Trump’s Threat to Democratic Ideals

I teach my Middle Eastern students about the ancient Greeks, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and their concepts that humans are capable of great reason, and capable of managing their own collective affairs. I talk about the concept of citizenship, that in ancient Athens, citizens gathered to reason together, to consider the common good and to make decisions about their common destiny. Ancient Greece laid the foundation for the concept of democracy, I tell my students.

I haven’t yet introduced Plato’s critique of democracy in The Republic, primarily because of time, but perhaps I should. Plato’s criticisms of democracy seem particularly ripe in 2016.

Andrew Sullivan offers a brilliant critique of the 2016 presidential campaign, starting off with an analysis of Plato’s Republic as it relates to contemporary American politics. “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic, and Right Now, America Is A Breeding Ground for Tyranny” is the title of his important essay for New York magazine.

He also cites, as have I, the concerns of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, that the excesses of democracy, too much democracy, can lead to tyranny. And he draws on several thoughtful books on political philosophy:

  • Eric Hoffer’s classic 1951 tract, The True Believer
  • Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here,  a counterfactual about what would happen if fascism as it was then spreading across Europe were to triumph in America.

Donald Trump offers, not reason, or a detailed, thoughtful, credible platform, but emotion, incoherence, bigotry, Sullivan says:

“His movement is clearly fascistic in its demonization of foreigners, its hyping of a threat by a domestic minority (Muslims and Mexicans are the new Jews), its focus on a single supreme leader of what can only be called a cult, and its deep belief in violence and coercion in a democracy that has heretofore relied on debate and persuasion. This is the Weimar aspect of our current moment. Just as the English Civil War ended with a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, and the French Revolution gave us Napoleon Bonaparte, and the unstable chaos of Russian democracy yielded to Vladimir Putin, and the most recent burst of Egyptian democracy set the conditions for General el-Sisi’s coup, so our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump. ”

He concludes: “Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.”

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