Public Theater should cancel its Trump assassination play... But it won’t.
James T. Hodgkinson, who on Wednesday shot Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and four others, posted this on his Facebook page March 22: “Trump is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”
Sitting in the dying light of World War I, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “I had not thought death had undone so many.” What’s our excuse? Displays of political or social excess seem to be everywhere. Whatever once fastened the doors of people’s minds to something secure and stable has become unhinged.
Some thought the apotheosis of political derangement had been reached when celebrity Kathy Griffin posted a video of herself holding the bloody, severed head of Donald Trump.
But that wasn’t the end of it. We may assume that as Ms. Griffin was creating her video, the artists at New York’s Public Theater were rehearsing their production of “ Julius Caesar, ” the one in which Central Park audiences watch Caesar as a blond-haired Donald Trump, who is pulled down from a podium by men in suits and assassinated with plunging knives.
The news site Axios runs stories regularly about journalists who have been suspended or fired because of their unhinged postings on Twitter . After Donald Trump used a tweet to revive his long-running feud with the mayor of London amid the June 3 killings, CNN personality Reza Aslan tweeted that Mr. Trump was a “piece of s—.”
Some take comfort that these displays did not go unpunished. CNN wrist-slapped Ms. Griffin by dropping her as co-host of its New Year’s Eve show with Anderson Cooper. Delta Air Lines , American Express and Bank of America withdrew their sponsorship of “Julius Caesar,” though New York City’s Democratic Comptroller Scott Stringer said their pullout “sends the wrong message.”
Advertisers must wake up every morning wondering what political meteorite will hit them next. J.P. Morgan Chase pulled its ads this week from NBC News rather than be associated with Megyn Kelly’s prime-time interview with Alex Jones to discuss “controversies and conspiracies,” such as his notion that the Sandy Hook murders were a hoax. Ms. Kelly justified the interview in part on Twitter because Donald Trump appeared on Mr. Jones’s show and “our job is 2 shine a light.”
Donald Trump’s election has caused psychological unhingement in much of the population. But the Trump phenomenon only accelerated forces that were plummeting in this direction before the 2016 election.
Social media—a permanent marinade for the human brain—is causing a vast, mysterious transformation of how people process experience, and maybe someday a future B.F. Skinner will explain what it has done to us.
Impossible to miss, though, is how jacked up emotional intensity has become in American politics. The campaign rallies of both Mr. Trump and Bernie Sanders often sat on the edge of violence. Reporters describe political town hall meetings as full of “angry” voters. Shouting down the opposition in these forums or on campus has been virtually internalized as standard behavior. Refusal to reason is the new normal. And then the unreason is euphemized as free speech.
Explaining away these impulses as a routine turn of the populist political cycle is insufficient. Something more permanent is happening.
I remain fascinated with the case of the 10 incoming Harvard freshmen who celebrated their achievement by posting a series of remarkably repulsive, violent photographic memes on Facebook. One said abusing children was sexually arousing; another described the hanging of a Mexican child as “piñata time.”
What those no-longer Harvard students had done was create a “private” Facebook messaging board, where they somehow felt free to mock and subvert current social convention. They aren’t alone. The website Reddit, which has about 500 million monthly visitors, became known for similar “anonymous” bulletin boards on which men, for example, exchange outrageous sexual postings.
We negotiate much of daily life now in tense, parallel universes: One is overflowing with individual political and social behavior that is deviant—flights from the norm—at a time when broader norms of political and social behavior are enforced with a vengeance. Today you can get shamed, sued or fired for almost any conceivable offense.
In reaction, millions of people—including the president—seem to regard social media as a kind of wildlife refuge, where they can run naked against society’s dammed-up personal and political opinions.
The possibilities for psychological dislocation are limitless. Kathy Griffin justified her beheaded-Trump stunt by arguing, “I’ve dealt with older white guys trying to keep me down my whole life. . . . This is a woman thing.”
We know that political anger and violence can become mystical in its attraction, especially at the margin for people like political shooter James Hodgkinson. This is a good moment to dial it back. The Public Theater’s management could cancel their staged Trump assassination in Central Park. But they won’t. Like so many others with political disorder syndrome, they no longer can.