On Trump and Tyranny: Donald Trump, Compared to the Classical Tyrants of History and the Tyrants of Philosophical Works
An Introduction to Trump, Tyranny, and the Republic
Below we explain classical tyranny, classical despotism, the warning signs of tyranny, and some sources “on tyranny” (by authors such as Robert Reich, Noam Chomsky, Hayek, Montesquieu, Madison, and Plato) that describe the tools and tactics of tyrants.
We’ll also address the somewhat common internet and media claims that say “Trump is a tyrant” or “Trump has the classical markers of tyrant” to see how accurate those claims are (in other words we are examining, not specifically making, a claim).
Lastly, we’ll end with Robert Reich’s “warning signs of a tyrant” to see the viewpoint of Trump and tyranny through the eyes of a modern thinker.
With that in mind, to headline all of this, let’s consider the Tyrant from Plato’s Republic (380 BC) and Plato’s warning of how Oligarchy and Democracy breed tyrant kings.
First here are some quotes from important philosophers who helped define tyranny and despotism to help us confirm exactly what we mean.
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of TYRANNY.” – James Madison, Federalist #47
“THERE are three species of government; republican, monarchical, and despotic. In order to discover their nature, it is sufficient to recollect the common notion, which supposes three definitions, or rather three facts: “That a republican government is that in which the body or only a part of the people is possessed of the supreme power: monarchy, that in which a single person governs by fixed and established laws: a despotic government, that in which a single person directs every thing by his own will and caprice.” – Montesquieu on the types of governments
“The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness. This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector.” – Plato, on Tyranny Book 8 of the Republic.
“AS virtue is necessary in a republic, and, in a monarchy, honour, so fear is necessary in a despotic government: with regard to virtue, there is no occasion for it, and honour would be extremely dangerous.
Here, the immense power of the prince is devolved intirely upon those whom he is pleased to intrust with the administration. Persons, capable of setting a value upon themselves, would be likely to create disturbances. Fear must, therefore, depress their spirits, and extinguish even the least sense of ambition.
A moderate government may, whenever it pleases, and without the least danger, relax its springs: it supports itself by the laws and by its own internal strength. But, when a despotic prince ceases one single moment to lift up his arm, when he cannot instantly demolish those whom he has intrusted with the first employments, all is over: for, as fear, the spring of this government, no longer subsists, the people are left without a protector.”
TIP: Hayek warns of “a strong man” being lifted to power to “solve a countries problems” with state power in his Road to Serfdom. This isn’t 100% Trumpian, but there are many parallels (if we consider the conservative coalition who helped lift up Trump directly and indirectly despite their initial resistance).
TIP: In Hayek’s work he points out that one thing tyrants tend to do to take power is to blame “others.” In NAZI Germany it was the Jews. In America 2017 it is the illegals, the “lazy” welfare class, liberals, globalists, elite, and Muslims. If attention is focused on these others, and if anger is directed toward them, attention won’t be focused on policy and power grabs, and the “strong man’s” base will be excited and grow more loyal.
TIP: A despot is, generally speaking, any ruler who does not rule in line with the law. It is the tyranny of the one. A form of tyranny. Hitler was a despot (backed by a tyrannical and despotic military state). For our purposes we can, from this perspective, just consider despotism and tyranny to roughly mean the same thing. That is, ruling in the specific interest of the tyrant or despot, and not in the interest of the people as a whole.
Trump and Tyranny
By some measures Trump isn’t that different from the right-wing populist Caesar who led a populist revolution against the corrupt senate, or the right-wing populist Hitler who led his workers revolution against the liberal establishment.
Here we should note clearly that Trump is far from Caesar or Hitler in action (as he has hardly declared himself “emperor for life”), however he is not all that far in some key messages.
Trump Seems to Have Modeled His “Strong Man” Persona Based on Tyrants
First off, Trump has obviously modeled himself after past right-wing populists (in strategy and message more than in aggressive action so far), who in the case of WWII, we consider in general to be tyrants.
It is from this perspective that we can say, “Trump is like tyrants from history.” He has promised the moon to a frustrated people, blamed “others,” said only he can fix the problems, and he has made an enemy out of the establishment. He has said the “media is fake” (like Hitler said “the lying press”) and he has belittled intellectuals. These are all warning signs of a tyrant and commonalities with past tyrants and despots.
It is very likely Trump modeled his behavior on past tyrants because it works, not fully realizing the connotations and implications.
This is to say Trump, plainly and obviously uses the strategies of figures like past figures such as Mussolini, and Hitler, the WWII fascists.
Thus, using our reason, if we consider those two to be Tyrants, then we must entertain the idea that Trump is exhibiting tyrannical qualities by emulating them.
“I alone can fix it” – Donald J. Trump
TIP: Consider the way Trump praises Putin and Erdoğan, both men are considered authoritarians of sorts. Putin more the oligarch, Erdoğan more the classically conservative strong man. Erdoğan purged the Deep State in Turkey, something Trump has flirted with. Hitler purged the “lying press” and his Deep State. Putin’s case is different, as their Deep State seems very loyal to him. However, there is an obvious thing going on here where Trump praises types like this, like Duterte, and makes fun of western democratic and liberal leaders like Merkel and Macron (and praises their opponents, such as Le Pen in the case of Macron). This is one of many foundations upon which we rest our claim.
To the Extent that the Right-wing Considered Obama to have Features of a Tyrant, they Should Entertain the Idea Trump has the Features of a Tyrant
To the extent that Fox News called Obama a tyrant, then we must call Trump a Tyrant as well. To the extent that both those claims are a little dramatic, then we can, after knowing the facts, take some of this with a grain of salt.
This is what we will be First Amendment-ing about here, just like Fox News did back in the Obama years. Thus, to the extent one accepted Fox News doing it, they must accept us doing it.
Note, the accusation isn’t that Trump IS a Tyrant, it is that Trump shares a number of qualities with the classical philosophical tyrants and real historic tyrants. That is empirical fact.
TIP: Many Republican leaders get accused of being Fascists, and likewise, many Democrats get accused of being Communists. There is a little justification there, but it is also just the perspective of one frame of reference. Obama was accused of being a Muslim from Kenya (by Trump) and a tyrant, no one ever stopped that (in fact we elected Trump anyway!) We are a liberal nation whose sole duty is to check powers and help support law, order, and liberalism against tyranny (legal and non-violent action allowed for by the Bill of Rights). We have free speech, so yes it’s a page about Trump and Tyranny, try not to crucify me; instead consider commenting with your thoughts below.
Trump as the Oligarchical Man Who Becomes the Tyrannical Man From Plato’s Republic
In Plato’s Republic, Plato’s Socrates warns of the people lifting an “Oligarchical man” to power in a Democratic nation, as a champion of the people, to push back against the corrupt establishment in times of perceived inequality.
This is like what happened to Caesar or Hitler, who like Trump were the right-wing populists of their day. The difference is that Trump actually fits the bill better, because Trump is essentially an oligarch (one who comes to power via wealth). Meanwhile Hitler and Caesar were soldiers.
Consider the following passage of the Republic which explains how the protector of the people becomes a tyrant after the establishment tries to oust him and he them (is this not a statement on “purging the deep state” and “media bias against trump” by some measures?):
“How then does a protector begin to change into a tyrant?… And the protector of the people is like him; having a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by the favourite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizen; some he kills and others he banishes, at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands: and after this, what will be his destiny? Must he not either perish at the hands of his enemies, or from being a man become a wolf –that is, a tyrant?”
Or consider this passage that compares democracy to a ship as a metaphor and shows how, when the people become frustrated with the ruling elite, a “partisan” acts as the champion of the people, helping them to overthrow the navigator (so it is a metaphor where the tyrant acts as a champion of the people to help them overthrow “the good for nothing corrupt establishment;” except it turns out the establishment in this story was the only one who actually knew how to navigate and the partisan never lets the people steer, he simply uses their gullibility to take the ship for himself):
The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering –every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.
They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them.
Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.
Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?
In other words, the tyrant is lifted up to the position of navigator by the people who are frustrated that they weren’t allowed to be navigators, and now the philosopher king (the navigator) is now looked down on as a good for nothing star-gazer.
The thing to realize here is that it isn’t one line in Plato’s Republic that fits the bill, it is most of the book. The entire book is essentially a warning of tyranny and a look at the ideal state. The whole point of the state is to protect against tyranny.
Consider all of chapter 8 is the story of oligarchy collapsing into democracy and then into tyranny and all of chapter 9 is the story of the tyrannical man. I can’t cite Plato’s whole work here, but I do suggest you read those chapters.
Below we will look at Trump in terms of Plato and compare that to how he is ruling in real life.
TIP: On the table below we have illustrated the classical forms of government, and then added in a bit of our own theory to illustrate the stages of tyranny. What happens (according to Plato’s Socrates) is timocracy, descends into oligarchy, descends into democracy, descends into anarchy, descends into tyranny. I would add to this to say that it specifically descends into tyrannical oligarchy, then descends into a tyrannical military state, then descends into despotic tyranny (a despotic state ruled by a single prince). See the image below the table for another visual. What we are saying here is that the fear is that the democracy lifts up an oligarch when the polity has become too corrupt and that oligarch becomes tyrannical and descends the state toward despotism. This is what happened with Hitler (“who first appeared as a champion of the people”).
|Plato’s Five Regimes Expanded||Correct (lawful; Ruled in Line With the General Will)||Deviant (Special Interest Before the General Will)|
|One Ruler or Very Few Rulers||Monarchy /Aristocracy (intellect and wisdom based)||Despotic Tyranny (fear based)|
|Few Rulers; the Ideal Polity||The Polity (a Mixed Republic the draws from the above forms to protect against tyranny).||NA|
|Few Rulers; a Military State||Timocracy (honor and merit based)||Tyrannical Timocracy (military state gangsterism; like a despotic Junta)|
|Few Rulers; a Capitalist State||Oligarchy (wealth based)||Tyrannical Oligarchy (greed based; a Plutocracy)|
|Many Rulers||Democracy (pure liberty and equality based)||Anarchy (pure liberty and equality based)|
TIP: Americans (and most westerners) live in an attempt at an ideal Polity, AKA an attempt at an ideal mixed-Republic. The main purpose of the Republic is to safeguard against Tyranny in any form (that is anarchy, corrupt oligarchy, despotism, a corrupt military state, rule by special interest, etc). So forgive any bias against tyranny I display below. This isn’t bias against Trump (nor is it a statement on his admirable qualities), it is bias against the qualities of a tyrant. To what extent Trump shares these qualities with tyrants is a thing of fact, upon which we can all have opinions as to what it means. We elected the man, and have tons of room for the implications of that in a democratic nation with fair elections, but despite that, we don’t have much room for tyrannical qualities in Americanism and Westernism (our whole foundation was a push-back against this). To resist tyranny is a first principle of the doctrine of American civil religion, since it was expressed by Madison and Washington and other founders. It is the duty of all Americans to safeguard against tyranny, including Trump himself. To what extent Trump doesn’t realize he is using the strategy of tyrants, he should realize it and check himself (that would be the main point here).
Viewpoint: What can Plato teach us about Donald Trump? – BBC Newsnight
Donald Trump in-Action Compared to the Oligarchical Man who Becomes a Tyrannical Man in Plato’s Republic
Above we generally compared Trump to the tyrannical man from Plato’s Republic, below we expand on that concept.
Trump is an “Oligarch” (classically speaking), who rose to power in a liberal nation (America), in a time of perceived social, political, and economic inequality (the Obama years), by rallying a frustrated base’s fear against “others”, and this is literally what chapters 7 and 8 of Plato’s Republic are about, thus we are making the comparison.
This is to say, Donald Trump is an oligarch who was lifted up to power on a populist message, by telling blue lies to his base, in a democracy, due to inequality in a state where everyone believed themselves to be liberal and free.
To get this, you have to get Plato’s Republic.
Plato’s Republic is a story about finding balance (justice) in the state and soul. It describes five forms of government (each a metaphor for the aspect of the human condition) that each devolve into the other.
Plato’s Five Regimes are: Monarchy and Aristocracy (rule by traditional kings and aristocrats; here implying rule by the wise), Timocracy (rule by honor, like a just military), Oligarchy (rule by wealth, both Barons and Cronies, like the Gilded Age), Democracy and Anarchy (rule by pure liberty and equality, an element of our modern mixed-Republic), and Tyranny (rule by fear).
In Plato’s story each regime is conflated with a type of man for an analogy.
The Oligarchical man, becomes the democratic man, becomes the tyrannical man, as he grows to love wealth, equality, and liberty (but lacks the restraints needed to reign in those powers; as those corrupt in extremes). From there a series of events drives this man toward tyranny, over time, after attempts at exile (like we saw with a figure like Napoleon).
This can be seen as a story about using our God given reason to control our animal nature, or it can be seen as a theory of classes (where Democrats and Oligarchs and Timocrats are meant to be restrained by Aristocrats to avoid Tyranny; like it is in a just Republic). Or this can be seen as a theory of governments.
It should be seen as a theory of all, a theory of how to create a Polity (like the one we live in).
The main warning here is not to put wealth, power, and fear above all else, to put truth and wisdom first, and to use the executive restraints of aristocracy and timocracy.
The problem is that Oligarchy breeds Democracy, and Democracy breeds anarchy and tyranny.
This is because in a state of pure liberty and equality there are no restraints (on things like the seeking of wealth and land and rent seeking), thus the one with the most money and golden tongue becomes the leader of a small faction of people who lift up their new champion (who promises them greatness and the destruction of the corrupt ruling class; like with Caesar).
At first the Oligarch King of the Democrats rules justly, but once the old leaders try to exile him and he gets a taste of blood (once he starts to purge his opposition who is trying to exile him; see the Deep State argument) he becomes frenzied (like a shark who has tasted blood) and begins to rule as a despot and tyrant (putting his whims before the needs of the state, using fear to control the people; as fear is the “virtue” of despots; he uses “criminal virtue“).
Over time this devolves as he needs to create more and more fear to consolidate wealth and power and to purge his enemies (who increase in number as he turns). The whole thing ends in a tyrannical nightmare, which is eventually overthrown and a new government is created from the ashes (eventually).
So, the Story of America is the story of overthrowing a (just barely) Tyrant, George III. But we in 2017 likely don’t actually want a bloody revolution like that.
So what can we learn here? Well, the good news is that I don’t think Trump has crossed the line yet. He is acting tyrannical (in that he is checking all the non-violet boxes), but he hasn’t reached the phase of no return yet.
Trump is a novice in government, and there is no reason that he can’t rule justly if he adheres to the rules, doesn’t try to pure the opposition, and steps up to the part.
In the interest of ensuring a stable four years and a stable nation, lets describe tyranny in general a little better so we can really confirm in which ways Trump is and isn’t acting like a Tyrant.
TIP: There are all sorts of tyrants. There is a tyrannical mob, a tyrannical minority, and a tyrannical man. All are not great. In the Civil War it was a tyrannical mob, the Jacobins of France were a bit of a Tyrannical mob, but a single leader like Hitler is just a Tyrant. They all share common features like ruling with fear and violence and not following the General Will (they say they do, but then they actually following their own specific will and corporate wills).
Summary of Plato’s story of the Tyrannical man: The starting point is Aristocracy, a just government dominated by the wisdom-loving element. When its social structure breaks down and enters civil war, it is replaced by Timocracy. The Timocratic government is dominated by the spirited element, with a ruling class of warriors or generals (Ancient Sparta is an example). As the emphasis on honor is compromised by wealth accumulation, it is replaced by Oligarchy. The Oligarchic government is dominated by the desiring element, in which the rich are the ruling class. The gap between rich and poor widens, culminating in a revolt by the underclass majority, establishing a Democracy. Democracy emphasizes maximum freedom, so power is distributed evenly. It is also dominated by the desiring element, but in an undisciplined, unrestrained way. The populism of the Democratic government leads to mob rule, fueled by fear of oligarchy, which a clever demagogue can exploit to take power and establish Tyranny. In a Tyrannical government, the city is enslaved to the tyrant, who uses his guards to remove the best social elements and individuals from the city to retain power (since they pose a threat), while leaving the worst. He will also provoke warfare to consolidate his position as leader. In this way, tyranny is the most unjust regime of all.
Bottomline: Sure wealth, liberty, and equality sound nice on-paper, but in extremes they are corrupting. This is why moderation, and not “the Sophist immoralism”, is the chief good. The point of Plato’s book is to be like a Chariot Driver (see metaphor below) and reign in our desires using the restraints of God Given human reason. Desiring money above all else and using fear as a weapon to control people is not enlightened, it is despotism and tyranny (classically speaking).
Plato: The Republic – Book 8 Summary and Analysis.
Plato: The Republic – Book 9 Summary and Analysis.
Plato’s Chariot Metaphor: Tying the “how does one become enlightened”, the human soul metaphor, and other metaphors together. The Chariot metaphor, in simple terms, describes how the higher-order aspects are meant to “drive” the lower-order ones. So the horses represent the reptile and animal nature of man, and the Charioteer steering the wild horses the human and higher-order qualities. Or, like Wikipedia says, “The Charioteer represents intellect, reason, or the part of the soul that must guide the soul to truth; one horse represents rational or moral impulse or the positive part of passionate nature (e.g., righteous indignation); while the other represents the soul’s irrational passions, appetites, or concupiscent nature. The Charioteer directs the entire chariot/soul, trying to stop the horses from going different ways, and to proceed towards enlightenment.” Well said.
The 15 Warnings Signs of Impending Tyranny From Robert Reich, 20 Lessons from the 20th Century by Timothy Snyder, and Other Important Reading on Tyranny and Despotism
The following is an excerpt from Robert Reich “on Tyranny”, I also suggest.
- A Propaganda Model Edward Herman & Noam Chomsky Excerpted from Manufacturing Consent, 1988.
- The Spirit of the Laws, 1748, by Montesquieu.
- Leo Strauss’s On Tyranny; and the modern On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 2017 by Timothy Snyder.
- Machiavelli’s the Prince, which explains strategy for tyrants (meant to inform Republicans how to use the strategy against tyrants… How Machiavellian!).
- Also, one should check out the NAZI’s early 1920’s “Strasserist Socialist” platform (which shows the party’s early fascist ideology and socialist roots), Mussolini’s 1932 Doctrine of Fascism (which explains fascism well), and Hitler’s Mein Kampf (in which he explains his disdain for Marxism, Capitalism, Liberalism, and Democracy).
These above classical texts explain a lot of the strategy and ideology of tyrants, since they are written in all different eras, it clues us in that the qualities of a tyrant are common (that this is not just a liberal reacting to Donald Trump).
As tyrants take control of democracies, they typically:
- Exaggerate their mandate to govern – claiming, for example, that they won an election by a landslide even after losing the popular vote.
- Repeatedly claim massive voter fraud fraud in the absence of any evidence, in order to restrict voting in subsequent elections.
- Call anyone who opposes them “enemies.”
- Turn the public against journalists or media outlets that criticize them, calling them “deceitful” and “scum.”
- Hold few if any press conferences, preferring to communicate with the public directly through mass rallies and unfiltered statements.
- Tell the public big lies, causing them to doubt the truth and to believe fictions that support the tyrants’ goals.
- Blame economic stresses on immigrants or racial or religious minorities, and foment public bias and even violence against them.
- Attribute acts of domestic violence to “enemies within,” and use such events as excuses to beef up internal security and limit civil liberties.
- Threaten mass deportations, registries of religious minorities, and the banning of refugees.
- Seek to eliminate or reduce the influence of competing centers of power, such as labor unions and opposition parties.
- Appoint family members to high positions of authority
- Surround themselves with their own personal security force rather than a security detail accountable to the public.
- Put generals into top civilian posts
- Make personal alliances with foreign dictators.
- Draw no distinction between personal property and public property, profiteering from their public office.
ON TYRANNY: Lessons From the 20th Century with Author Timothy Snyder.
Timothy Snyder: The Russian Military Tactic of ‘Reverse Asymmetrical Warfare’ in Ukraine. The whole Russia thing isn’t just about the charges, it is also note worthy that a lot of tactics that Trump uses are favorites of the Russians.
Timothy Snyder – “What Can European History Teach Us About Trump’s America?”
“STOP CALLING DONALD TRUMP A FASCIST BECAUSE HE’S NOT ONE!” Timothy Synder says everything I can’t fit on a page. Blast you economy of words, but thank you videos.
MUSING: And they wonder why Tyrants don’t like intellectuals? Hitler rose up with only that 33% of active voters, tyrants know they don’t need to win over the intellectuals, they just need to make them afraid and purge them. The goal is to curb that potential before it gets to that point.