Great works of art, music, and literature possess the power to seize our attention, evoke our admiration, arouse our emotions, amuse, and enlighten. Sometimes, they deepen and enrich our knowledge of events.
So it is with Rodin's monumental sculpture The Burghers of Calais and also the recent news of Michigan's Republican party officials' visit to the White House. Rodin's Burghers representation of hostages displaying courage and virtue when confronted with tyranny offers a historical perspective around the Republicans who have meekly stood up to Mr . trump versus the loyalists who continue to stand by him.
Rodin's sculpture depicts the city fathers of a French town on the English Channel. The town was fought over by English and French kings called the site of a famous siege. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the castings , and offers this online description:
Rodin closely followed the account of the French chronicler Jean Froissart stating that six of the principal citizens of Calais were ordered to leave the besieged city with heads and feet bare, ropes around their necks, and the keys of the town and also the castle in their hands. These were brought before the English king Edward III , who ordered their beheading.
Rodin portrayed them right now of departure from their city led by Eustache de Saint-Pierre, the bearded man in the middle of the group. At his side, Jean d'Aire has a giant-sized key. Their oversized feet are bare, several have ropes around their necks, and all are in various states of despair, expecting imminent death and unaware that their lives will ultimately be saved through the intercession of the English queen Philippa.
When it emerged that Republican state officials from Michigan have been summoned to the White House in connection with President Trump's already desperate struggle to unravel the results of this year's general election, I figured of The Burghers of Calais. How else to capture their defeat-ironically as a result of the leader of their own party, instead of some foe? What was it that led those officials to accept Trump's invitation for a meeting that any objective observer would immediately identify as an effort to suborn them? Respect for his office ? Party loyalty? Vanity? Fear?
It is true that they seemed not to yield towards the president's whims. Indeed, they released a tepid declaration of independence after the meeting. Yet they made the trip. I wish they had not done so. Refusing will be a powerful gesture, but they presumably wished to preserve their political viability because they continue their careers in state politics.
More likely, they simply wished to spare themselves the vilification sure to descend upon them from the current leader of their party. Other Republican heads are on pikes. For example, President Trump has gone so far as to call Brad Raffensperger, the loyal Republican secretary of state of Georgia, an \”enemy of the people\” for truthfully asserting his state's election was conducted fair and square.
The president has also lashed out at Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, who finds himself in Trump's crosshairs for refusing to assist and abet efforts to upset the state's electoral results.
Ditto for Pennsylvania pols who journeyed to Gettysburg for any mock legislative hearing that the president phoned in his preposterous claims of the stolen election.
And then there are the Republicans in the Senate and the House who either have personally drunk the president's Kool-Aid or are simply afraid of being primaried at his behest due to perceptions of insufficient loyalty. It's possible to understand the fear of being primaried in principle, but how can it be that even officeholders who've just been elected to two- or six-year terms are consumed by such a fear? The answer, unfortunately for our country, is that this is what comes when a party is so singlemindedly devoted to or petrified of a leader that it cannot even summon the energy to craft a platform inside a presidential year.
It is that grip of fear that holds too many GOP leaders that brings The Burghers of Calais to mind in the case of the Michigan legislators. In a sense, they, like the actual burghers, were victims of circumstance. They didn't choose to place nooses around their necks or face beheading. They maintained their dignity-as Rodin's masterpiece makes clear. Other Republican officials also have courageously stood their ground. They deserve the nation's thanks for having done so.
The same can't be said for the many who, by remaining silent, have continued to allow Trump, giving him political oxygen, humoring him in his refusal to admit defeat, and thereby making it possible for him to soil American political life by feeding and amplifying baseless conspiracies.
Unless the Republican party takes the noose from around its collective neck, we'll all be like the Burghers of Calais.