‘I Banish You!’

In responding to the absurd impeachment proceedings brought by the Democrats in Congress, Donald Trump should take a page from Coriolanus—Shakespeare’s riveting play about envy, honor, and the decline of popular government.

The play is well worth reading, but for those who may not have the time or inclination to get the book, an excellent film adaptation—released in 2011 and starring Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, and Vanessa Redgrave—is available on DVD and some streaming services.

Coriolanus, the title character, is a successful Roman general and veteran of many wars in defense of his country. As was the Roman custom, he expected to be rewarded for his service by being elected to the office of consul. But being proud and a bit stubborn, he resisted some of the normal conventions and rules set up by “the establishment.” 

The general would have been better off listening to his friends and his wise, dignified mother—one of the great characters in all of Shakespeare, who actually represents Roman virtue better than her son. Coriolanus is a fearsome but deeply flawed figure. His prickly (and somewhat self-defeating) sense of honor, and his inability to accept good advice, is one aspect of the play’s tragedy. The other is a warning about how popular government can become corrupted. The play takes place in republican Rome, before the rise of the empire and the absolute rule of the Caesars. Republican government is only possible, Shakespeare reminds us, when the people exercise the vigilance and self-control that is essential for liberty under the law. 

Instead of becoming Consul, Coriolanus ends up exiled as the result of a political vendetta orchestrated by the tribunes. These demagogic leaders incite envy and civic strife to enlarge their own power. The tribunes paint Coriolanus as an enemy of the state and stir up popular passions to have him banished. 

In the dramatic scene where the tribunes and their mob gather to pronounce his exile, Coriolanus delivers a memorable speech in response to his banishment: 

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere.

Let me mention a few lessons that Trump (and his voters) could draw from this speech. I’ll quote a few lines and then provide the context, while putting Coriolanus’ words into more modern language.

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air . . .

The proud general—who essentially is being impeached—comes out swinging, and heaps scorn on his accusers. “You yelping dogs,” Coriolanus is saying, “you stink like rotting garbage. I don’t care about your respect, since you are nothing but walking corpses that make me gag.”

That line seems especially appropriate as a description of the Democratic Party’s decrepit gerontocracy, including Joe Biden (78), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (80) and Senator Patrick Leahy (80), who will preside over the impeachment proceedings.

I banish you!

Coriolanus turns the impudence of his accusers back on them. They are the true betrayers of the republic who, by rights, should be expelled. Trump, in my opinion, should use this line: “I impeach you!”—and then spell out the details of the Democrats’ shameful conduct, which has undermined the Constitution.  

Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! 

These lines—about the melodramatic cowardice of the accusers—seem especially appropriate in light of the hysterical overreaction to the events of January 6. The so-called insurrection is now being used to prepare public opinion for draconian new measures against “domestic terrorism,” and to justify a proposed wall around the Capitol complex reminiscent of a Third-World dictatorship. This, in spite of conflicting and uncertain accounts of what happened, as well as video evidence of Capitol police opening the doors to the protestors, and even engaging in friendly banter with the “Viking guy”—who hardly appears to be leading a murderous coup.  

Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! 

This means, “You idiots are just tools of our country’s enemies!” The mob is so consumed with partisan jealousy and bloodlust, they don’t even notice or care that they are weakening the nation, and making themselves patsies for foreign powers. (Of course, it’s possible they do notice, and don’t mind.) Consider, in this context, that the despots in Beijing are surely smiling right now at this spectacle of the United States destroying itself from within, while they don’t even have to lift a finger. 

Thus I turn my back: There is a world elsewhere. 

It’s not clear what Trump will do with his wealth and influence now that he is out of office. Rumors are circulating that he will start an alternate media empire. This is certainly a more measured response than what Coriolanus did: he joined up with his old war enemy to threaten an invasion of Rome. In the play, that conflict is resolved when Coriolanus’s mother helps to broker a peace. In our time, this farce may still lead to tragedy. 

The late professor of political philosophy Harry Jaffa explained that in Coriolanus, Shakespeare shows, “with all the poetic genius that only he could command . . . the inner connection between virtue and republics.” No political stunt can change that. 

Shakespeare’s deepest lesson, according to Jaffa, is “the inexorable and inescapable vindictive power of the moral universe.” With control of all three branches of the federal government, the Democrats may imagine there are no limits to their power. But they will never remake the human soul. It may be possible for a while to pretend that passion can replace virtue, and that ideology can replace truth—but this can’t last. Even Washington, D.C. cannot defeat the nature of reality. 


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About Glenn Ellmers

Glenn Ellmers' new book, The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy, will be published by Encounter this summer. He is the author of The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America and the Salvatori Research Fellow of the American Founding at the Claremont Institute. He is also a fellow of the Center for American Greatnsss.

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