By Peter C. Herman
They just won’t say anything.
Many hoped or feared that Robert Mueller would open up when he appeared before the House Intelligence and Justice Committees. Finally, he would reveal all the perfidy that Trump had committed. He’d tell us how Trump repeatedly demanded that Donald McGahn fire the Special Prosecutor and then demanded that McGahn lie about it. He’d go into detail about all those meetings between Trump officials and the Russians. And best of all, he’d say that the only thing separating Trump from indictment would be the Justice Department’s policy against indicting a sitting president. But no, Mueller refused the Democrats’ invitations to elaborate on his report, just as he refused to be bothered by the Republicans’ baiting him with spurious accusations.
Instead, Mueller stuck to his principles, and left with his head held high, his virtue intact.
The same applies to Gen. James Mattis, who resigned as Trump’s Defense Secretary. Although friends and aides say that the general “found the president to be of limited cognitive ability, and of generally dubious character,” he won’t come out and say so himself. Why?
In an interview in The Atlantic with Jeffrey Goldberg, Mattis answers that question: “The duty of silence. If you leave an administration, you owe some silence. When you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country.” When Goldberg asks whether he doesn’t also have a duty to warn the country if the president is an ignorant, narcissistic fool. Mattis answers that adherence to principle keeps him from speaking out: “I didn’t cook up a convenient tradition here. You don’t endanger the country by attacking the elected commander in chief.” Like Mueller, Mattis refuses the temptations of what he considers partisanship.
What did Shakespeare have to say about this situation? Actually, a lot.
In King Lear, Cordelia faces an analogous situation. Lear demands that in exchange for their share of the kingdom, his daughters must tell him how much they love him. Regan and Goneril jump right in, each outdoing the other in proclaiming how much they adore their father. Cordelia, on the other hand, refuses to play the game. She won’t engage in “that glib and oily art”; she won’t trade insincere speech for material gain. Like Mattis and Mueller, Cordelia puts her principles above all else, and she won’t compromise her integrity no matter what the consequence. Most today see her as a paragon of virtue.
Except that she’s a political idiot. Lear’s asking his daughters “which of you shall we say doth love us most” may seem childish, but the plan behind the request is not, as Kent says, altogether fool. Lear understands full well Regan and Goneril’s nature, and he wants to keep them as far apart as possible “so that future strife / May be prevented now.” So Goneril, married to the Duke of Albany, after her speech gets England’s north, and Regan, married to the Duke of Cornwall, gets the south. Both are relatively poor areas. Cordelia, on the other hand, if she had played the game, would have gotten England’s middle: “A third more opulent.” That’s where London, Oxford, Cambridge and England’s best farmland are located. That’s where England’s wealth lies. And best of all, the good daughter would have kept the bad daughters apart. It could have worked.
But Cordelia didn’t see that. Instead, she privileged her private virtue over the public good, and said nothing. The result? At the play’s end, she’s dead, Lear’s dead, England suffers a foreign invasion, and the crown is a hot potato nobody wants. Sometimes the greater good requires bending one’s principles a bit. Neither Mattis nor Mueller want to compromise their sense of themselves as responding only to the higher calling. So like Cordelia, they remain silent. And Trump’s depredations continue unchecked.
Julius Caesar provides another example of how adhering to principle when nobody else does leads to disaster. After Brutus and his accomplices assassinate Caesar, Mark Antony asks to speak at Caesar’s funeral, and Brutus agrees. Cassius is understandably shocked at Antony’s ineptitude. “Brutus,” he says, “a word with you,” and he tells Brutus that letting Antony speak is political suicide. But Brutus thinks that facts will carry the day, and letting Caesar’s friend not only speak, but speak last “shall advantage us more than do us wrong.”
But Antony is not interested in “facts” or playing fair. Instead, he wants to avenge Caesar’s death and “let slip the dogs of war,” which is exactly what happens. After he fires up the mob into a murderous frenzy, Antony steps back, and says, with satisfaction: “Mischief, thou art afoot. / Take thou what course thou wilt.” And the crowd goes wild, killing anyone unlucky enough to cross their path. Their first victim is Cinna the Poet, who they kill because he has the same name as Cinna the Politician. In the next scene, Antony and his henchmen are much more directed, but no less heartless, in their violence. They plan a purge, killing off all their political enemies with the stroke of a pen, no matter who they are. Antony tells Lepidus, “Your brother too must die,” and Lepidus quickly consents. But only if Antony’s “sister’s son” dies, and Antony too says yes. This is what Brutus’s adhering to rules nobody else follows results in: a slaughter.
Is there a play in which a ruler knows when to bend for the greater good? The answer is yes: The Tempest. Early in the play, the spirit Ariel foils a plot by Antonio and Sebastian to murder Alonso, king of Naples and the “good lord” Gonzalo, At the play’s end, however, Prospero doesn’t turn them in. He doesn’t stick to principle, inform Alonso about the plot, and have the two executed. Instead, Prospero tells them ,“At this time / I will tell no tales.” For the price of a little blackmail, Prospero avoids having two people put to death, and keeps them in line, with insurance that they will stay in line.
Prospero has learned that in a world of political hardball, you have to play hardball yourself. “Neglecting worldly ends” and dedicating yourself to “the bettering” of your mind, as Prospero did before he got bounced from his dukedom, may make you personally virtuous. But it will also turn you into a very bad ruler because not playing the game everyone else is playing leads quickly to deposition and, in all likelihood, tyranny. That’s the lesson Prospero learns. It’s not edifying. It’s not admirable. It won’t let you feel good about yourself. But it works.
Would that Matttis, Mueller, and all the other people who have either jumped or been pushed from Trump’s service would follow Shakespeare’s examples and realize that staying above the fray may preserve one’s personal sense of virtue but does nothing to mitigate the danger to the nation.
Imagine if Cordelia had been a little less in love with her ethics, said what Lear wanted, and got the more opulent third. The kingdom would have been a lot better off. Imagine if Brutus had been a little less fair-minded, and told Antony to take a hike. A lot of people, including Antony’s relatives, would have lived. Imagine if Mattis and Mueller would say (they still have the chance!) what they obviously both believe, i.e., that Trump is manifestly unsuited to be president, and he poses an immediate threat to the Constitution, which he regularly muses about overthrowing. Imagine what would happen then.
They should read their Shakespeare, and learn from his examples.
Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He is an expert on Shakespeare and Milton, and is author of the new book Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11.
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