Great works of art, music, and literature have the power to seize our attention, evoke our admiration, arouse our emotions, amuse, and enlighten. At times, they deepen and enrich our understanding of events.
So it is with Rodin’s monumental sculpture The Burghers of Calais and the recent news of Michigan’s Republican party officials’ visit to the White House. Rodin’s Burghers representation of hostages displaying courage and virtue in the face of tyranny offers a historical perspective on the Republicans who have meekly stood up to Donald 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 and was the site of a famous siege. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the castings (Gallery 548), and offers this online description:
Rodin closely followed the account of the French chronicler Jean Froissart (1333 or 1337–after 1400) stating that six of the principal citizens of Calais were ordered to come out of the besieged city with heads and feet bare, ropes around their necks, and the keys of the town and the castle in their hands. They were brought before the English king Edward III (1312–1377), who ordered their beheading.
Rodin portrayed them at the moment 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 carries 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 by the intercession of the English queen Philippa.
When it emerged that Republican state officials from Michigan had 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 thought of The Burghers of Calais. How else to capture their defeat—ironically at the hands of the leader of their own party, rather than 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 (as they claimed)? Party loyalty? Vanity? Fear?
It is true that they seemed not to yield to 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 would have been a powerful gesture, but they presumably wished to preserve their political viability as they continue their careers in state politics.
More likely, they simply wished to spare themselves the vilification certain 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 aid and abet efforts to upset the state’s electoral results.
Ditto for Pennsylvania pols who journeyed to Gettysburg for a mock legislative hearing to which the president phoned in his preposterous claims of a 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. One can understand the fear of being primaried in principle, but how can it be that even officeholders who have 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 terrified of a leader that it cannot even summon the energy to craft a platform in 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 did not choose to place nooses around their necks or face beheading. They maintained their dignity—as Rodin’s masterpiece makes clear. Other Republican officials have also courageously stood their ground. They deserve the country’s thanks for having done so.
The same cannot be said for the many who, by remaining silent, have continued to enable 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 will all be like the Burghers of Calais.