The stinking breath of the people
Yesterday Elon Musk ran a Twitter poll asking whether Donald Trump’s Twitter account should be reinstated. Of about 15 million responses, slightly more than half voted yes, and indeed the account was reinstated shortly thereafter (Trump has not yet used it). “Vox populi, vox dei,” wrote Musk in his announcement.
Much has been said about how the full Latin quotation goes on to say that those who say “Vox populi, vox dei” should be ignored because a “riotous” crowd is “always very close to madness.” But I’m reminded tonight of a different text: Julius Caesar, in particular of the “offering of the crown.” It’s the great political show of the play: Mark Antony offers Caesar a crown three times, and Caesar refuses each time, causing the crowd to cheer for him and his purported love of the republic.
But we don’t get to see the show, we only hear how Casca tells it.
I can as well be hanged as tell the manner of it:
it was mere foolery; I did not mark it. I saw Mark
Antony offer him a crown;–yet ‘twas not a crown
neither, ‘twas one of these coronets;–and, as I told
you, he put it by once: but, for all that, to my
thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he
offered it to him again; then he put it by again:
but, to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his
fingers off it. And then he offered it the third
time; he put it the third time by: and still as he
refused it, the rabblement hooted and clapped their
chapped hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps
and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because
Caesar refused the crown that it had almost choked
Caesar; for he swounded and fell down at it: and
for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for fear of
opening my lips and receiving the bad air.
Like Musk, Mark Antony knows how to please a crowd, in a way that creates an illusion of democratic mandate. His crowd is not an audience of Twitter devotees (and perhaps also bots run by those devotees), but rather the Roman citizens willing to participate in the circus he creates. I’m thinking about the “rabblement hoot[ing] and clapp[ing]” with their “stinking breath” — that would be the endless stream of amplified toxic rhetoric on Twitter, which does indeed make people across the political spectrum “fear of opening [their] lips and receiving the bad air.”
Caesar weakly refuses the crown, as Trump refuses to use his account, despite what must be for him an unimaginable temptation (“he would fain have had it,” “he was very loath to lay his fingers off it”). Again, this is all part of the show, the projection of strength, and in Trump’s case perhaps also an insistence that his alternate social network, “Truth social,” has value.
But think also about the so-called “crown” being not a crown after all, but rather “one of these coronets” — an object yearning for symbolic significance, but ultimately common and meaningless. Similarly, the blocking or unblocking of an account appears to be a grave matter of free speech and access to the “town square,” but is ultimately merely a company’s (or, here, an individual billionaire’s) decision about which voices to promote or suppress on their platform.
Casca begins his speech by declaring the performance “mere foolery,” and claiming he “did not mark it.” But of course, he did mark it, enough to give that scathing review. We are all faced with the choice of engaging with and rebutting “mere foolery,” or disengaging and allowing it to continue unchecked. Calling the Twitter poll “mere foolery” gives it the very attention it craves; letting it slide enables more foolery. We think of this as a modern problem, but perhaps it has always been one, and perhaps Cassius—or maybe Shakespeare—already knew this when he asked us: “how many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over?”