas for minorities, and better access to the infrastructure women care about.

But what about outcomes? It’s not an easy question to answer, because – in my chosen discipline’s idiom – leadership transition is non-random. Generally, leaders tend to get rewarded in good times and punished in bad times. But there are ways to fudge this. What if leaders were to die? Suddenly, of natural causes or an accident? That’s as good as a random transition. And Jones and Olken (2005) find that, as it happens, leaders do matter. Growth changes when leaders change – but really only in autocracies where leaders have a death-grip on policies. Which feels like a ‘Carlyle, but Spencer’ argument to me.

And what about assassinations? Jones and Olken, again, turn their delightfully morbid lens onto assassinations – specifically, ‘hit or miss’ assassinations whose success/failure can be treated as near-random. And, once again, assassinations do matter…….but only for autocrats. In fact, a successful hit on an autocrat tends to help a country on the road to democracy (hmmmm, I’m beginning to see why Trumpets would be so peeved at the thought of a Trump-hit).

So yes, leaders matter and their assassins matter…. but only if you let them. I suspect Shakespeare would approve of that message. Not out of any reasoned political belief (…..I mean, maybe?) but out of his instincts as a dramatist. Guilt is more plausible – and more interesting – if it’s shared. Caesar’s impending power-grab works dramatically only because the worshipful mob – and sycophants in the Senate – offer him a throne. The conspirators’ failure is foreshadowed when Brutus wordily, nerdily explains why Caesar’s ambition was dangerous and the mob ecstatically wants to make him Caesar. Richard III only works as a villain when he holds up a mirror to his court’s bloodthirsty, power-mad, conniving selves.

 

So while I lick my chops at the prospect of a Trump impeachment, or a May resignation, and hopefully a great culling of the toadies, lickspittles and dead-eyed incompetents in their trains, I can only think of the institutions that put them there, and look fearfully into the mirror. Where a hunchbacked king gives me a slow, lascivious wink.

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