According to Plato, political regimes evolved consistently, from oligarchy to democracy to tyranny. When the elites become self-indulgent, lazy or promiscuous, and develop interests apart from the masses, they fall, oligarchies give way to democracies. And in turn, when mob passion overpowers political wisdom and a populist despot seizes the moment, democracies yield to tyranny. However, the despot is not quite a tyrant just yet. In a democracy, the would-be tyrant always offers himself as the champion of the masses. He simplifies everything, and make everything whole again.
In Donald Trump, this evolution is pretty straightforward: a vulgar right-wing populism coalesces in the midst of an anti-establishment hysteria and a strongman fascist declares that he will stick it to the elites and make the country great again, and presents a familiar scapegoat, an alien Other the masses can redirect their poisonous resentment. For a fragmented and bitter populace, this is rhetorical palliative, and just like Plato predicted, the very sort of thing that pushes a country over the edge.
The Founding Fathers were all well-educated, and quite familiar with Plato’s skepticism of democratic rules. So they created a firewall against the tyranny of the majority, which is why America is a republic, precisely a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy.
Their worst fears came to pass on November 8th, 2016.
Perhaps Trump’s political existence should be considered as the ultimate manifestation of cynical reason, our democracy’s response to its own disintegration. We no longer believe in the authority of public institutions, which is fundamentally a loss of faith in constitutional democracy. Trump is proof that our country can be mobilized into a frenzy, and American fascism is right around the corner.
Even if Trump fails, it will not be because he was too illiberal or too anti-democratic, but that he was self-destructive, or because he was too incompetent to realize his half-assed vision. At the very least, Trump has exposed the rotten core of American politics, that we are susceptible to demagogic frenzy. Just like any other nation trapped in the dialectical logic of political evolution.
In an amazingly astute article for the New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan claimed that America is ripe for tyranny. He blamed the excess of democracy, pace Plato, and insisted how often they degenerate to dictatorships. Trump may indeed be an “extinction level threat,” that his upcoming presidency indicates a crisis for American democracy.
Most interestingly is that this election is not unprecedented, nor is it incomprehensible. The very character of Trump and his rise to power were all anticipated over two thousands years ago in Plato’s greatest work, The Republic. It consists of a series of dialogues about justice, human nature, education, virtue. The most relevant part was a conversation between Socrates and his interlocutors about the nature of regimes and why one is superior to another.
“Let us place the most just side by side the most unjust, and when we see them we shall be able to compare.”1 At the end of the dialogue,we learn of the decline of government, why they degenerate from higher to lower forms.
Plato famously argued that democracy was the best breeding or fertile ground for the emergence of tyranny. In The Republic, he criticized four forms of government, pointing out their instability. The best in his view was timocracy, a military state based on honor. But it was doomed due to avarice:
“The treasure house full of gold, which each man has, destroys [timocracy]. First they seek out expenditures for themselves and pervert the laws in that direction; they themselves and their wives disobey them. …One man sees the other and enters into a rivalry with him, and thus they make the multitude like themselves. …Instead of men who love victory and honor, they finally become lovers of money-making and money; and they praise and admire the wealthy man and bring him to the ruling offices, while they dishonor the poor man.”2
As for the oligarchy, the rule of a few (the rich) only results in:
“A city of the rich and a city of the poor, dwelling together, and always plotting against one another… [the government] being perhaps unable to fight any war, first, on account of being compelled either to use the multitude armed and be more afraid of it than the enemy, or not to use it and thus show up as true oligarchs on the field of the battle, and, besides, on account of their not being willing to contribute money because they love it.”3
Because as the rich “progress in money-making and the more honorable they consider it, the less honorable they consider virtue,”4 inequality and corruption spreads like a disease. Democracy “comes into being when the poor win, killing some of the others and casting out some, and share the regime and the ruling offices with those who are left on an equal basis.”5 The poor will overthrow the elite and set up a democracy, the rule of the people. However, despite all its charms, democracy is a poor substitute for oligarchy. Seemingly a “sweet regime without rulers and many-colored,”6 democracy, consisting of “neither law nor order,” inevitably collapses of its own contradictions. Due to an unquenchable desire for endless liberty, disorder reigns because
“…if someone proposes anything that smacks in any way of slavery, they are irritated and can’t stand it? And they end up… paying no attention to the laws, written or unwritten, in order that they may avoid having any master at all.”7
Stressing moderation, Plato insisted that “anything that is done to excess is likely to provoke a correspondingly great change in the opposite direction,” therefore, “too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery, both for private man and city.”8 Over time, the excess of liberty results in herd hysteria in which belief in authority atrophies, and the state “falls sick and do battle with itself.”9
“The insatiable desire for [freedom] …prepare a need for tyranny”10 In a democracy the poor is set against the rich, just like in an oligarchy. The poor suspect the rich plotting, and seek protection.
“…the people [are] always accustomed to set up one man as their special leader and to foster him and make him grow great… It is plain therefore, that when a tyrant grows naturally, he sprouts from a root of leadership and from nowhere else. …the leader of the people who, taking over a particularly obedient mob, does not hold back from shedding the blood of his tribe but unjustly brings charges against a man … bringing him before the court, murders him…and hints at cancellations of debts and redistributions of land… if he’s exiled and comes back in spite of his enemies, …he come back a complete tyrant.”11
An excess of freedom produces an excess of factions and a multiplicity of perspectives, mostly limited by narrow interests. In order to get elected, these factions must be appeased, flattered, and their passions indulged. This is the rich soil for the demagogue who manipulates the masses to “enslave democracy.”12
Therefore, the very freedom of democracy opens the door to despotism. The love of tolerance devolves into a sort of emerging debauchery. Communities shrivel up. When things get bad, people get anxious and seek out a boorish demagogue who cultivates their fears and presents himself as their protector.
Trump as Tyrant
In the sixth century BCE, a tyrant arose in Athens and his name was Peisistratos. After many unsuccessful attempts, he finally seized power in 546 BCE and ruled until his death in 527, succeeded by his two sons, Hippias and Hipparchos. Tyrannies were common during the Archaic period as city states made the transition from an aristocracy to either a democracy or an oligarchy. The Greek word τύραννος or Tyrannos, indicates that the individual seized or held power unconstitutionally, but lacks the negative connotations of today. The tyrant often arose as the champion of the common people against the aristocracy.
For Plato, tyranny is the fourth and “extreme illness of a city.” Tyrants lack the very “instrument by means of which judgment must be made”13 i.e., reason. The tyrannical man is enslaved because the best part of him is enslaved, and likewise, the tyrannical state is enslaved because it too lacks reason and order. In a tyranny no outside governing power controls the tyrant’s selfish behavior.
The Republic illustrates a parallelism between the city and the soul. For every type of government, there exists a corresponding type of person. States “grow out of human characters,” because “the city is the soul writ large.”14
For Plato, a tyrant is not just someone who ruled over others – he’s someone who is incapable of ruling himself. The tyrant is Eros incarnate – pure impulse – always in the thrall of his own passions. The tyrant is a drunken man, in whom there is a constant succession of “pleasures that came to him later got the better of the old ones and took away what belonged to them.”15 Because the tyrant cannot do anything without domineering or being served, he never “has a taste of freedom or true friendship.16”
It is no stretch of the imagination to consider Trump as the tyrannical soul par excellence. He is always trying to stifle dissent. He promised to put the democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in jail if he became president. Everything documented of Trump to date points at his vicious need to punish and humiliate.
Such emotional indulgence is characteristic of a tyrannical figure. Just listen to his staged performances – a frenzied parade of inner consciousness without the ability to restrain himself. Trump has no friends. No respect for women. None at all for the disabled. Instigates violence on protesters. Nothing other than pathology can account for this behavior.
Trump’s tyrannical psyche is manifested in his political views – he proposed the murder of family members of terrorists, waterbording suspects just because they deserve it, rejected the results of a free and fair election, threatened nuclear weapons on regional conflicts, and a nation-wide expulsion of all Muslims. Etc. etc. etc.
For a person who lacks respect for democratic norms, or the slightest clue about compromise, or a sense of inclusiveness, or the smallest amount of self-awareness. The only thing that matches his boundless ignorance is his blustery self-confidence based on nothing.
We are witnessing the transition from democracy to tyranny in real time. Trump also reflects the people who he appeals – the only difference between him and his loyal followers is celebrity and wealth, but his ingratiating American-styled crudity is the true appeal.
The democratic despot is deceptive – he’s rich but pretends to be a commoner. “In the first days of his office… he smiles at and greet whomever he meets… promises much in private and public, and grant freedom from debts and distribute land to the people and those around himself, and pretend to be gracious and gentle to all.”17 But this honeymoon will be brief. The populist only begins as the champion of the masses – once having tasted power, he drops the masquerade and becomes their tyrant.
Whatever happens next, fascism is here to stay in post-Empire America.
The Republic, by Plato. Tr. by Alan Bloom 1968,
1The Republic, XIII, 545
2R, VIII, 550-51
3R, XIII, 551
4R, XIII, 550
5R, XIII, 557
6R, XIII, 558c
7R, XIII, 563d
8R, XIII, 564a
9R, VIII, 556e
11R, XIII, 565c – 565e
12R, XIII, 564
13R, IX, 582d
14R, VIII, 543
15R, IX, 574
16R, IX, 576
17R, VIII, 566e