Plato thought political regimes followed a predictable evolutionary course, from oligarchy to democracy to tyranny. Oligarchies give way to democracies when the elites fail, when they become spoiled, lazy, profligate, and when they develop interests apart from those they rule.
Democracies give way to tyrannies when mob passion overwhelms political wisdom and a populist autocrat seizes the masses. But the tyrant is not quite a tyrant at first. On the contrary, in a democracy the would-be tyrant offers himself as the people’s champion. He’s the ultimate simplifier, the one man who can make everything whole again.
With Trump, we have a glimpse of what this sort of evolution looks like: A vulgar right-wing populism emerges out of a whirlwind of anti-establishment hysteria; a strongman fascist promises to stick it to the elites and says only he can make the country great again; he gives the people a familiar boogeyman, some alien other, on whom they can dump their resentment.
For a fractured and embittered citizenry, this is a rhetorical balm, and, according to Plato, just the sort of thing that sends the city over a cliff.
The American founders were skeptical of democratic rule for all the reasons Plato spelled out. They created a firewall against the tyranny of the majority, which is why we have a republic instead of a direct democracy.
Trump is the firebrand they feared.
You might see his political existence as our democracy's response to its own decay. People no longer believe in the authority of public institutions, which amounts to a loss of faith in constitutional democracy. That Trump made it this far proves that the country can be whipped into a frenzy and that fascism is only an election away.
If Trump fails, it won’t be because he was too illiberal or too anti-democratic but because he self-sabotaged, because he was too incompetent to execute his half-baked vision. But it’s easy to imagine a future Trump, a candidate who shares his tyrannical nature but is skilled enough to capture a plurality.
Perhaps we’ll survive this time, but we walked right up to the edge of the abyss. Next time we may tumble into it.
What Plato said
“Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.” — Plato
Whether Donald Trump wins or loses, he did the country at least one service: He revealed the rot at the core of our politics. His success shows just how vulnerable we are to demagogic shocks.
Earlier this year, Andrew Sullivan wrote an essay for New York magazine in which he argued that America is ripe for tyranny. With Plato as his lodestar, Sullivan lamented the excesses of democracies and warned how easily they devolve into dictatorships.
Trump, he argued, is an “extinction-level” threat.
There’s much to disagree with in Sullivan’s piece, but his diagnosis was largely right: The very possibility of a Trump presidency constitutes a crisis for our democracy.
What’s happening in this election cycle isn’t new or incomprehensible. The character of Trump and the reasons for his rise are explained in remarkably prescient terms by Plato over two thousand years ago in his most famous book, The Republic.
The Republic is a series of dialogues about damn near everything: justice, human nature, education, virtue. Among the most important is a conversation between Socrates and friends about the nature of regimes and why one is superior to another.
Socrates says: “Let us place the most just regime side by side the most unjust, and when we see them we shall be able to compare…” Though it’s not the aim, what we get at the end of the dialogue is a theory of regime decline, with Socrates explaining why governments sink from higher to lower forms.
Oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny, in that order, are said to be the worst forms of government, and they are defined more or less in modern terms.
An oligarchy is a regime in which the rich have power and the poor are deprived of it. A democracy is a system of maximal freedom in which the people hold sway. And tyranny is rule by one man, who is both unjust and unqualified.
Oligarchies become democracies for predictable reasons: “As the rich grow richer and richer, the more they think of making a fortune and the less they think of virtue.” The inequality and corruption spread like a disease. “Democracy comes into power,” Socrates says, “when the poor are the victors, killing some and exiling some, and giving equal shares in the government to all the rest.”
Democracy, for all its charms, is said to be a poor substitute for oligarchy. It’s an “agreeable form of anarchy,” Socrates tells us. Like every other regime, a democracy collapses of its own contradictions. It’s full of freedom and spangled with every kind of liberty imaginable.
Over time, though, this boundless freedom degenerates into herd hysteria. Belief in authority atrophies. A spirit of excess takes hold and, eventually, “the state falls sick, and is at war with herself.”
Tyranny springs from democracy in the same manner democracy springs from oligarchy. Just as the blind pursuit of wealth occasions a thirst for equality, so “the insatiable desire for freedom occasions a demand for tyranny.”
There’s a logic to this dynamic, a kind of political physics. Each regime succeeds the previous one as its opposite and as a reaction to it.
So the shift from democracy to tyranny is simple enough: A surplus of freedom produces an excess of factions and a multiplicity of perspectives, most of which are blinkered by narrow interests. To get elected, those factions have to be flattered, their passions indulged. This is fertile soil for the demagogue, who manipulates the masses to “overmaster democracy,” as Plato put it.
In this way, it’s the very freedom of democracy that opens the way to tyranny. The love of tolerance devolves into a kind of unraveling licentiousness. Communal bonds wither. When things get bad, as they always do, the people grow restless and yield to a swindling demagogue who cultivates their fears and positions himself as the protector.
This is how democracy passes into despotism.
Trump as the people’s tyrant
“States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters.” — Plato
Plato insists that it takes a particular kind of person to win over a democratic mob.
The Republic is based on an assumption of a parallelism between the city and the soul. It’s difficult to summarize, but Plato held that for every kind of government there existed a corresponding kind of man. This is what he means when he writes that states “grow out of human characters,” and this is what Socrates means when he says that “the city is the soul writ large.”
In The Republic, systems of government are defined by the end they most pursue. Oligarchies, for instance, esteem wealth. In democracies, freedom is the highest good. In tyrannies, it’s the will of the tyrant.
There are five regime types for Plato and thus five kinds of human characters, each following the other in corresponding order. Describing them all is beyond the scope of this article, so instead let’s focus on the most relevant: the tyrant.
A tyrant, for Plato, wasn’t just someone who ruled over others; a tyrant is someone who can’t rule over himself. He’s Eros incarnate — pure impulse. He’s always in the thrall of his own lusts and passions.
Plato likens the tyrant to a drunken man, in whom there is a constant “succession of passions, and the new gets the better of the old and takes away their rights.” Because he can’t get along without domineering or being served, moreover, he “never tastes of true freedom or friendship.”
Trump is the tyrannical soul par excellence. His instinct is always to stifle dissent. The examples here are endless. He has threatened to “open up” federal libel laws and partially repeal the First Amendment in order to sue newspapers for the crime of challenging him.
During one of the presidential debates, he vowed to jail his political opponent for imagined non-offenses. “I’ll tell you what,” Trump said, “I didn’t think I’d say this … and I hate to say it: If I win, I’m going to instruct the attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” He then warned Clinton that, if he were president, “You’d be in jail.”
Almost everything we know about Trump testifies to this need to punish and humiliate. Consider this revealing Politico report about Richard Branson’s memorable encounter with Trump several years ago. Here’s how Branson recalls it:
“Some years ago, Mr. Trump invited me to lunch for a one-to-one meeting at his apartment in Manhattan. We had not met before and I accepted … Even before the starters arrived he began telling me about how he had asked a number of people for help after his latest bankruptcy and how five of them were unwilling to help. He told me he was going to spend the rest of his life destroying these five people.”
Branson later said that Trump’s “vindictive streak” would “be so dangerous if he got into the White House.”
This emotional incontinence is what sets Trump apart as a uniquely tyrannical figure. To watch him on stage is to witness a frenzied parade of inner consciousness. He’s simply incapable of restraining himself, and all of his “handlers” have learned this the hard way.
He has very few actual friends because other people are ornaments for him. He treats women as playthings. He mocks the disabled. He encourages supporters to “knock the crap” out of protesters. He even withdrew medical benefits for his nephew’s infant child as retaliation for a dispute over his father’s estate.
Pathology is the only term for this kind of behavior.
As Plato predicted, Trump’s tyrannical psyche manifests in his political views. He has proposed killing the family members of terrorists; waterboarding suspects because “they deserve it anyway”; refused to accept the results of a free and fair election; toyed with deploying nuclear weapons in regional conflicts; suggested banning all Muslims from the country; and said a federal judge’s Mexican heritage disqualifies him from office. This list hardly captures all of Trump fascistic musings, but the point is obvious enough.
This is a man with no respect for democratic norms, no understanding of compromise, no sense of inclusiveness, and, worst of all, no self-awareness. His burning ignorance is matched only by his baseless confidence. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” he said during his convention speech, “which is why I alone can fix it.” [Emphasis mine.]
The tyrannical drive cannot be distilled any better than that.
Indeed, with Trump we see the transition from democracy to tyranny in real time. And his message resonates for reasons familiar to Plato: Trump is a reflection of the people to whom he appeals. What distinguishes him from his followers is wealth and celebrity, but it’s his ingratiating crudity that does the real work.
A democratic tyrant slips into power by dint of deception: He is usually rich, but he carries himself as a commoner. “In the early days of his power,” Plato writes, “he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets … making promises in public and also in private, liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to everyone.”
But the honeymoon is brief. The populist begins as the people’s champion; later, having tasted power, he becomes their tyrant.
Plato wasn’t a prophet. His critique of democracy is wildly exaggerated, and there’s a streak of illiberalism in his thought that ought to offend the modern reader. But his analysis is valuable nevertheless.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Elbridge Gerry, who later served as the fifth vice president under James Madison, declared the chaos in state governments a result of an “excess of democracy.” “The people do not want virtue; but are dupes of pretended patriots,” Gerry said, “and are misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men.”
Trump is a designing man, and his political existence is a warning. He let loose something dark in this country, and whatever happens on Tuesday, the fact remains: Trump put fascism on the ballot this year, and millions of people said “yes.”