Trump's Republic

The indifference to the truth may set us up for disaster.

Posted Jul 18, 2016

Mark Hammermeister/Flickr
Source: Mark Hammermeister/Flickr

A number of writers have pointed out the apparent similarities between Donald Trump and the tyrant described in Plato’s Republic. This comparison is at once a criticism of Trump and a rebuke of the millions of Americans who have (and plan to) vote for him. But does the comparison ring true?

I’m not convinced. Yet I think it’s illuminating, both about the dangers of a Trump presidency and about the pathologies of the American electorate.

First: a little background. Plato’s Republic centers on an analogy between the state and the individual. Just as there are different forms of political constitution, there are different ways a person may be constituted. And it seems that we can learn something insightful about what makes one a good person by considering what makes a state good.

On Plato’s view, there is only one good constitution, in which reason rules and knowledge of what’s good for the whole—be it the whole state or individual—is the basis of decisions about what to do. Then there is a descending sequence of four bad constitutions, ending in the absolute worst—tyranny. According to Plato, the tyrant is “drunk” and “mad,” ruled by a lawless desire. Many people have this kind of desire, but it normally only surfaces in dreams and is otherwise kept in check by reason. In the tyrant, however, some such desire co-opts his every perception, decision and action to the point that he loses his grip on reality. He can’t see things for what they are, only for what his ruling desire presents them to be, and he can’t consider matters other than from the perspective of how to satisfy it. As Plato tells it, the tyrant has become enslaved to his obsession. His paranoia increases, and he eventually turns even on those whose support placed him in power.

The prospect of living under the rule of a tyrant induces shudders, as does much of Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail. But I see two good reasons to resist equating the soon-to-be-GOP nominee with the character described by Plato.

The first reason has to do with what makes the Donald tick. The most obvious candidates for what motivates Trump don’t fit the mold of Plato’s tyrant. If Trump is motivated by reputation, this would suggest he is more like a timocrat—Plato’s second-best constitution. If he’s motivated by wealth, then he may be more of an oligarch—third on the list. If he’s motivated by a desire to please his father, then he sounds like a familiar character that might interest Freud. Now, I’m not qualified to psychoanalyze him, so I don’t pretend to be able to draw firm conclusions about Trump’s psyche. But he doesn’t appear to be enslaved to a lawless desire. He doesn’t appear to fit the psychological description of a Platonic tyrant.

The second reason I’m not sure about the comparison between Trump and the tyrant is that, according to Plato, the true tyrant must have complete power. Perhaps worries about the unchecked power of the presidency suggest otherwise, but it still seems that our system of government contains some robust checks and balances. So even if Trump were psychologically like the tyrant, he would, at most, amount to a proto-tyrant. He has no real power as of yet, and even given a victory in November, the power of the presidency is not absolute.

Despite thinking the comparison is not airtight, I do think there is an important lesson to be learned from thinking about the similarities between Trump and Plato’s tyrant. It speaks to the dangers facing our democracy. It recommends some national soul-searching.

In addition to being labeled a tyrant, Trump has been called a bullshitter. This is not the same as calling him a liar (though Trump’s been called that too!). The liar deliberately says things that are false, so he must care enough about the truth to say the opposite. The bullshitter, by contrast, is simply indifferent to the truth. When Trump claims that his kitchen makes the best taco bowls and that he loves Hispanics, he’s not concerned with what’s really the case. He’s concerned with looking good and gaining votes. He says what he says for reasons that have nothing to do with the truth.

Michael Vadon/Flickr
Source: Michael Vadon/Flickr

To call Trump a bullshitter is to characterize him as having a certain insidious effect on society. The more people like the hot air he blows, the more indifferent to reality our society becomes. It is to charge him with playing a role in the unraveling of America. There’s a connection to Plato’s discussion of the tyrant here. The tyrant goes mad because he comes unhinged from reality; bullshit sets the stage for this. Someone who’s indifferent to the truth is especially susceptible to falsehoods and illusions. He’s lost his bearings. And what holds for the individual holds for society as well. If a large portion of the American electorate is satisfied with—even enthusiastic about—a candidate who does not care about the way things really are, it suggests that many Americans are unconcerned with the truth.

There’s a second connection to Plato’s discussion here. On his view, tyranny blossoms from democratic soil. Democracy exalts freedom above all else, resulting in guidance by the whim of the moment. There’s no view that doesn’t deserve a hearing; all are created equal. No one is disqualified from ruling in a democracy, except by the will of the electorate. By the same token, the democratic individual is open to satisfying any desire that presents its object as sufficiently worthwhile. The result is a lack of a stable agenda, for the society and for the individual. Democracy’s danger, according to Plato, is that it creates a vacuum. Whereas oligarchies seek wealth, timocracies seek honor and the ideal society seeks knowledge, a democracy pursues nothing in particular. At some point, this lack of agenda will be exploited. 

In steps Trump, whose platform is utterly unprincipled. His detractors take this as evidence that he’s unfit to be president; his supporters take it as evidence that he’s the man for the job. But one thing’s clear: Trump’s lack of principles is also evidence of his indifference to the truth. It supports cries of bullshit. And the fact that it has drawn the support of so many American voters suggests we should be concerned about the future of our democracy.

Even if Trump is not himself a tyrant, the success of his candidacy has shown that millions of Americans are prepared to elect a leader who is unconcerned with reality. All we need to complete the descent described by Plato and find ourselves living in a tyranny is for a true tyrant to step up to the plate and take over a system weakened to the point of no return. Trump’s candidacy signals danger is on the horizon.

Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin is the author, with John Martin Fischer, of Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife (OUP 2016).