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Brutal Ironies in the Flap Over Trump and 'Julius Caesar'

Shakespeare used to be considered a defense against totalitarianism. How we flattered ourselves.

Each summer since the 1950s, New York City's Public Theater has staged its annual Shakespeare in the Park. This year, cultural conservatives are deeply displeased with the result.

The Public Theater's latest offering is a production of Julius Caesar, set in the present day, and the title character is a Donald Trump stand-in who wears a three-foot-long tie and presumably yells "very unfair" when Brutus stabs him. Breitbart, the scurrilous far-right website, reported with a straight face that there had been a staging of "Trump-stabbing theater" in New York City, and Fox News ran with that report under the headline, "NYC Play Appears to Depict Assassination of President Trump."

Conservative protesters, egged on by the president's eldest son, demanded that the Public Theater's sponsors pull their support. Bank of America and Delta capitulated almost immediately.

The way conservative outlets packaged this story was brilliant. They removed Shakespeare from the top of the story and immediately made the report a referendum on amoral coastal elites. In the same way you can disparage "New York values" to indicate that you dislike homosexuals, or disparage "New York intellectuals" to indicate the same for Jews, you can call Julius Caesar a "New York play," and your disciples will know exactly what you mean: an artsy-fartsy subversion perpetrated by a bunch of degenerate pansies.

Should anyone be mad at Delta or Bank of America? Yes, but mainly for stupidity. Here it is helpful to think of Liz Spayd, the New York Times' soon-to-be-former public editor, who keeps getting punked by conservative dweebs. Spayd didn't chastise Sopan Deb because she was evil; she did it because she'd been hoodwinked by a bad-faith campaign that a smarter editor would have recognized as such. In the case of the outcry over Julius Caesar, you can tell the campaign is not an honest one by counting how many of these same malcontents were displeased by Ted Nugent's repeated death threats against President Barack Obama, or how many of them denounced the 2012 New York production of Julius Caesar where Caesar is portrayed as a stylish black politician in the Obama mold. (Spoiler: They stabbed the Obama figure many times onstage.) The answer appears to be none. Reviewing that 2012 production, the American Conservative sounded approval. Curiously, Fox News chose not to file any breathless reports about this earlier "New York City play."

Shakespeare, then, is expendable among the white identitarians who march for Trump. If funders are this quick to drop Shakespeare, what chance does Sesame Street have? The same people howling about the decline of Western civilization are the ones hastening it, and their greatest strength is that they are impervious to real irony.

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A decade or so ago, lamenting what he considered the illiterate imperialism of George W. Bush, Harold Bloom claimed that the English, because they have Shakespeare, could never elect someone so rhetorically impoverished and theocratically zealous. As it happens, this is an abiding conceit among the English, who think that their national character is somehow anti-fascist; Stephen Fry gives this conceit a good poke in the first season of A Bit of Fry & Laurie, during a spoof on the self-love of public intellectuals:

If Hitler had been British, would we, under similar circumstances, have been moved, charged up, fired up by his inflammatory speeches, or would we simply have laughed? Is English too ironic to sustain Hitlerian styles? Would his language simply have rung false in our ears?

In the most recent American election, we have the makings of an answer to Fry's question: English, it turns out, is not too ironic to sustain Hitlerian styles; rather, it is just ironic enough to sustain a style of plausible deniability around Hitlerian ideals.

During Bush's second term, Bloom lamented: "What has happened to the American imagination if we have become a parody of the Roman empire?" Shakespeare used to ask the same question about Elizabethan England. In Trump's America, it's not clear whether, when art asks these questions, it will provoke, or simply be crushed.