“Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland.”
If I didn’t know that was a quote from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, I’d think someone had come down with a bad case of scansion and was trying to describe the GOP primaries.
Ralph Fiennes’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy comes out in January, perfectly timed to coincide with the first primary battles. The trailers are crawling around the Internet and into theaters. The posters are already hung, with Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler glowering at each other in black and white.
Coriolanus is a peculiarly instructive play for the Republican field. Caius Marcius Coriolanus, a successful general in the wars on the Volsces, is great at what he does, but can’t bring himself to truckle and kowtow to the populace in the way they’ve come to expect. He insults them. He tells them to go hang themselves. He denies them corn. He is a total, utter and constant PR failure. So they banish him, and eventually he comes back at the head of an enemy army and nearly destroys the city. But never mind that last bit.
One has the sense that it’s intended as a lesson in the dangers of pride. It’s easy, in theory, to drop most of Shakespeare’s tragedies under the heading of one of the familiar vices — Othello, jealousy; Macbeth, ambition; Antony and Cleopatra, lust; King Lear, not having a well-thought-out plan for your retirement.
But Coriolanus is, from another angle, a telling glimpse of the problems of the political process.
Coriolanus’s lament about the fickle populace is the sort of thing one can imagine Michele Bachmann or Mitt Romney murmuring as they retire to their tents at night from a long day of campaigning against the Volsces. The people want what they want, and what they want is changing all the time. They want corn. They want to be spoken to pleasantly. One alone will not suffice.
Coriolanus, as a Shakespeare character, has one major flaw: He’s bad at politicking. It’s a trait he shares with a number of other characters — Macbeth doesn’t do well at state dinners, on account of all the blanching and pointing and insisting the seats are occupied by ghosts; Othello welcomes dignitaries by addressing them as “goats and monkeys” — but for Coriolanus it’s no mere sideline. He simply can’t figure out what to say to people to get them to like him. He gets frustrated during interviews.
As a warrior, this is no problem — it’s immaterial to him whether or not the Romans like him, so long as they honor him — but when he gets into the civilian realm it becomes an enormous handicap.
You can’t just stand aloof and hope the people come to you. You have to march down into the marketplace and sue for their affection. And even that doesn’t work all the time. Especially not if someone overhears you calling them the “mutable, rank-scented many.”
So how to navigate? Newt Gingrich is the current laurel holder. Before him, it was Rick Perry, now reduced to emitting wildly amplified dog-whistles. Then came Cain, who managed to suspend himself from a long cord of sexual misconduct allegations. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has been trying (“Very trying!” everyone exclaims, tittering) to stay with the pack.
Cain’s whole success lay in his ability to convince the people that he was just like them, with a compelling story and a set of numbers most of us seemed to understand about as well as he himself did. Perry has a similar, folksy, I’m-Not-A-Witch-I’m-You appeal.
Neither Gingrich nor Romney is particularly good at that.
But Romney has always had a mild variant of the Coriolanus problem. It’s not the lack of the common touch — although, have you seen this video? — so much as it is the nagging sense that he is doing the campaign trail thing only because someone instructed him that this was a required step. “Mother, I am going to the market-place,” he seems to say. “Chide me no more. I'll mountebank their loves/Cog their hearts from them, and come home beloved/Of all the trades in Rome. Look, I am going.”
It’s harder than it looks, it turns out. Before, it looked as though he was going to sit out Iowa. Why bother with the caucus and its bevy of distorting elements?
Now a pro-Romney PAC is launching a $3.1 million ad buy there. “Look, I am going.”
But Gingrich still polls ahead. And Mitt doesn’t really have the option of leaving town and returning at the head of an angry army of barbarians. After Iowa, he might wish he did.