Some historical forms of drama — like Greek tragedy — feature a chorus. This group of nameless individuals serves as the voice of the "common man," singing, narrating for the audience, commenting on the protagonists' struggles or warning of events to come.
Typically, it is the individual characters in such a drama whose lives are the primary focus of the performance; they advance the storyline, make manifest the conflict and display either the tragic character flaws that will doom them to destruction, or the heroism that will enable them to vanquish their foes. The chorus, unified in voice, is merely a backdrop.
But in today's fraught political theatre, it is the chorus itself that is fractured and fractious, its members fighting bitterly amongst themselves, drawing the audience's attention away from the main acts (and leaving the principal actors somewhat befuddled).
The chorus in American politics today is broken into two warring factions. On the left, we have the Shut You Up chorus: self-appointed arbiters of equity, determined to silence and shame all those who disagree with them. On the right, we have the increasingly belligerent Shock You chorus: self-professed liberty-loving individualists who have morphed from the meek "silent majority" to confrontational gadflies almost overnight. The Shut You Up chorus sees no irony in using fascist tactics to protest fascism, in curbing speech to promote "liberty," in celebrating oppressive cultures despite purporting to care about the rights of woman. The Shock You chorus has decided it will beat the left at its own game, even if it means compromising deeply held principles to prove a point.
We've seen this play, and it doesn't end well.
The battles in which President Donald Trump and self-promoting shocktivist Milo Yiannopolous presently find themselves can be seen as a part of the new retaliatory exchanges between the chorus of the perennially outraged left, and those on the right who are sick to death of being shamed and silenced.
Kevin Williamson wrote a superb piece earlier this week, which opened with dire warnings that certainly sounded like those leveled at Donald Trump; three paragraphs in, Williamson revealed that the statements had been made about Mitt Romney in 2012.
The point, of course, was that the crazed accusations emanating from the left about Romney were false and overblown. (Oh, how they must miss him now.)
Republican voters, fed up with decades of the left's "smear-and-fear" campaigns, rejected a dozen perfectly solid presidential candidates in the 2016 campaign in favor of arguably the least-qualified person running — and then elected him, smacking the left upside the head with a proverbial two-by-four.
The left promptly went into tantrum mode, complete with hysterical Hollywood jeremiads, marches, riots and protests to shut down conservative and other unpopular speakers.
President Trump cannot go a day without drawing the ire of some part of the Shut You Up chorus: Hollywood, academia, the federal judiciary, immigration activists, representatives of foreign countries or the media. He has spent much of his first few weeks in office swatting away onslaughts, like fighting a swarm of angry bees.
Milo Yiannopoulos has become a victim of his own outrageous statements, using what he calls "black humor" to speak about his experience as a victim of a homosexual pedophile, and offering blithe — and troubling — observations about the proper age of consent for sexual activity between teenage boys and older men. In the span of 24 hours, Milo resigned from Breitbart News, lost his $250,000 book deal with Simon and Schuster, and his invitation to be a speaker at CPAC was rescinded.
It's worth asking: Why was he invited to speak at CPAC in the first place?
The answer can be found in the Shock You chorus. What better way to stick it to the anti-speech left than to invite the most unapologetically confrontational speaker out there?
Foolish. At some point, outrageous and offensive is just outrageous and offensive.
Personalities as strong as Donald Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos likely see themselves as captains of their own destiny. But from the perspective of distance, they look more like gladiators, selected and thrust forward to fight for the faction of the chorus that chose them, thus invoking the ire of the opposing faction that seeks to destroy them. As such, they are more pawns than principals, more sacrificial victims than battle-hardened warriors.
This new form of political theatre threatens not only the main actors, but also the chorus itself. And, one begins to fear, the audience.
I'm reminded of that (somewhat apocryphal) account of the Battle of Bull Run in the earliest days of the Civil War. According to the legend, curious observers brought picnic baskets to watch what they thought would be a brief battle to end a silly rebellion. But when cannonballs started flying, the reality was grotesque and inescapable. The "audience" (along with the routed Union army) fled, horrified and fearing for their lives.
Today, thoughtful and reasoned political dialogue is fast being replaced by abbreviated tweets, vulgar slogans, screeched accusations, inflammatory speeches and violent protests. We with our picnic baskets watch, many fascinated, some amused, a few of us appalled and genuinely concerned.
But when politics becomes performance art, it not only ceases to be effective governance, it ceases to be entertainment. You're not watching a war, ladies and gentlemen, you're being drawn into one.
As a Greek chorus might say, "Beware!"