The Trump Administration and Plato’s Critique of Democracy

Since 2016 it has become somewhat commonplace to hear critics of the Trump administration refer to him as a demagogue. Arguably, there is no better word for it, with the way he has continually appealed to fear and patriotic bravado to mobilize his supporters, while neglecting to give the slightest semblance of an argument in defense of the vast majority of his views. Even for months prior to the election, you could find references to Trump’s demagoguery being made by Time, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and others. With the popularization of terms such as “alternative facts” and “fake news,” there hardly seems room left to hide from this accusation anymore.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Plato kind of warned us this would happen. In The Republic, he critiques the direct democracy that existed in his time, and although this form of government differs in some ways from what we have in America today (or what we had in the past), we may nevertheless find a number of the criticisms are still quite relevant. Democracy understood as the rule of free people governing themselves in their own interests leads, in Plato’s view, to demagogues and tyrants. In their emphasis on freedom and equality, democracies face the problem of corruptibility, and can fall either into anarchy or despotism.

Of course, Plato doesn’t hold much regard for equality, probably in part because his favored form of society is class-based. On this we might rightly fault him, but we need not follow his lead here into abandoning ideals of economic or political equality, for instance. We can instead understand his criticisms in a manner like Robert Kane articulates them in his book Through the Moral Maze.

1. Democracies encourage mediocre leadership

Elected officials have to keep courting the favor of the people in order to maintain their place in positions of power. This tends to be a popularity contest more than any kind of election based on qualifications, experience, or intelligence. Pandering thus becomes a commonality as those in power try to stay in power the best way they know how: not by applying their own expertise or by doing what they think is right, but by appealing to the whims of the masses. Unfortunately, one thing this can often mean is that our elected officials may be as ordinary and unexceptional as those that put them into office.

Considering the incredible lack of qualifications and experience in the Trump cabinet, this critique looks to be pretty dead on. Even if we limit our perspective to the man himself, though, there are many things to be disturbed by. He refuses to ever accept criticism for the actions of his own administration, instead pointing the blame at anyone and everyone else he can think of, whether it’s the Justice Department, immigrants, or Amazon. He’s made some highly unpopular decisions with the National Emergency, the Muslim travel ban, DACA, and even his tax cuts. Rather than learning from his mistakes or working to unite the country, he frequently doubles down and exacerbates partisan divides.

We can also find some of this concession to inexperienced and mediocre leadership in the very reasons Trump voters have given for why they voted for him in the first place. “I feel like I know where I stand with Trump,” says Rachel, in an article for The Guardian. “Trump is exactly what you get,” Paul, another Trump voter, states. Perhaps most telling is Arlene’s comment, who says that “Donald Trump might not have political experience but I truly believe he has the American people’s interest at heart.”

Trump’s win has heralded what some consider to be the return of populism to the U.S. Whether or not this is an entirely accurate characterization, it does speak to Plato’s criticism. On the one hand, we may want our representatives to be “people like us” because those are generally the people we trust the most to make decisions on our behalf, but on the other hand it is more than likely that most of us are not especially skilled at running branches, institutions, and systems of government. If we elect “people like us”, we could well be electing people who are just as uninformed as we are.

2. Democracies tend to focus on the short term rather than the long term

Because of how our leaders are elected, pandering to the wishes of the electorate typically means planning with the present in mind rather than the future. Kane astutely notes that this problem is “at the expense of the long-term needs of society.” It isn’t always the case that taking no thought for the morrow is harmless. Sometimes failing to plan for the future has significant and long-lasting consequences. Along with this comes the all-too-familiar habit of giving the people what they want now, and passing the financial burden on to future generations.

In an article for National Geographic, Sarah Gibbens lists fifteen ways the current administration has impacted the environment alone, including backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, loosening regulations on air pollution, rolling back the Clean Power Plan, and more. Betsy DeVos continues to push for cuts to financial aid and student debt forgiveness. The latter is part of a broader, ongoing pattern of substantial cuts being made to education under the Trump administration.

Then we have the Wall as an example of a potential financial burden for American taxpayers. The expected cost of the Wall keeps going up even as administration officials and supporters keep grossly understating it. The immigration ban has been estimated as posing a cost of $700 million to U.S. colleges. Repealing Obamacare fully is being said to come at a price of a whopping $350 billion, not to mention all the jobs that stand to be lost as well.

Getting people to understand the value of holding out for something better is notoriously difficult, particularly in a nation that prides itself on individualism, the myth of the self-made man, and instant gratification. By no means is Trump’s administration unique in this, but we may see things as more pronounced here than they have been in many other administrations.

3. Image politics comes to dominate the electorate

The rulers in Plato’s ideal society function in part to safeguard the values at the heart of society. Such an important task could not be trusted to the average person, Plato thought, but had to be something specially reserved for those who could be trained and educated in the proper ways. Democracy, he argued, usually devolves into politics focusing on appearances rather than on the things that really matter. How a candidate looks and sounds comes to be more important to people than what they say.

Again, we need not look far to see this criticism alive and well within the present administration. Trump has said some truly terrible things, to say the least, and behaved in reprehensible ways toward women. Yet his supporters haven’t seemed all that perturbed by any of it. There are also many examples of how the president has flip-flopped on a number of things just as soon as they make him look good.

The Guardian article referred to above has the opinions of several Trump voters who state how impressive Trump’s confidence, forthrightness, and business savvy are to them. We could indeed view this as an image issue, oddly winning out over even the strongly held moral beliefs of some Americans.

It might be an understatement to say political debate has become superficial in the era of Trump. From remarks about penises during the campaign to the constant allegations of “fake news” that are being thrown at legitimate news outlets (and at almost any reporting the new administration merely seems to dislike), there is little question that the last election and its aftermath have taken political discourse to another level. It may not be entirely new or entirely unprecedented, but what would previously have been roundly criticized as grossly immature now appears to survive just fine and eludes such immediate hostility in today’s political environment.

A society that focuses on images instead of issues is easy prey for manipulative personalities.

4. Democracies are prone to factionalism of special interests

Lobbyists, special interest groups, and money politics have been problems in the U.S. for a good while now, and they are certainly not limited to the current administration. But Trump’s accusations against Hillary Clinton for being controlled by special interests can strike one as an instance of stunning hypocrisy. He once said he’d disavow all Super PACs, shortly before he reversed his decision once his party nomination was in the bag. His promise to “drain the swamp” has become plagued by revelations of hush money payments, multiple indictments for members of his own team, and the Mueller investigation, among numerous other things.

Plato believed that democracies lead to factionalism, as certain groups try to influence leaders for their own private interests. Because of this, democracies are also in danger of becoming a tyranny of the majority. As Plato saw it, the three worst forms of government participate in a sort of natural evolution: oligarchy gives rise to democracy, democracy gives rise to tyranny. Yet the tyrant won’t be campaigning on a platform of dictatorship. Instead, he’ll present himself as the champion of the people. It is “the insatiable desire” for freedom, Socrates says, “and the neglect of other things [that] introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny.”

Tyranny of the majority was a significant concern of some of the Founding Fathers, such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. In his classic 1840 text Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed this same worry:

Once again, the concerns outlined here are not exclusive to the right. Factionalism and special interest groups can be problems for any party. But it is a question worth asking where the biggest problems are concentrated at a given time. Trump’s inaugural fund alone raised nearly double the amount Obama raised in 2009, with many donations contributed by oil, gas, and coal companies. With Trump, the NRA broke its own record for spending on an election. Then there is the unprecedented relationship between the Trump administration and Fox News.

Expectations that Trump would be the candidate to rise above the special interests and factionalism prevalent in much of American politics have proven to be misplaced indeed.

5. A loss of shared values

Democracies that emphasize freedom and liberty make the individual the focus of value. This produces a gradual dissolution of common values, since people think more about themselves and their desire to do their own thing than they think of others. So responsibility to others and the common good are sacrificed to the right to do as you please, according to Plato. This in turn creates distrust of authority, social disorder, and rising crime rates. Another consequence, Kane writes, is a large generational gap, due to the fact that the young do not necessarily share their parents’ values, and want the same right to do their own thing that everyone else has.

It’s worth starting with that last point, because one interesting statistic that emerged from the 2016 election was the factor of age difference. “Young adults preferred Clinton over Trump by a wide 55%-37% margin,” the Pew Research Center notes, while “Older voters (ages 65 and older) preferred Trump over Clinton 53%-45%.” Distrust of authority and social disorder might be more than familiar to us, too, considering how both featured in the presidential debates. The crime rate is a somewhat thornier issue, though, since there is evidence showing an increase in violent crime from 2014–2015, for example, but this figure is still lower than it was in 2011 or 2006.

What ought to stand out most, however, is the theme of division. Trump supporters like those mentioned above in The Guardian article have voiced their opinion that our nation is fractured, hurting, and headed in the wrong direction. In 2019, it seems that very many of those who voted against Trump likely feel the same way. Even before the presidential race, though, social conflict and domestic tensions were not at all outside the field of worries for Americans, as subjects such as immigration and Black Lives Matter would highlight.

It almost seems undeniable that there has indeed been a loss of shared values. How we should respond to this problem is what remains a matter of intense debate.

Is this the end of democracy?

A.N. Whitehead famously described the Western philosophical tradition as a series of footnotes to Plato. This may appear as only the most minor of exaggeration to those familiar with Anglo-European philosophy. Plato’s take on democracy, as we’ve seen, levies some fairly powerful criticisms that we are still wrestling with over 1600 years later.

Does this mean that democracy is hopeless?

I have heard many declare its death in the wake of the election, but even if we assume this is true, the meaning of this death, and how we move forward from it, are important if not challenging questions to answer. I don’t pretend to have the solution, and it’s pretty clear that Plato didn’t have it, either. We might be reminded of Winston Churchill’s comment on how democracy is the worst form government except for all the other forms. One thing I think could be a promising start would be a revival of the sort of understanding of democracy held by someone like John Dewey, where there is greater emphasis on the social nature of democracy, rooted in shared interests and cooperative interaction among a plurality of groups.

Understandably, this might seem like a bit of a pipe-dream for where we are right now. The next four, eight, or however many years will tell. My point here has not been to spell out the doom of democracy, however. Plato’s criticisms speak to the flaws in a democratic system of government, and I believe we are seeing these loud and clear these days, although they have actually been present for a long time. This doesn’t have to mean that democratic governments are inevitable failures, but it should cause us to recognize the problems that do exist, and it should motivate us to seek out viable solutions.

Some Americans probably think this is what they’ve done in electing the man that now sits in the White House. But we have seen how the Trump administration has aligned itself more clearly with the flawed side of democracy — where it is much closer to descending into tyranny, as Plato explained. It’s hard to understand how the actions and practices discussed here could set us back on the right track. There are strong arguments, though, made by one of the most influential philosophers to have ever lived, that we are heading for serious trouble.

This may not be the end of democracy simpliciter, but it just might be the end of democracy as we know it.

Writer, reader, musician, and graduate in philosophy and religious studies.

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