At the end of Shakespeare’s Richard II, the new king, Henry IV, already faces rebellion hatched in the name of Richard, the legitimate king whom Henry deposed. Richard still lives, albeit in a prison cell in Pomfret Castle in northern England; and alive, he remains a figurehead for rebels.
But Henry won’t have him killed. The deposition of a legitimate monarch was seen as a grievous enough sin (and in 1595 a dangerous thing for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to risk depicting on the stage); Henry is not about to aggravate his offense by having Richard murdered.
But Henry is heard thinking aloud his wish that Richard were gone: “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?”—a line that Shakespeare seems to have borrowed from Henry II’s famous complaint 400 years earlier about Thomas à Becket: “Will no man rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
Both Henrys are overheard by ambitious young courtiers eager to show themselves friends to their respective kings. In Shakespeare, a courtier named Exton decides to prove his worth to Henry IV by putting the king’s words into action. He travels north to Pomfret and murders Richard in his cell.
Henry is appalled when he learns of the murder and banishes the killer. But Henry has learned an important lesson: that his followers will take his words quite seriously. In the mouths of leaders, inadvertent words have unintended consequences.
Or maybe not. Maybe Henry knew what he was doing, “thinking aloud” and thus putting this idea into someone else’s head. Maybe he was counting on it, counting on some courtier like Exton eager to suck up to the new king and take that sin on himself. Henry thus gets to eat his cake and have it too: I’m sorry that Richard is dead, but I never ordered him killed. You can’t blame me. I can’t be responsible for how others misinterpret my words.
Plausible deniability. That’s our modern idiom for such ploys. The phrase seems to have first emerged in the Kennedy administration’s design to insulate higher-ups from the CIA’s plots to assassinate Fidel Castro.
And that’s how Donald Trump seems to think of his own more notorious remarks, such as his statement about “Second Amendment people.”
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Trump said of a Hillary administration. “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan took it as a bad joke. And yes, it would be irresponsible to joke about such a thing in any season, but especially in such a violence-charged political season as this, and in a nation staggering under its inability to pass gun-control legislation that would keep guns out of the hands of fanatics. It’s the dictionary definition of facetious: deliberately inappropriate humor.
But there was nothing facetious about it. Ryan’s explanation is charitable, but Trump himself denies that explanation. Trump says that he was not joking, but simply referring to the solidarity of Second Amendment supporters to vote as a united bloc.
“There can be no other interpretation,” Trump insisted. “I mean, give me a break.”
No one believes this. We all recognize the purpose of Trump’s implausible denial: to insulate himself from the not-unintended potential of his words to inspire some nut with a gun to take a shot at Hillary or her Supreme Court nominees.
Public words have public impacts. As I have written in previous columns, when we write, we are putting our words in our readers’ heads and in their hands; if in my writing I am sticking my neck out, I’m sticking your neck out too. That’s why dictators and totalitarian regimes hate the free press. And indeed, it’s the great utopian hope inherent in language: that by communicating we can work together more effectively and make ourselves better, more equitable neighbors and more conscientious stewards of our communities and our planet.
That’s the great hope in words. But Trump exposes another, less edifying edge of that sword. Our words can just as easily threaten to shut down communication, to incite the kind of violence and fear that, one way or another, will shut us up.
Because that’s what Trump wants to do: shut us up. The vicious irony of Trump’s comment about “Second-Amendment people” is that it threatens to subvert the liberty guaranteed by the Second Amendment and the First Amendment too—both of which are meant to protect our individual freedoms. Trump’s words threaten those freedoms by intentionally disregarding that lovely responsibility put on us by the Bill of Rights that we care for the freedom of others as much as for our own.
As the French say: my freedom ends where another’s freedom begins. Trump obviously missed that lesson, the most important lesson that all American schoolkids learn when we’re first taught about the First Amendment and freedom of speech. Trump is free to say what he wants, but he can’t yell “You’re fired!” in a crowded theater.