From Freedom to Tyranny: Plato, Trump, and the 2016 Election

“[I] don’t suppose that tyranny evolves from any constitution other than democracy — the most severe and cruel slavery from the utmost freedom.”

- Plato, Republic 564a[1]

In his masterwork, the Republic, Plato, writing in Athens in the 4th century BCE, presents his vision of an ideally just society[2]. The “ideal” aristocratic political system Plato lays out is, as it turns out, rather offensive to our modern notions of justice and fairness; however, he does in the course of defending such a government, offer detailed criticisms of alternative (and in his eyes less righteous) forms of government — to wit, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny — which turn out to be much more closely related to the political realities and arenas of political discourse relevant to us today. In his critiques, Plato focuses on the core values of each of these systems respectively and exposes how in each case these values inevitably become corrupted within the system itself, thereby diminishing the sustainability of a state under such an institutional form.

For example, he suggests that the second-best system, timocracy — i.e. a government whose leaders are driven by an obsession with military honor — will eventually accumulate so much wealth in its conquests that its obsession with wealth will supersede its obsession with honor. The result of this is the degeneration of timocracy into the next-best system, oligarchy, a government in which the rich hold all the power. Every system of government, from the best down to the worst, as Plato sees it, contains the seeds of its own downfall. Each falls by its own proverbial sword.

Despite the obvious gaps in time and context between us and classical Greece, some of the points and predictions Plato makes in the Republic strike familiar and ominous chords when we apply them to modern political scenarios and sociopolitical institutions. In one such glaring instance, Plato predicts that a truly democratic political system — one in which freedom is valued above all else — will inevitably give rise to a tyrannical demagogue. This person, Plato anticipates, will be a narcissist, disguised as a populist (demagogue from the Greek demos meaning people: literally the people’s leader); he will represent himself as a savior for people whose freedoms are threatened; he will be ruthlessly hostile towards his challengers, both within the state and without; and he will appeal to fear and nationalism in order to gather support and power at all cost. Not surprisingly this makes many people think of Donald Trump, whose unexpected and meteoric rise to the top of the Republican presidential ticket has come as a surprise to people all across the political spectrum. If we look at what Plato says about such a figure and the nature of his rise within a system of democracy we can (without anachronism) gain some insight into how such a scenario comes about. These considerations can be quite revelatory, philosophically speaking, even two and a half millennia after Plato first proposed them.

Trump’s political rise has been fueled almost entirely by passionate nationalistic rhetoric targeted mainly towards an ailing white working class. His base largely comprises people who feel they are victims of a liberal, secular culture that promotes values that they do not share. He has convinced people within this demographic that he is the spokesperson for the disenfranchised; the savior for those who believe that their country and their livelihood have been hijacked by a progressive liberal agenda. Like it or not, these folks turned up at the polls in record numbers, securing Trump his place in the general election despite the fact that he has, up to this point, no history of either public or military service. His opponents on the other hand, from the far left to the far right, see him as a genuine threat, especially in such volatile times, both in the United States and abroad.

It is hard not to see the parallel between Trump’s rise and Plato’s claim that democracy will ultimately degenerate into tyranny. I’m sure everyone has encountered at least one internet meme comparing Trump to Hitler, for instance. Recently the term “demagogue” has been floated around a lot, sincerely and with concern, by a great many pundits and politicians, including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Barak Obama.

But how did we get to a point where we are dealing with this Trump phenomenon in the first place? Plato offers a unique and substantial answer to this question in his discussion of the degeneration of democracy. Interestingly, he sees the downfall of democracy as rooted directly in its obsession with “freedom”, what we take to be the essence of the institution. This way of envisaging things, regardless of whether it’s wholly right or wrong, casts a distinct perspective on what can be said to underlie the political disputes going on today. Looking at the Republic (especially Book XIII) sheds light not just on the manifest Trump phenomenon, but on the nature and psychology of democratic citizens in general and the paradoxes of political freedom. Before this all becomes clear, a bit of background is useful.

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Plato is considered one of the greatest critics of democracy in western history. As I hinted earlier, he ranks systems of government from best to worst, from the most just to the most unjust. In the Republic, he ranks democracy as the second worst possible system of government of the five he discusses, just above tyranny. Perhaps this isn’t what we’d expect from a citizen of the world’s first democracy, but Plato had his reasons. First of all, he never quite forgave the democratic state for killing his beloved mentor Socrates who was famously sentenced to death by a public jury for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato considered it a bona fide injustice that a man of Socrates’ greatness could be felled by the ignorant Athenian demos. (This watershed event is chronicled in several of Plato’s earlier dialogues.) More generally, Plato, being the intellectual elitist he was, didn’t think much of the capacity of ordinary people to make good decisions, period. Most people he thought were not very bright and significantly more concerned with earthly pleasures (food, sex, money, etc.) than they were with truth and justice. This was a troubling conviction in a direct democracy, as Athens was at the time, more so than in a representative democracy like we have in the United States. Most of Plato’s critique of the democratic values, which in his view ultimately render citizens vulnerable to tyranny, stems from this low estimation of the capacity of “common folk” to make wise political decisions. We may or may not agree with that estimation, but at the very least the philosophical aspects of the theory deserve to be taken seriously. They represent a compelling look at how cultural and political disputes arise within democracy in the first place.

The Republic is the first important work of political philosophy in the history of western literature; yet, as a political treatise or “blueprint”, it has little more than historical value. It is far more effectively understood as an ethical treatise. Its moral is more about achieving personal rather than political perfection. The actual political program depicted in the Republic is, by contemporary standards, abhorrent. It is non-egalitarian, classist, and authoritarian. It promotes censorship, the dissolution of family, coercion, and manipulative propaganda. Much of this stems from Plato’s contempt for worldly pleasures and values in so far as they interrupt the pursuit of wisdom, along with his very low regard for whole swathes of humanity. Throughout his discussion, we get a visceral sense of his utter disregard and even contempt for individual freedom. In Plato’s “ideal” system, each person is to perform only the role they are most naturally apt to perform in the service of the state, and to no other end, including the proverbial “pursuit of happiness”[3]. Because of this, in my estimation, any modern reading of the text demands an interpretation that places primary importance on Plato’s notion of justice or morality as it applies to the individual rather than the state. As an ethical work, the Republic remains relevant and insightful; as a political platform, it does not. That said, not everyone needs to be as charitable as I’ll try to be towards Plato. But I do believe there is a lot of really valuable philosophical insight in this book if it is divorced from its explicit political agenda.

In Book VIII of the Republic, Plato offers his analysis of five systems of government ranked from best to worst. Nowadays our list might look a bit different, but that does not detract from Plato’s insights on the systems he engages. In the dialogue, these systems are depicted in such a way as to express their relationship to one another (e.g. democracy is begat by oligarchy; the problems of democracy make way for the possibility of tyranny, etc.). But there is also a sense in which they are isolated, i.e., they are not seen as systems that might coexist within some larger systemic framework. It is impossible, as far as I can tell, to apply this type of analysis to modern globalized nations or states without getting things wrong. Political reality is far too complex nowadays. For instance, we cannot simply label the United States as a democracy in Plato’s sense of the term; in some ways it is, but there are many ways in which it is an oligarchy; and many ways in which it is a timocracy; it does not seem to be all and only one of these things or the other. However, if we consider the systems of government Plato describes to be emblematic of various political ideals or ideologies which may coexist within a complex political system such as American democracy, then Plato can help us to see some of the intrinsic and extrinsic features of these ideologies. We can see, for example, how oligarchical practices which favor the rich can give rise to a democratically spirited rebellion. (In fact, we saw this play out quite colorfully in Bernie Sanders’ “democratic revolution”.) With that in mind, let’s consider the different forms of government Plato discusses in the Republic.

The best form of government, in Plato’s opinion, is aristocracy, which literally translates to rule by the best. Plato thinks that the best people are philosophers, and in his ideal society philosophers constitute the ruling class. Unlike our modern use of the term, Plato’s aristocracy has nothing to do with material wealth or lineage. (I urge the reader to resist conjuring up images of Dowton Abbey.) Instead, Plato conceives of aristocracy as something more like an intellectual and moral hierarchy: a system in which academic superiority — particularly in the discipline of higher philosophy — gives rise to a moral superiority which in turn is the basis for political superiority. (Historical aristocracies, by contrast, were always oligarchies: the rule by people who thought they were morally superior, but were in fact merely richer and more powerful.)

The second best form of government, according to Plato is a timocracy. Timocracy is a system of government in which the ruling power belongs to the military class, i.e. the class driven by the courageous honor-seeking part of the soul. An example of this type of system from ancient Greece would be Sparta. (As I said, it’s harder to think of modern examples of timocratic nations or states, though one might find it helpful to think of armies themselves as timocratic institutions within nations.) In any case we are talking about a system whose primary focus is domination by military force in the pursuit of victory and honor.

The third best (and third worst) system of government for Plato is oligarchy, which is rule by the wealthy, i.e., the class driven by their desire for material wealth. Here, I think, we can certainly see traces of our own political predicament spelled out. The rise of the corporation led to a diminution of the middle class and an unprecedented inequality in the distribution of wealth and income. The passing of Citizens United only exacerbated the political impact of this rift by giving corporations maximal capacity for influencing policy by means of campaign contributions and lobbyists: essentially the power to buy elections. We now live in a Platonic oligarchy as a result. And as Plato predicts, this type of system will be challenged by those who feel alienated and disenfranchised. These are the democratic individuals. The Occupy movement is one example of a reaction to the illegitimacy of a system that favors the interests of the rich over those of the poor and the dwindling middle class. And of course, more recently, this angst has been voiced by Bernie Sanders’ anti-oligarchical platform and the attention and support it has garnered, especially among younger voters.

Plato anticipated this youthful galvanization. In a way, this sort of reactionary movement is typical of a democracy. Here we can see the profound insight he had, not only about political institutions and their inherent pitfalls, but about individual and mass psychology.

For every type of political institution Plato describes there corresponds a “type” of individual analogously constituted. The democrat is the offspring of the oligarch; the tyrant is the offspring of the democrat. As such, individual relationships can sometimes be revelatory of political ones. Take the oligarch. He is obsessed with wealth. He is stingy to a fault; his only concern is the accumulation of more wealth. His son, the democrat is in many ways a victim of this kind of stinginess. The father tries to instill in his son these same dispositions. But the son is defiant; he goes out into the city, he becomes consumed with the things that his father ignored on account of his obsession with money, things like sex, food, drink, gambling, and so on. He becomes resentful of his father’s prohibitive ways. He values these “unnecessary” pleasures more than the pleasure derived from the accumulation of wealth. He becomes spiteful of the obsession with wealth exemplified in the generation before him. He instead yearns for a life of autonomy, divorced from all regiment and constriction.

“[H]e lives on yielding day by day to the desire at hand. Sometimes he drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he’s idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy. He often engages in politics, leaping up from his seat and saying and doing whatever comes into his mind. If he happens to admire soldiers, he’s carried in that direction, if money-makers, in that one. There’s neither order nor necessity in his life, but he calls it pleasant, free, and blessedly happy, and he follows it for as long as he lives.” — Republic 561c-e

I’m sure most readers, like myself, actually like the sound of this kind of life. It sounds quite desirable. The appeal of democracy and democratic life is not lost on Plato; perhaps that’s why he thinks it so dangerous. This type of democratic disposition is characteristic of youthful movements. What is common among democratic movements is an obsession with freedom above all else. Freedom is the essential feature and obsession of democracy. Obviously most of us disagree with Plato’s assessment that democracy is a bad form of government, but again bear in mind that Plato has an Athenian direct democracy in mind. The United States, by contrast is a representative democracy with a party system and an emphasis on checks and balances. One could easily argue that the rules of American democracy were put in place precisely to eliminate the potential political disintegration that Plato anticipated.

Nevertheless, the Sanders “democratic revolution” was in many ways predicted in the Republic. And so was the rise of a Trump-like figure. The democrat, according to Plato, in his frivolity, becomes drunk on freedom. This manifests itself in a disrespect and hatred towards any entity that challenges the freedom he has so deeply imbibed. Anything construed as authoritarian, whether it be police, government, or even parents and teachers, becomes a threat to his freedom. The obsession with freedom gives rise to the fear that freedom can be taken away. But this results in a life lacking in all order, since any and all order is a restriction on freedom. The democratic soul cherishes its freedom the same way the oligarch cherishes money. The democratic person fears every day that their freedom could be compromised by an oligarchical or authoritarian coup. This fear paves the way for the rise of an individual who acts as a populist, seizes on this fear and uses it to gain power through rhetoric. A demagogue. A Trump.

Trump manages to fit every criterion Plato lays out for a tyrannical demagogue. He certainly displays narcissistic tendencies; he claims that he, himself, is the solution to every problem (which makes no sense at all in the absence of clearly articulated policies). He is a populist and a fear-monger, content to stir up civil unrest at home if it serves his purpose; he is also an isolationist and war-monger, who uses fear and prejudice to ignite and spread nationalism in order to rally people to his cause:

[W]hen he has dealt with his . . . enemies by making peace with some and destroying others, so that all is quiet on that front, the first thing he does is to stir up a war, so that the people will continue to feel the need for a leader.” Republic 566e

Trump has aggressively and unabashedly dealt with his domestic enemies as a means of boosting his own popularity, and usually to no other end. His rhetoric is divisive and manifestly intended to fuel race and class conflicts rather than diminish them. His spiteful attitude towards foreigners and immigrants has opened a Pandora’s box of backward thinking, where stereotypes (about Muslims, Mexicans, women, African Americans, and so on) are pervasive and unchecked; this serves as the basis for a vulgarly manufactured us-them ethos, which Trump capitalizes on brilliantly. His foreign policy — you know: “bomb the s**t out of them” — is merely an extension of this. Sadly, this is a tactic not unusual in politics generally, but rarely have we seen so unrefined and vacuous an instance in the United States in the past fifty years.

Plato argued that the tyrannical individual is himself a slave to his own most base desires and that the fear of losing power causes him to lash out, first at his enemies, then at those closest to him, for he perceives even his associates as a threat. In fact, the most capable and most intelligent individuals (academics, generals, dissidents, etc.) pose the greatest threat to the tyrant, while the less capable and less educated are nonthreatening and generally supportive of his rule. To use Plato’s analogy, just as a doctor purges the worst and leaves the best, the tyrant does just the opposite: purges the best and leaves the worst (567c). The tyrant, Plato says, lives in a state of paranoia and trusts no one. We’ve seen this type of behavior already with Trump: no one, Democrat or Republican, is off limits from his attacks. (He has removed his own chief advisors three times.) Just as the democratic individual fears the loss of freedom, the tyrant sees a threat to his power everywhere he turns. He becomes a slave to his fear, a victim of his own neuroses. This is not the type of individual who should have access to nuclear codes and control of the military. This is a dangerous, and unstable person whose arrogance and fits of passion override his ability to reason or to consider the well being of others. This is the tyrant Plato feared.

Plato’s tyrant is not an abstraction; we have seen this character many times in recent history. Hitler. Stalin. Mao. Saddam. These figures all rose from populist movements and once in power immediately fueled nationalistic support through war. They killed their own people, including those closest to them. And they were manically paranoid: body doubles, hide outs, you know the drill. I am not taking the low road and saying that Trump is the next Hitler (that’s a cheap shot); nor am I trying to be sensationalistic. I’m just pointing out that we have seen Plato’s predictions made manifest in the past and it is hard to deny that he managed to hone in quite accurately on the psychology and political strategy of tyrants that were around recently.

We’ve seen what Plato thought about different systems of government; how he saw them evolve and devolve from each other; how a free society can become unstable. As we contemplate this unique time in our history we should find real wisdom and relevance in his acumen. This current election, more so than most, has done a lot to convince me that many of the systems he describes actually coexist in various forms within our democracy. We are timocratic in our obsession with military power and dominance; oligarchic in our economic and political practices; democratic in our youthful spirit, our love of freedom and individualism; and alas, we have in some ways opened ourselves up to the possibility of tyranny. The establishment in the United States is undeniably oligarchical; and to many people, Hillary Clinton represents that status quo. But she has been shifted by the spirited anti-oligarchic democratic revolution championed by Bernie Sanders. This demonstrates the cultural dissonance that arises when political power works only in the interest of the rich; a point Plato keenly anticipated. Donald Trump, on the other hand, represents a chink in the armor of democracy; the susceptibility of democratic citizens to fall prey to demagogy and even tyranny when they feel that too much freedom for all starts feeling like not enough freedom for me; when equality starts to feel like oppression to those whose privileges have dissipated in the name of social progress. The tyrant seizes on this vulnerability and exploits it. It’s important that we not let him get away with it.

[1] All citations from Grube Reeve 1992

[2] Like all of Plato’ writings, The Republic is written in the form of a dialogue, not unlike a play. Socrates, Plato’s mentor, is as always the protagonist. It also features a variety of interlocutors who offer challenges to Socrates and move the conversation along. What makes the Republic so particularly impressive amongst Plato’s many dialogues is the broadness of its content. It is political, ethical, metaphysical and epistemological in its scope. We get a taste of all of Plato’s main philosophical doctrines, each valuable in its own right, in harmony with one another.

[3] People familiar with the Republic will point out that this isn’t quite right; that achieving happiness is indeed a part of Plato’s platform. But of course, Plato’s conception of happiness is quite different than our own and is reserved only for philosophers. Certainly this was not the happiness the founding fathers had in mind.