Since New York Public Theater’s Central Park rendition of Julius Caesar became the focal point of national controversy, a metaphor of the new era of political violence that Donald Trump’s election to the presidency has provoked the left to inaugurate, the play’s defenders have argued that it is all much ado about nothing.
After all, they claim, Barack Obama was depicted as the Caesar character some five years ago, but there wasn’t a bit of outrage over his assassination. Similarly, neither should there be any outrage over the fact that the 2017 version features the assassination of a Trump-Caesar.
This argument is what’s known as an argument from analogy. On its face, it seems both strong and cogent. The truth, though, as I showed, is that this specific argument is lacking in cogency. When Aristotle, the Father of Western logic, supplied his list of over 100 or so logical fallacies, the fallacy of false or weak analogy was among them.
The supporters of Trump-Caesar are guilty of committing this fallacy. They are, in other words, guilty of making a broken argument.
There are several, morally relevant differences between the two productions of Shakespeare’s classics. Briefly, I recapitulate them here:
(1)As Rob Melrose, the director of the 2012 production, confirms, his “Obama-Caesar” was intended to be cosmetically, physically dissimilar to the real Obama. Both were tall, slender, black, and male, it is true. But Melrose made sure that the differences were significant enough so that it was still possible for theater-goers to miss the Obama connection.
Oskar Eustis’ Caesar, in glaring contrast, was a dead ringer for Trump.
(2) Melrose’s assassination of Obama-Caesar had none of the blood, horror, and shock of Eustis’s assassination of Trump-Caesar.
(3)Melrose’s producer established that no one was to talk about their production of Julius Caesar. So, outside of those relatively few who saw it, most people, whether Democrat or Republican, didn’t know about it.
Matters are, obviously, entirely different in the case of Eustis’ production.
(4) Five years ago, Democrat politicians were not being hunted down for mass murder by zealous right-wingers; Republican media personalities and artists were not overtly fantasizing about and encouraging violence against Obama; and Mitt Romney supporters were not being organized and financed by GOP billionaires and millionaires to intimidate and beat up Obama supporters.
In short, the climate of political violence in which we now find ourselves didn’t exist, or at least not nearly to the extent that it currently does.
There are, though, still other considerations that justify, not censorship of art productions depicting the assassination of politicians, but the different responses that the two versions of Julius Caesar engendered.
Noah Millman writes for The Week. Millman is no Trump supporter—he calls Trump “the conspiracy-monger-in-chief” and says that “there is ample reason to be terrified of Trump in the Oval Office”—and The Week is not a conservative publication. As Millman implies, Obama-Caesar is in keeping with Shakespeare’s portrayal of Caesar inasmuch as he possesses “a firm sense of his own transcendent importance,” an “awesome majesty,” and there is considerable “distance that separates him from even a noble Roman like Brutus.”
Trump-Caesar, though, is a different sort altogether. “This Caesar,” which is “played with broad humor,” “isn’t even much of a tyrant—he’s a shallow, vain, petulant man-child, strutting about, and embarrassing the senators even as the prospect of his kingship terrifies them.”
Upon placing Caesar’s words in Trump’s mouth “no one—at least no one in a liberal New York audience—can hear Caesar the same way.” Millman elaborates:
“What once was grand is now petty; what once was awesome is merely domineering.”
This depiction of Caesar, Millman continues, “works shockingly well” by and large. The only inconsistency is “Brutus’s soliloquy in which he convinces himself to kill the tyrant.” It is here that Brutus tries to justify his decision to murder Caesar on the grounds that the latter may change for the worst if he “assumes dictatorial powers….” This is inconsistent with the depiction of Trump-Caesar because, as is obvious to all who see him, the justification for murdering him is not some suspicion as to what his character could become in the future. The justification, “the problem,” as Millman puts it, “is the character he already manifests” (emphasis added).
To put it simply, Eustis portrays Caesar in exactly the same light as he and his fellow leftists see Trump. His Julius Caesar is a petty, cocky, narcissistic, disgrace who shouldn’t be within miles of the levers of power.
Even if, as the remainder of the story of Julius Caesar makes clear, the assassination of this duly authorized ruler leads to the exchange of one social state of affairs for a far less tolerable one, this doesn’t change the fact that this Caesar, Trump-Caesar, deserves what he has coming to him.
Millman said that a key difference between Melrose’s Obama-based production and Eustis’s Trump-centric one is that Melrose “took the ideas” of Caesar’s enemies “seriously.” Eustis, however, “is not so interested in the ideas behind the play as he is in the passions of the moment.”
To repeat, I draw out the contrasts between Obama-Caesar and Trump-Caesar not in order to argue for censoring the latter, or for the purpose of suggesting that it is not permissible to depict, in a work of art, Trump’s assassination while it is unobjectionable to depict the murder of other presidents. In fact, considered in the abstract, I wouldn’t even want to contend that there is anything necessarily objectionable about depicting the assassination of any living politician.
Rather, my point here is to support two theses.
First, the argument from analogy that the play’s supporters make is logically defective, for one is not even beneath the surface before their argument disintegrates under the weight of the critical moral differences between Obama-Caesar and Trump-Caesar.
Second, given the truth of this first thesis, those who are now expressing outrage over Oskar Eustis’ production are not, as their critics would have us think, acting either hysterically or selectively outraged.