No one said Trump would win the Republican nomination. He did.
No one said he’d win the Presidency. He has.
Many commentators have fears that Trump will become a tyrant. Will he?
And how will we tell, as events look set to unfold after his inauguration next January?
Many of the culture warriors whose attacks on “liberalism” have paved the way for Trump’s 2017 ascendancy tell us that we need to preserve the Western heritage.
Very well. Since the first appearance of tyrants in the 7th century BCE in the Greek world, this heritage has given us many accounts of tyranny: from Herodotus and Thucydides to figures like Franz Neumann and Leo Strauss in the 20th century.
None of them has been openly laudatory, even Machiavelli’s.
According to Aristotle, tyranny inherits the worst features of other types of government: from oligarchy the love of money; from democracy the hostility to the established governing classes; and from monarchy, the contempt of the people.
“Tyranny”, like its 20th century legatee “totalitarianism”, does double duty as both a description and a pejorative–or triple duty, as a caution or a warning.
Here then are four or five features the tradition of political philosophy suggests that we might bring to our assessments of the incipient administration, and the fears of its critics.
1. government by one man, in his own (or his family and friends’) interests
“Nor again did the tyrants of the Hellenic cities extend their thoughts beyond their own interest, that is, the security of their persons, and the aggrandisement of themselves and their families,” says Thucydides, speaking of the generations of tyrants that arose in Greece and its Italian tributaries in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.
The historian here points up the defining feature of tyranny that would soon be echoed by Plato, Aristotle, and the Roman philosophers and historians.
These classical texts tend to suppose that there are six types of regimes, three good, three bad. What differentiates them is the goal for which they govern.
A government by an elite, if in the general interest, is an aristocracy. If in the interest of the few, it is an oligarchy or plutocracy, rule by money.
Similarly, rule by one man, if in the interest of all the people, is a monarchy. A tyranny is government by one man, in the interest of himself, his family, or his friends.
Another way this idea is sometimes expressed is by saying that the tyrant treats an entire country like his own household. The weight of this idea falls when we remember that the classical Greek male kept slaves and his women in what we would consider virtual confinement. The Roman father had the power of life and death over his sons, and to marry his daughters to whomever he wished.
To see whether Trump has tyrannical credentials in this light, it is important to observe who his appointees are, and to see what their aims are. The thing will to assess if they come more or less exclusively from his family, friends, or else people with similar private economic interests.
Then it will be important to consider whether the policies they make, on general issues like economic well-being and the environment, serve the common American or wider good, or their own economic interests.
2. cutting down the best wheat (or draining the swamp)
“When the savages of Louisiana want fruit, they cut down the tree and gather the fruit. There you have despotic government”. These two sentences form the whole of chapter XIII of Montesquieu’s classic text, The Spirit of the Laws.
They look back to a Greek anecdote about the tyrant Thrasybulus of Miletus, reported by the historian Herodotus. A messenger from the Corinthian tyrant came to ask advice on how to run his affairs. Thrasybulus responded by taking the messenger for a walk in a field. Then he cut down all of the best and tallest ears of wheat.
What is the meaning of this oracle?
Born in a broadly democratic age, we can assume that tyrannical or despotic government is simply anti-democratic. In fact, when the first tyrants emerged, they were at the heads of popular parties, although some legitimate monarchs (think Henry VIII) have transitioned from monarchy to despotism.
In order to depose the existing monarchs, supported by traditional elites, the Greek tyrants needed to ally themselves with the many to win power. They presented themselves as champions of the popular interest.
Julius Caesar was one of the populares, and after overthrowing the Republic by force, stacked his Senate with members from outside the traditional governing optimates.
Other despots more openly slaughtered members of their cities’ leading families, and exiled, killed or imprisoned the power-brokers of the former regime.
The classical term for such pseudo-popular leaders was “demagogues”, and they usually ended by turning against their popular bases.
The model of tyranny then is not a pyramid, leader on top, then graded classes of citizens with different levels of executive, judicial or legislative authority, reaching down to the wide base of the average citizen.
Tyranny is like a pyramid that retains only its base and the capstone: the despot. A single column connects the two: the one-way, top-down conduit of the despot’s executive will.
Aristotle thus says that tyranny is lawless rule by one man who claims to be a “law unto himself”.
Plato’s Republic goes so far as to suggest that tyranny is the necessary effect of the license allowed by democratic, and what we might call liberal, pluralist regimes. As history, this is indefensible in the Greek context.
Yet it describes one possible sequence that has later historical exemplars, most notoriously Germany’s transition from the brilliant ebulience of Weimar culture to the rule of the NSDAP under Adolf Hitler.
Some commentators have turned to Plato already as a kind of uncanny prophecy of the rise of Trump, the champion of Archie Bunker and the American rust-belt against crusted-in Washington beltway elites.
Trump’s promise to drain the swamp, notable for its violent, dehumanising language, looks something like a modern version of Thrasybulus’ cutting down of the best wheat.
3. wartime leader, a state of fear
“The first thing he’ll do is stir up a war so he can present himself as the defender of the people. This will also enforce his tyranny, because in war, things need to be done quickly and decisively. And things can only be done quickly and decisively if one or a very few lead from the top down,” so says Socrates to his group of young friends in the Republic.
It is not easy to justify removing the existing elites, especially if this involves the use of violence like that so spectacularly deployed by Hitler and his cronies against the Leaders of the SA in 1934’s “Night of Long Knives”.
One hopes that Trump’s promise to imprison crooked Hilary remains one of the promises he made on the way up, not one that he will bring down extra-judicially.
The strongest form of justification for such exceptional measures is an appeal to a state of emergency. Tough times call for tough measures. The tyrannical regime is one of for-us-and-against-us, simplified political logic and language:
Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.
The tyrant in effect lays siege to his own people. Communication, if possible, will be monitored—this is today a much more real prospect than in Thrasybulus’ day.
In less technological times, laws were passed preventing public assemblies of more than a few people without licenses. Tyrants deploy secret police to spy on their subjects.
The spirit of the regime of tyranny is fear, says Montesquieu (versus virtue in a republic or honor in a monarchy).
It was Aristotle, not Machiavelli, in his section on tyranny in the Politics, that already made this archly-Machiavellian prescription for tyrants:
… regimes are preserved not only by their remoteness from a source of peril, but also on occasion, by their very proximity thereto; for the dread of present danger drives a polis to keep a firmer hold on its constitution. Those, therefore, who are interested in its stability should invent causes for alarm, so as to keep the citizens perpetually alert and on their guard, like sentinels on night duty. In other words, they must bring distant peril near.
On the docks in Nuremberg, Goering would echo “the philosopher” to describe the Nazis’ overthrow of the Weimar Republic, in the wake of the Reichstag fires.
An unending state of war and imminent peril, real or imagined, is inconsistent with a free society. We must first save our skins, or secure our borders. A society in a permanent state of war may not always be tyrannical, but it will never remain democratic or liberal.
4. keep a bodyguard
One of the features of a tyrant in the ancient world was his need to keep a personal bodyguard. The state of fear he visits upon his citizens is mirrored back to its progenitor, in reality or in his imagination.
Tyrants will hence tend to keep a paramilitary guard, loyal only to him, like the SA before 1934, and the SS thereafter in Hitler’s Germany.
The key register of many of the classical texts on tyranny is indeed a kind of ethical and psychological criticism of this possible career-choice—a reflection of their intended readership, amongst the elite young men of the Greek poleis.
For the popular view which sees in power and pleasure the highest goals of life, the achievement of one-person, lawless rule looks like the best thing possible. The tyrants were the rock stars of the ancient world, allowed to experiment with their every passion.
Nevertheless, so the Republic tells us, the tyrant’s life is exactly seven hundred and twenty nine times more unhappy than that of a truly wise person. Not more, not less.
Xenophon’s dialogue Hiero pictures the titular tyrant of Syracuse talking to the poet Simonides, widely accounted a wise man in the ancient world. Hiero’s message is not what we might expect.
He has no true friends, since he always suspects that people are only flattering him because he has absolute power to do with them what he will.
Each of his many lovers he likewise suspects of only acting out of fear.
He fears the noble or honorable, since they might league against him to cast out his unjust government. He fears the wise, since they will see through his injustices or perhaps try to supplant him in the place of absolute rule.
All may not then be as gilded as the trappings at Trump tower would suggest- supposing he does change the longstanding custom of living as President in the White House, a striking statement.
The tyrant always needs his paramilitary bodyguard, so little can he rely on his own people. Many tyrants had foreigners to serve in this role, since after a period of ruling, they could no longer coax any of their own people into the job.
This is small comfort for the people they enslave, exile or execute, and their families. But there is a self-destructive dynamic to tyrannical government. This often escalates in its violence, like Henry the eighth’s accelerating paranoia and procession of beheaded wives.
The advent of a tyranny, by provoking opposition, can sometimes even recall to a regime its forgotten founding values and principles.
A closing historical exhortative
Of course, none of this is prediction, although some of it is fear. These few pointers might provide standards to judge things, in case some commentators fall into line with the new regime, and we all lose sight of the bigger picture in the flurry of events that look set to unfold come January 2017-and because it is truly so difficult to imagine the home of the free as an unfree society.
The culture warriors are right that relativism is to be opposed, especially when it amounts to a falling in with whatever is sanctioned by present dictate.
We can close, in case the worst becomes the new best, with an exhortation from the French philosopher Diderot, looking admiringly across at America in 1778 in a book on the Stoic philosopher, Seneca, executed by the tyrant Nero:
After centuries of general oppression, can the revolution that has just taken place beyond the sea, offering all the inhabitants of Europe an asylum against fanaticism and tyranny, educate those who govern men on the legitimate use of their authority! May these brave Americans, who have preferred to see their wives outraged, murdered children, their homes destroyed, their fields ravaged, their cities burned, shed their blood and died rather than lose the smallest portion of their liberty, prevent the enormous increase and uneven distribution of wealth, luxury, softness, moral corruption, and provide for the maintenance of their freedom and their term of government!
May they draw back, at least for a few centuries, the decree pronounced against all things of this world; the decree which sentenced them to have their birth, time of vigor, their decay and their end! May the earth swallow their provinces rather than that one become powerful and foolish enough to seek ways to subjugate the others! May no very powerful citizen, the true enemy of his own happiness, form the project of becoming their absolute master, or may he die on the spot under the sword of the executioner or the dagger of Brutus!
We must excuse the passion of Diderot’s language, for they were different times.
Authors: Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University