From Plato to Trump
How your politics has already been figured out for millennia
By MARTIN REZNY
Given that the leading country of the world seems to be about to flush itself down the toilet of history, I think it’s about time for me to flex my political science muscles before the new dark ages begin. I shall attempt to demonstrate that what is happening in the American politics right now is one of the oldest things in the world, and that it was foretold over 2000 years ago.
The text I’ll primarily be referencing in this essay is the famous and well known Plato’s Republic, the contents of which seem to be constantly lost on everyone despite its renown. In his concept of five regimes, Plato explains a way in which one regime evolves into another, or rather how it all goes inevitably downhill from a good start to a Trump, after which some rinsing, but unfortunately also repeating, may take place. On to knowledge!
It’s really not complicated at all, but in my estimation, there are a number of psychological reasons why both the ruling class and the people tend to always have difficulty becoming clearly aware of what’s happening. Or rather what they’re causing to happen, mainly inadvertently because of a lack of accurate self-knowledge and foresight. Let’s first address what you may think wrong:
1. Everything has always been this way
No, it hasn’t. I mean, read a book or something. The reason why the school of political thought that says that power is right is called realism is that power always feels so damn real. The system you live in is what you know, and until an unpredictable revolution happens, the constant change is too slow for a human to notice over a time frame as short as a generation or even a lifetime.
2. This is the best political/economic system
If you think anything resembling this, then you don’t understand how best works. The only important question that you’re not asking is best for whom. Different systems benefit different classes or types of personalities, and if the system that you live in happens to benefit your class or personality, then it would be at most best for you. This will become very important later.
3. All politics is always motivated by the same thing
Once again, nope. I’m absolutely certain that by phrasing it that way, I have made you think of what that same thing is. What did you think of? Power, money, ideals, glory? I’m sure all of you lot have not thought the same thing, even though you might want to think that everyone would, or that there’s a single right answer. Just compare Sanders and Trump. I rest my case.
The Five Regime Cycle
What Plato realized by studying actual regimes in ancient Greece, which by their sheer number within a single overarching culture formed a perfect sample, was that there was a pattern in how they rise, fall, or transform. Now that you know political systems evolve, motivations of people differ, and each motivation is a basis for a different regime that’s best for it, we can proceed.
Because that’s it. Barring anomalies caused by factors external to politics, each generation represents a step in a loop of power and wealth relations that’s only logical. According to Plato’s observations, you start with noble intentions as a rule of few paragons with ideals. For America, think founding fathers, or Abraham Lincoln. Technically, that’s what Plato calls aristocracy.
There’s more to it than that, I’m simplifying and reality was quite a bit more complicated. But comparatively, even though founding fathers were generally rich slave owners, that doesn’t prevent them from establishing a system on the basis of progressive ideals, a vision, a dream. The great Athens at the height of its power was a direct inspiration, a rich slaver aristocracy too, after all.
There can be a back and forth between steps, of course, but the overall direction of the decline can be followed further on the example of American history. After an idealist phase, there comes a general, or an entrepreneur. Next lower step is what Plato would call a timocracy, something like ancient Sparta. Imagine Gerard Butler’s Leonidas. Not a philosopher, more a warrior.
Some time after your country was founded on ideals defining it as a paragon among states, a shining city on the hill, that becomes to be assumed. Anything that your country does is good by definition, because you’re doing it, and a great doer general who’s not overthinking it is going to expand the state and perhaps win a great war or build an economic empire. Like Crassus of Rome.
In American history, that point would be somewhere between the Lords of Creation building up the corporate capitalism, big time, and president like Dwight Eisenhower and the rise of America as a military superpower. That can still be considered a relatively honorable stage of an empire, but it too plants the seed of its own downfall. What virtues have those who just inherit?
After noble idealists formed an American dream and honorable generals built the country into a powerhouse both militarily and economically, here comes a generation of spoiled rich kids who only inherited wealth and power. They’re not necessarily great thinkers or capable builders of empires, they’re more likely not those things, but they’re entrenched. And here comes the oligarchy.
From the presidents, Reagan is the undisputable milestone example. A corporate spokesperson actor, clearly in the pocket of the oligarchs, makes sure that the rich become even richer. If you think that I’m obviosly just describing the basic gist of recent American history, read the Republic and you’ll see that I’m paraphrasing it extremely closely. And it continues.
Guess what the next step is, or rather, who it is. After a philosopher, a general, and a crook comes a populist. The now arriving phase is what Plato calls democracy, and what he rather doesn’t like. Remember, the regimes are going downhill in a sequence, this is all regress to Plato. Democracy in its original meaning is rule of the majority. So, cue the Trump. And Sanders.
The logic of this step is easy to follow, and historical examples abound. After the rich oligarchs become too greedy and cross a certain threshold of exploitation, the people, the real holders of power, stop believing in their bullshit and revolt. Wealth becomes redistributed and freedoms expand, Plato even predicts that in such a situation animals start getting equal rights.
The problem is, and that’s why I think Plato dislikes this kind of populist democracy so much, that people become more and more susceptible to the last and worst form of government, the tyranny. Invariably, large part of the population becomes dissatisfied with the resulting chaos which enhances various fears and insecurities, inviting a charismatic tyrant promising order.
As much as it pains me to kinda agree with Bill O’Reilly, in this sense, Trump and Sanders really are a symptom of the same thing, a phase in the natural course of politics in the Greek tradition. They’re both tapping into the same general, and largely accurate, sense of anger of common people against oligarchy, but there’s one big difference, and it’s of great importance.
If you’ve paid attention so far and you know something about Trump and Sanders, you should be able to recognize that while Sanders would usher in the popular democracy, or “socialism” in modern terminology, for good and for ill, Trump offers a shortcut to tyranny. Which is bad, because even assuming Sanders wins, Trump and his like will not go away any time soon.
The Foreseeable Future
Viewed through the eyes of a 21st century human, a strong case can be made that some kind of welfare state, egalitarian, popular democracy is not a bad form of government at all, and it really depends on who you are. Some would always prefer more “aristocratic” form of democracy, which would generally be elites in any age, be it intellectuals, businessmen, generals, or the like.
Plato certainly belonged to the intellectuals-should-rule camp:
“The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become rulers in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”
It may surprise you, but shockingly, he was an intellectual himself. What a coincidence. As an apolitical political scientist, I’d advise you to learn how to get over yourself. What’s good for you is not necessarily the best thing for everyone else and your belief is in no way justified just because you have it and you know that you’re awesome. This cycle is one of unselfawareness.
What I love about this model is that it simultaneously affirms that most people indeed act in a political self-interest, sooner or later, and that sense of rational control is but an illusion. The powerful always think their dominion is going to last forever, but it is always undermined by their own hubris and ignorance, while the powerless always fall for cheap promises from a charismatic doofus.
As Khaleesi would say, what we need to do is to break the wheel. If you don’t want to get exploited by oligarchs, but you also don’t want a tyranny of some trumpa-loompa, stop expecting that government is going to solve everything without you having to lift a finger, other than casting a vote. Stop putting your own interest first, because selfishness has been self-defeating us all for ages.
Presidents don’t save or ruin countries, people do, leaders are just figureheads for social forces that are backing them up. If you Americans elect Trump, you will get the president that you deserve, that does represent you most accurately. I know it’s easier to blame literally everyone and everything else, but that is politics since the time of Plato — people driving states off cliffs.