‘The Citizens are Mum’: The Inauguration and Richard III

20 Jan

It’s Inauguration Day. A day–ostensibly–for celebration and the arrival of a new era. Except that a new era is not always a cause for celebration, and, for many Americans today, it most certainly is not.

I have struggled for a long time to understand how it is that we as a nation ended up with Donald Trump being elected to the Presidency… and how it is that we as a nation remain mired in toxic nationalism, racism, sexism, and the fear of those who are unlike us. That we are is clear, but why we are so I still fail to grasp.

I find myself, today, turning yet again to Shakespeare and to his example of demagoguery and toxic authoritarianism: Richard III. I spoke about this on the eve of the election, and what I feared then has thus far held true. Trump–like Shakespeare’s version of Richard–managed to convince just enough of the representatives of the people that he would be “good for the country” that they allowed him, against the weight of tradition and the better judgment of a lot of people, to take power.

In Act III, Scene V, Richard does the same, convincing the Lord Mayor of London that he is pious and humble, a “working man’s man,” if you will, and the Lord Mayor and his fellows agree to the illegitimation of Richard’s rival, Edward V, based on the rumors Richard and his cronies spread about Edward’s mother (which involved witchcraft, sexual indiscretions, and accusations of being un-womanly… not unlike the accusations of email scandals, “mannishness,” and being a “nasty woman” deserving of being “locked up” leveled at Hillary Clinton).

Scene 7 of the same act is Richard’s “Inauguration Day.” Buckingham proclaims him king, and the people–not those who raised Richard to the throne, but the people–refuse to confirm him:

RICHARD: How now, how now? What say the citizens?
BUCKINGHAM: Now by the holy Mother of our Lord,
The citizens are mum, say not a word.

And when mine oratory drew to an end,
I bid them that did love their country’s good
Cry ‘God save Richard, England’s royal King!’
RICHARD: And did they so?
BUCKINGHAM: No, so God help me: they spake not a word,
But like dumb statues or breathing stones
Stared on each other, and looked deadly pale.

And if this were not enough, Buckingham–like Trump–bribes some of the audience to cheer:

BUCKINGHAM: When he had done, some followers of mine own
At lower end of the hall, hurled their caps,
And some ten voices cried ‘God save King Richard!’
And thus I took the vantage of those few:
‘Thanks gentle citizens and friends,’ quoth I;
‘This general applause and cheerful shout
Argues your wisdoms and your love to Richard.’

This scene is one in which the crowds are scarce and mostly silent, in which the majority of citizens look upon Richard’s reign “full of fear,” “heavily and full of dread,” wiser than the nobles who helped to place Richard on the throne. The ten “followers” who cheer for Richard are outnumbered by the thousands who “Stared on each other, and looked deadly pale.”

This is not a scene that far distant from today’s Inauguration, with attendance rates well below those of 2009 and 2013, with clear visible patches of empty pavement at the National Mall in front of the Capitol building. The emphasis Shakespeare places on cronies initiating cheers is also stunningly germane to the Trump administration, given the presence of applauding staffers in recent press conferences.

If we are to keep following the script of Richard III, things will get worse. Although I doubt very much that Trump will begin murdering his citizens, the repeal of the ACA would cause the deaths of a not insignificant number of them. War–if one were to break out as the result of an international diplomatic gaffe of epic proportions, which I’m afraid I can all too easily see–would cause even more deaths. And while Trump is not about to stuff a few family members into a chest and let them suffocate in Trump Tower, he has threatened repeatedly to “lock up” his political rivals.

In short, if we follow the script, we are facing a national crisis and disaster. Social, cultural, and economic ruin, in Shakespeare’s play, coupled with an environmental crisis and the repeal of the rights of the oppressed will become de facto–if not de jure–across the country.

Yet if we follow the script still further, there is hope at the end of long, dark winter of our discontent. Somewhere, at the end of all this, will be our Henry Richmond, the knight in shining armor–in this case, literally, although I imagine ours will wear a good deal less chain mail–who rides in to remove the tyrant and save the day, inaugurating a dynasty of peace and prosperity (which, admittedly, had an underbelly of its own, but what government doesn’t?). So there is still hope, so long as we refuse to roll over and allow ourselves and our nation to be victimized by the whims of a petty tyrant. We, like the citizens of Shakespeare’s Richard III, will have to buckle down and weather the storm, to set our feet in stone and refuse to be moved.

Tomorrow, we will cry out, will march, will raise our voices in protest. Today, we remain silent.