Donald Trump and the Murder in the Cathedral

At first glance, it may seem that the brutal murder of Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by four of King Henry II of England’s knights on December 29, 1170 has nothing to do with the siege of the United States Capitol building by Trump supporters 851 years later on January 6, 2021. Yet the bloody tale of the “murder in the cathedral” offers a unilateral truth about just how dangerous a leader’s words can be, whether their intent is malicious or not. It’s a story about personal responsibility — or, rather, the abdication of it and the consequences of any leader’s words.

The story itself is not complicated. On one level it is the story of a friendship gone terribly, terribly wrong, or of the age-old conflict between the power of church and state. On another level, it is the story of a political leader perhaps knowing full well how to manipulate others to do his bidding while maintaining the appearance of innocence.

Becket was King Henry’s royal Chancellor; one contemporary witness noted, “never in the whole of the Christian era were two men more of one mind or better friends.” They were such good friends that when the Archbishop of Canterbury died, King Henry installed his good friend Becket in the position, hoping both to reward his friend and to consolidate his control over both Britain and the church.

At that point, Becket changed. Prior to his appointment as Archbishop, Becket had reveled in the pomp and circumstance of the king’s court, and was known for his lavish wardrobe and lusty appetites. After his appointment, he abandoned his earthly trappings and suddenly appeared devout. He resigned as the king’s Chancellor and a series of conflicts between crown and church divided the two men further, to the point that Henry’s frustration with Becket boiled over and he is alleged to have uttered the words that set Becket’s assassination in motion.

According to the monk Edward Grim, a witness to the Archbishop’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral, King Henry said, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric!” Others have reported that Henry said, “Will none of these lazy insignificant persons, whom I maintain, deliver me from this turbulent priest?” or, more directly stated in a later dramatization, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

King Henry II issued no direct command to his knights to murder the Archbishop of Canterbury because he did not need to. As the King, he had the authority to express his desires and the expectation that those desires would be met by his household and his court. Even the Wikipedia entry for the history of the phrase notes that this is an example of direction via indirection that allows the speaker plausible deniability — the ability, in this case, of Henry to get away with saying, “Hey, don’t blame me. I didn’t tell those knights to kill the Archbishop!” despite the fact that Henry would have to have been a fool not to know that his words would likely have resulted in Becket’s murder, given his position as a king whose every utterance was held as an absolute command. Many historians believe it was Henry’s deliberate hope that Becket would be murdered.

Absolutists, dictators, and mob bosses have long used direction via indirection as a way to keep their hands clean while others do their dirty work. For example, Hitler apologists and Holocaust deniers have argued for decades that as there is no known written directive from Hitler ordering the murder of all European Jews, Hitler could not have known about the mass murders committed under cover of invasion, or of the heinous machinations finalized at the January 20, 1942 Wannsee Conference. To them, Hitler is therefore a victim of malicious lies, the one innocent amidst all the carnage.

That is not only a facile and ignorant interpretation unsupported by historical facts, it is a disingenuous one. Any rudimentary understanding of the Fuhrer princip, the Nazi power structure, and the practically feudal system of vassalage that created a constant jockeying for power by Hitler’s sycophantic underlings meant that the way to curry favor and prestige in the Nazi system was to anticipate the Fuhrer’s desires. And Hitler had made his desires clear from a very early stage of his rise to power, though he was careful to modulate them through coded language. In 1919, when he was still an unknown war veteran smarting from Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I, he wrote, the “ultimate goal must definitely be the removal of the Jews altogether,” though what “removal” meant to him at the time is unclear.

Twenty years later, “removal” was no longer unclear to anyone. Following the violence and horror of the Kristallnacht of November 1938, the SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps stated, “This stage of development will impose on us the vital necessity to exterminate the Jewish subhumanity as we exterminate all criminals in our law-abiding state: with fire and sword! The outcome will be the actual and final end to Jewry in Germany, its total annihilation.”

Das Schwarze Korps published this on November 24, 1938 — more than two months before Hitler announced his infamous “prophecy” in the Reichstag on January 30, 1939: “If international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”

Hitler did not need to make a specific or special announcement of his plans to murder all European Jews or anyone else, nor did he need to sign such plans into law. Such plans were made and acted on through direction via indirection. Hitler had primed his supporters for twenty years, from 1919 to 1939. By then, they were ready to act.

In a similar fashion, Donald Trump can easily say that he never explicitly told the rioters to storm the United States Capitol building on January 6, 2021, because by then his supporters were also ready to act. Trump has a long history of direction via indirection and the use of plausible deniability. Ironically, one official made the exact connection between Trump and the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury as early as June 2017. Also noted in Wikipedia, in his testimony to Congress regarding his firing by Donald Trump, former FBI director James Comey answered a question about pressure from the President by stating, “Yes. It rings in my ears as kind of ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”

Any commonsense review of Donald Trump’s behavior over the past years, and of his and his team’s statements at the rally before the Capitol siege on January 6, 2021, shows that he bears the same responsibility for the siege of the Capitol and the deaths of five people there as King Henry II does for the death of Thomas Becket, as Hitler does for the murders of millions of people, and as any leader does for either the heedless or the deliberate use of inflammatory, deceitful language and the subsequent violence such language engenders. Before he took the stage on January 6, his son Donald Trump, Jr. warned Republican members of Congress who did not support his father, “We’re coming for you.” Rudy Giuliani told the crowd to prepare for “trial by combat.” By the time Donald Trump reached the stage and told the crowd, “You will never take back our country with weakness,” the crowd was ready. All his direction via indirection of the past four years was about to pay off.

Donald Trump caused the riot and coup attempt that took the lives of six people and shattered the confidence of millions of people around the world in the United States’ commitment to democracy. After more than four years of lies, of characterizing political disagreements and opposition as “disloyalty” to the nation, and claiming that the American electoral system is fraudulent, Trump’s words on January 6, 2021 were nothing short of sedition, the spark that lit an insurrection against the very nation that gave him a voice, the nation that granted him the privilege of power despite his abuse of it.

The blood on the floor of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 is no less red than the blood that was splattered across the floor of Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170, save for one crucial difference: Donald Trump is not a king, not an absolute monarch, not the dictator he so wishes to be. He is beholden to the laws of a representative democracy, and must be held accountable.

Making History, Education, Law, and Philosophy Relevant

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