A Brief History of Tyranny.

Ruins of the Roman Forum, where Cicero argued for a return to the Republic.

Do we need to vote for a tyrant? This is what the 2016 election is really asking American citizens. The question is as old as democracy.

The ancient civilizations that invented our democratic traditions also invented the concept of tyranny. It wasn’t a loaded word like it is now.

To the ancient Greeks tyranny was a functional tool of governing. A panic button to hit when the invading hordes have come over the mountains to burn your crops and murder your families and generally obliterate your civilization from the face of the earth. The idea was to temporarily surrender democracy to a tyrant. He would use the authoritarian power granted him to beat back the threat. Then cheerfully step down and restore power to the people.

The problem was, it never worked that way. It turns out the tyrants rather enjoyed authoritarian power. They refused to step down. Some even tried to pass on the title on to their children (picture some toga-clad version of Donald Jr. taking over). Tyrants ruled, well, tyrannically. Even worse, the era’s demagogues found they could manipulate the system, conjuring up all sorts of perceived existential threats and creating a populist movement to demand their installation as tyrant.

If you want to see how it played out, read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Or watch the Star Wars movies. The rise of the dark galactic emperor is basically a retelling of the end of the Roman Republic and its replacement with the long line of emperors we mostly remember for throwing lavish orgies and feeding Christians to the lions.

So what does all this tell us on the eve of the 2016 election? Boil away all the rhetoric and innuendo and nasty TV commercials and we’ve come down to the same brutally simple question faced by the citizens of Athens in the sixth century B.C. and the Romans in the first. Are we really so far gone that we need a tyrant to save us? Really?

Listen to any of Donald Trump’s speeches. They’re more consistent than anyone gives him credit for. He outlines a dark, dystopian threat to the American people. Then he proposes a grab bag of authoritarian steps to meet that threat. “We are going to have to do things that are unthinkable,” he’s said. Weaken freedom of the press. Build a wall. Ban an entire religious group. Torture prisoners. Jail the political opposition. “What have you got to lose?” is the refrain Trump repeats time and again.

It’s impossible to know for sure how Donald Trump would actually govern, he has been untruthful about so much. But there can be no doubt that his campaign is asking us to name him tyrant in the classical definition of the word. Deciding to vote for Trump is a lot like the decision a cancer patient needs to make when considering a course of radical chemotherapy that will wreck havoc on the body and quite possibly be more deadly than the cancer itself. You want a clear-headed understanding of the risks. You want to be certain the diagnosis is accurate.

Because there is an answer to Trump’s question, “What have you got to lose?” The answer is, everything. To vote for Trump you need to be willing to say goodbye to Jefferson and Washington and Hamilton (he of the newfound Broadway fame). You need to be willing to say goodbye to everything the founding fathers sacrificed so much to build. You need to be honest with yourself that pulling the lever for Trump may well mean surrendering huge hunks of the democracy we cherish. The candidate has told you this over and over.

Ironically, Trump’s most rabid rightwing supporters can’t stop talking about the dangers of tyranny. A recent New York Times article described one Trump supporter as wearing camo pants and a t-shirt that read, “When Tyranny Becomes Law, Resistance Becomes Duty.” He either needs to find a different t-shirt or a different candidate.

Even after 18 months of campaigning there will be so many unanswered questions as voters head to the polls this year. But one thing is certain. Tyranny will work the way it’s always worked. It makes people fear there’s a monster coming to ravage the landscape. Then it becomes that monster.

NOTE: not much time before the election. If this has helped give you come clarity, please pass it around.