Should Conservatives Cheer as Sponsors Withdraw From Theater Production Portraying Trump's Assassination?

Guy Benson
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Posted: Jun 13, 2017 10:25 AM
Should Conservatives Cheer as Sponsors Withdraw From Theater Production Portraying Trump's Assassination?

This uproar started to bubble up a few days ago, after a sales manager at a New York radio station (owned by the parent company of Townhall Media) attended a production of Julius Caesar in Central Park.  She gave an interview expressing shock that the play portrayed the titular character -- who gets stabbed to death in the show -- as an obvious Donald Trump figure.  Here are the basics, including a denial from the company's artistic director that the depiction advocates or encourages violence in any way:

During a production at New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park Festival, an actor playing Julius Caesar but dressed as a Donald Trump lookalike (complete with a Slavic accented wife) was stabbed to death in the third act, mimicking a Trump assassination. Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s artistic director who also directed the play, said in a statement that “anyone seeing our production of ‘Julius Caesar’ will realize it in no way advocates violence towards anyone,” reports the AP. He added that the original play and this production “make the opposite point: Those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods pay a terrible price and destroy their Republic. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.”

The controversy quickly made the leap to some conservative websites, then to Fox & Friends -- where I weighed in on Sunday.  The segment below included some footage of the highly provocative scene:

As I said to the hosts, my initial takeaways were: (1) A theater production depicting the murder of a sitting President of the United States is in very poor taste, period; (2) I'm consistently skeptical of Americans' overindulgence of outrage-fueled 'boycott' bandwagons in response to speech and ideas they don't like; (3) I'm curious how the Left's "climate of hate" framework, used to demagogue conservative speech, might be applied to this situation.  I added that I imagined the outcry would have been bigger if President Obama had been the target.  As it turns out, one theater group did cast an Obama figure as Julius Caesar in 2012, with performers portraying the president's GOP adversaries acting as play's villains: The assassins.  (One difference appears to be that the current production is reported to have altered a few of Shakespeare's words in order to make the Trump allusion even less subtle, and to make him the subject of ridicule).

As far as I can tell, that Obama-era 'artistic choice' never broke through into the national spotlight, perhaps because there was no handy video footage to help stoke the anger (I totally reject the explanation that a shrill freakout was avoided because liberals are less inclined toward scalp-collecting outrage tantrums, for reasons I've fleshed out at great length. Plus, just ask this guy).  Left-leaning Fox News contributor Julie Roginsky pushed back against the 'Trump-as-Caesar' furor by making a similar point to Mr. Eustis above:


A major theme of Shakespeare's masterpiece is a morality tale against unraveling the stability of a republic through undemocratic means, such as violence and frenzied mob rule.  So the play could be framed as a warning against anti-Trump hysteria, and an admonition against taking the law into one's own hands in the name of the "greater good."  Even with all of that mitigating context in place, however, I think the bloody public spectacle of a dramatized presidential assassination is inevitably going to be viewed by many people as over the line -- especially, Bizarro World Paul Krugman might add, in the midst of the current "climate of hate" against Trump.  It is entirely reasonable to object to this form of art, which comes on the heels of additional recent, witless iterations of Trump assassination porn.  I don't support whipping up further indignation by targeting sponsors of this longstanding 'Shakespeare in the Park' tradition, even as I'm sympathetic to the instincts of corporate PR flaks at companies like Delta and Bank of America, whose default setting is to avoid their brands being associated with such inflammatory content.  

There are sometimes consequences for humor or art that offends the masses.  I just fear that we're in a race to the bottom when it comes to our cultural threshold for offense-taking.  I detest the proliferating, toxic incentive to declare oneself aggrieved in order to exact intellectual or ideological punishment on "the other side."  The Left has pioneered and perfected the outrage industry, but the Right certainly has its practitioners, too.  On social media, some conservatives who told me they weren't genuinely upset about the play nevertheless lent their voices to the chorus of opprobrium for the explicit purpose of forcing leftists to live by their own standards.  Again, I see where they're coming from, but cannot endorse their methods.  An outrage arms race is bad for the country, and conservatives should be circumspect about when, and if, to escalate.  That doesn't mean unilateral disarmament all the time, but it does require picking battles and maintaining perspective.  And this kerfuffle has been blown out of proportion, in my view.  

One last point: Contra one inaccurate critique from a Buzzfeed writer, my objection to this speech is not hypocritical, even as the co-author of a book bemoaning manufactured outrage.  In End of Discussion, we explicitly reject the idea that Americans must cut outrage out of their emotional diets altogether; sometimes anger it's warranted, or even needed.  But we believe too many Americans have become petty and vindictive about the targeted application of weaponized outrage, so we urge people to think harder before jumping on an emotionally-bullying bandwagon.  Plus, criticizing speech is not the same thing as demanding punishments for it.  Let's all take a breath and try to establish our default setting as not angry and out for political or cultural revenge.  And if there's one thing you read about this whole melodrama, it's Kyle Smith's withering critique of the play.  He upbraids the production not because its Trump angle is "incendiary," but because its Trump angle is extremely boring and uncreative.  Bingo.