“Julius Caesar” is currently running at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton. President Trump should see it because it has some very direct applications to the nation’s current political situation. For those who need a refresher on one of William Shakespeare’s signature plays, it goes like this: Some of Caesar’s own supporters become worried that he’s abusing his power and decide to stop him. We all know the famous line. Caesar looks at his former friend Brutus, who has just driven a knife into him: “Et tu, Brute!” (For those not up on their Latin: “And you (too), Brutus!”)
Here’s how that relates to Trump’s current political predicament: The danger for Trump is not being stabbed literally, but being stabbed figuratively — as in stabbed in the back by his supposed friends. His great danger comes not from Democrats, who may have the votes to impeach him but not to remove him from office. It comes from Senate Republicans, whose political interests may not align with Trump’s.
The odds of Senate Republicans turning against Trump are exceedingly small. But they are not zero, which surely gives Trump some pause. The odds are that the Democratic-controlled House will impeach Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate will quickly dispense with the charges, rendering them the equivalent of a line from one of Shakespeare’s other plays: “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Impeachment isn’t exactly nothing, though. We don’t know how impeachment will play out with voters. Democrats know that they aren’t likely to remove Trump from office — they’re really speaking to voters, and to history. There is, though, another scenario. Again, it’s highly unlikely, but it’s possible enough that political websites as serious as Politico and FiveThirtyEight have walked through how it might happen.
Picture this: Suppose the polls show Trump trailing his likely Democratic rivals. That’s not far-fetched. Many polls already show this, depending on the poll. Now picture this: Suppose Senate Republicans become convinced that a Trump defeat will cost them their majority. At that point, how many would reconsider their options? It’s one thing to lose the presidency but if you’re a Republican, a Republican-controlled Senate is bulwark against any Democratic presidency. Just ask Barack Obama about the time he nominated Merrick Garland for the U.S. Supreme Court. But if Republicans thought they’d lose the whole she-bang, and Democrats would control both the White House and Congress? What then? Would Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell really let his fellow Republicans go down with the ship? Or would they try to save themselves by voting to remove Trump — knowing that the result would be Mike Pence as president? In effect, would McConnell play Brutus? This has got to be a scenario that haunts Trump because a Pence presidency might be appealing to a lot of Senate Republicans.
Unlike Trump, Pence is one of them. He was never a senator, but he was a member of Congress before he became governor of Indiana.
He’s a more conventional — and therefore predictable — politician. He might also be a more reassuring figure to run with for a lot of Republicans in 2020 — principally those in swing states. Part of the problem with Trump is his larger-than-life personality. For a lot of Americans, he’s simply exhausting. Pence is no Trump in that regard. As Politico wrote recently, “President Pence would blow up 2020.” More to the point: “The Democratic presidential candidates would have to tear up their talking points for how they provide the best chance of beating Trump, and come up with fresh ones for Pence. Suddenly, the political calculations for Democratic candidates, and Democratic voters, would change. And it could completely flip the current hierarchy of the field. Joe Biden would have the biggest problem. His entire campaign is based on the premise that his deep experience and pragmatic politics promises to dispatch the aberration that is Trump and return us to normalcy. If Pence had already returned America to normalcy, that would leave Biden without his main argument. No longer would the president be a bombastic demagogue who slathered crude economic populism, vicious anti-immigrant sentiment and creepy affection to the world’s worst dictators on top of the standard Republican mix of tax cuts, social conservatism and Federalist Society-approved judges. Instead, if Pence reverted to past form, we would be a conventional Republican . . . If Pence ended Trump’s anxiety-inducing, market-rattling behavior on the world stage, swing voters in the general election might look past his retrograde views on social issues and breathe a collective sigh of relief.”
Now, we’ve said before this is very unlikely, and we should probably say that a few more times just for good measure. This is very unlikely. This is very unlikely. This is very unlikely.
However, it was also very unlikely that Trump would ever become the Republican nominee, or president. Former U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake claims that if an impeachment vote were secret, “at least 35” Republican senators would vote to remove Trump. Flake may be given to hyperbole and, in any case, a Senate vote won’t be secret. Any Republican voting to remove Trump would have a hard time with a furious Trump base. Furious might even be a mild word. But again, we come back to the political instincts of self-preservation: If enough Republican senators thought they’d lose with Trump on the ticket but win with Pence, what do you think they’d do? Shakespeare’s play is instructive on all these counts. Caesar never expected Brutus to turn against him until it was too late. Heck, Brutus never expected to turn against Caesar. But he finally did so — but didn’t do so alone. According to the Roman historian Flavius Eutropius, 60 or more men took part in the attack on Caesar, although he was stabbed “only” 23 times.
The author Lee Drutman writes on FiveThirtyEight that if Republicans ever turn against Trump, it won’t be just one or two, it will happen en masse — and suddenly.
Trump can take solace in this: Brutus and the other conspirators thought they would be hailed as liberators. Instead, Romans turned against them.
Of course, literary – and even historical — analogies only go so far. Caesar, like Trump, was a strong-minded populist who angered the Roman elite. But he also gave Roman citizenship to a lot of non-Romans in the far reaches of the Roman Empire. In that respect, Caesar was no Trump and Trump is no Caesar.