The 83rd post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.
[EDITORS’ NOTE: This post began as a reply/rebuttal to Andrew Sullivan’s massive recent think-piece on the fragility of democracy. It then grew in the writing, like a Neolithic campfire tale that grows in the telling, into the present behemoth that is two-thirds the length of the piece it criticizes. We offer it without apology, but with this TL;DR summary: Sullivan is wrong in his interpretation of theory and wrong in his practical assertion that Trump aspires to tyranny; there is a non-trivial difference between Caesarism and tyranny and if Trump represents either, it is the former, though we doubt that too; the only way to bypass or at least stave off the apparent inevitability of Caesarism is to reassert the will of the people over that of the administrative state and our ruling oligarchy; and Trump is the only political figure not just in this cycle but in at least a generation even to make the attempt.]
When New York Magazine
announced the return of Andrew Sullivan, we thought (hoped?)—given the date
—that it might be an April Fool’s joke. No such luck.
Sullivan’s first post-hiatus effort is an enormous beast—so long that the usual blogosphere exhortation to read the whole thing must be counted as sadism. Yet we managed to do it. We started because Sullivan begins with one of our interests, Plato’s observations on political decay. We kept reading, even though Sullivan botched that part, because toward the middle he started to say sensible things. We finished it because … we’re not really sure. Must have been in the grip of thesunk-cost fallacy
We debated whether to comment on it at all. Two factors convinced us, reluctantly, to weigh in. First, the piece has already been shared more than 150,000 times. That’s shared
, not read. We doubt all of JAG
has been read that many times. Clearly, Sullivan maintains a wide audience. Second, he’s influential not just with the masses but with other influentials. Rod Dreher
quotes the piece uncritically; Ross Douthat
suggests some correctives but not nearly enough, nor the right ones. No doubt there are others we missed. Since Sullivan gets so much wrong, and since so many people—some important—read him, someone should refute him. We’re perfectly capable of doing so, and obviously have no aversion to investing large blocks of time in quasi-futility, so it may as well be us.
The first thing to note (gloat) is that we were here first. We’ve warned about the possibility of tyranny—or, more precisely, of Caesarism—almost since the inception of this journal. Sullivan is just following us.
But badly. We (almost) hate to say this, since Sullivan’s great teacher
is one of our intellectual heroes, but we’re not sure he (Sullivan) learned all that he could or quite grasped what he was supposed to learn. His interpretation of Republic VIII
(begins on p. 221)—on which his whole piece hangs—is wanting.
What Plato (or his Socrates) describes in the passage Sullivan summarizes is nothing other than that old JAG
warhorse, the cycle of regimes
. Sullivan gets at least one thing right. Plato’s description of late democratic rot and self-indulgence does indeed fit our times to a “T.”
But from there, he goes astray. He interprets the passage as being about usurpation when really it’s about inevitability. According to classical political theory, the fundamental question inherent to every regime is: Who rules? The basic possibilities are: one, a few, or the many—each element with its own partisan bent. Better, more stable and more long-lived is the rule of a mixture of these
, but that’s less common than the rule of one element alone. Which, however well such rule starts out, inevitably degenerates, as the ruling element increasingly prefers its own partisan good to the common good. Which preference eventually causes the ruling class’s own downfall.
Plato’s political science, as depicted in Republic
VIII, while fundamentally similar to the classic (and much soberer) account in Polybius
which we’ve explained before, differs in important respects. Plato posits five regime types: the best, or the rule of philosopher kings; timocracy, or rule of the lovers of honor; oligarchy, rule of the lovers of money; democracy, rule of the lovers of freedom; and finally, tyranny—rule of one who loves only himself. In this account, the trajectory is all down, all the time. There is no “cycle” strictly speaking because unlike in Polybius’ account, Plato’s cycle never starts over.
Sullivan, first, misses the inevitability of this. He presents tyranny as a danger that can be avoided whereas Plato presents it as a certainty. The downward drift is an immutable law of politics. Complaining about it is like complaining about erosion. It’s going to happen. Cope.
Thus, contra Sullivan, Plato’s tyrant is not so much a usurper as a consequence—an outcome. Not a good outcome, to be sure. Not one choice-worthy for its own sake. But in a way a deserved and even necessary outcome.
There is another distinction that Plato does not make here, for reasons Leo Strauss explains in On Tyranny (p. 180): the distinction between tyranny and Caesarism. (Yes, we know that’s anachronistic, but we mean Caesarism as a permanent possibility, not the specific historical occurrence.)
Caesar is not truly a usurper. A formal act of usurpation may—and may have to—cement his coming to power. (Although in the case of actual Caesar, it didn’t.) But the deeper point is that Caesar is a necessity whereas the tyrant is not. Caesarism is a specific type of absolute monarchy—one that succeeds a formerly republican or democratic government when all possibility of self-rule is lost. The tyrant, by contrast, actively seeks power and so subverts whatever form of government he finds in order to achieve his end. This is what the famous tyrants of the ancient world—Agathocles, Hiero, Pisistratus, etc.—did. It is not, at least not exactly, what Caesar did. Tyrants don’t always, or even mostly, succeed democracies. They can also overthrow aristocracies, oligarchies and monarchies and perhaps most often result from the degeneration of a monarchy, as in Polybius’ account.
Sullivan also does not take into account either the dialogue’s dramatic setting or the flaws in the argument that he examines. As to the setting (broadly understood), it’s important to remember that Socrates is here speaking to Glaucon and Adeimantus, two noble and spirited youths—and thus potential tyrants. Socrates wishes to avoid the unfortunate outcome of his earlier attempts to educate Alcibiades and Critias, which he already understood to have been a failure and which would later bear disastrous fruit. His remarks to Glaucon and Adeimantus are thus specifically calculated to produce a specific outcome in their souls. Viz., he wants to convince them not to want to be tyrants. So Socrates puts the worst possible gloss on tyranny and completely elides the distinction between tyranny and Caesarism. To admit that such a thing as Caesarism exists is to lend legitimacy to, and thus to encourage, tyranny—that is, the seizure of absolute power when such is not absolutely required by the direness of the situation.
Which brings us to Sullivan’s more directly textual errors. Something he should have learned in graduate school (and which we have no doubt his teacher tried to teach him) was that one cannot take everything Plato puts into Socrates’ mouth to be Plato’s last word. Socrates is famous for his “irony”—that is, he says different things to different people, depending on their level of competence and the state of their souls. He is not above using faulty arguments to further his rhetorical aims, and he does so in this passage. We shall point out two such instances which are directly relevant to Sullivan’s own faulty (but presumably not intentionally so) argument.
First, there is an implicit contradiction between Socrates’s explicit claim that a tyrant will seize power from a “late-stage democracy” (Sullivan’s phrase) and the picture that Socrates paints of that democracy. Does not every sordid detail he provides impel those who think them through to conclude that absolute rule was not merely inevitable but necessary? This is how Plato sneaks n the topic of Caesarism, as distinct from tyranny, “between the lines.” Sullivan wants to blame the tyrant, and to a lesser extent the people, but Plato blames no one, except perhaps nature itself.
Second, as noted, Socrates goes out of his way to describe the tyrant in the worst possible light, a slave to every imaginable vice. The deck is stacked so overwhelmingly that our suspicious must be aroused. Anyone with knowledge of history would know that some—even many—tyrants have been supremely capable men and not particularly vulgar, self-indulgent or cruel. Athens’ own Pisistratus fits that bill (Aristotle says of him that he ruled almost constitutionally;Constitution of Athens 16) as does Caesar himself. Again, this exaggeration is owing to Socrates’ pedagogical intention with respect to Glaucon and Adeimantus. He doesn’t want to say a single positive thing about tyranny as a phenomenon or about any actual tyrants. The argument is therefore “ironic,” which is to say, not wholly serious.
All of that said, we repeat that Sullivan is on to something. And so, before we hit him again, we offer a few further words of non-ironic praise. In the sensible middle of the piece, Sullivan accurately analyzes some of the fuel driving the Trump train:
Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, “disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.”
Emphasis ours. Sullivan, despite being white and male, is at least not straight. He therefore has sufficient victimization pokemon points to say baldly what any straight white man would be hung for saying. Still, kudos to him for saying it. He didn’t have to and he could easily have gotten away with denying it.
This was part of the emotional force of the tea party: not just the advancement of racial minorities, gays, and women but the simultaneous demonization of the white working-class world, its culture and way of life. Obama never intended this, but he became a symbol to many of this cultural marginalization. The Black Lives Matter left stoked the fires still further; so did the gay left, for whom the word magnanimity seems unknown, even in the wake of stunning successes.
This passage is considerably more problematic. Sullivan accepts uncritically that the Tea Party was somehow “racist,” despite the facts that all their rhetoric was about spending and debt, and that repeated attempts to bait them into saying, doing, or endorsing “racist” things all failed. His claim that “Obama never intended this” is risible; only someone still in the throes of 2008 unrequited love could possibly be so daft. But at least Sullivan—virtually alone on the left—acknowledges the extent to which the left’s endless and merciless persecution of its enemies is provoking an entirely predictable backlash.
Now, back to our criticism. Sullivan’s main intention is to argue that Trump is a would-be tyrant. He ends with the grandiosely absurd claim that a Trump election would be “an extinction level event”—if not for America, at least for American democracy.
The evidence for Trump’s tyrannical aspirations is weak, if not exactly non-existent. But first let’s consider the two core definitions of “tyrant.” The first, as noted, is usurper. Trump is using the legitimate electoral process to gain power. That of course is also no bar to tyranny. Many tyrants do exactly this. But typically with the aim of staying in power forever. Exceptions are rare. Of the top of our head we can think of Sulla and Pinochet (the former of whom was arguably not a tyrant, and the latter of whom did not use a legitimate process to gain the tyranny) and not many others.
Does Trump intend to stay in power for life—and possibly make his tyranny hereditary? So far from indicating anything of the kind, he’s even dropped hints that he may serve only one term. He’s also said (in comments I can’t now find, but clearly remember) that maybe the times call for a leader like him right now, but the times will change and he intends not to be the stage when they do.
These are not the words of a would-be tyrant. Now, of course it’s possible he’s lying. Tyrants do tend to lie, after all. Who can know for sure? But that would be inconsistent with another anti-Trump meme: that he really doesn’t want this at all, he’s just enjoying the attention. Whatever else one may say about tyrants, they really do want it.
Moreover, what is the real difference between presidencies-for-life (to which, again, it does not appear that Trump aspires) and America’s emerging dynastic politics? It’s already semi-embarrassing that the son of a president seceded his father with only one intervening administration. Now we face the prospect of a president’s wife doing so after two? There’s talk of Michelle Obama, Chelsea Clinton, the Obama girls, George P. Bush, etc., all running for office someday. The Kennedy dynasty eventually ran out of steam but the impulse remains—and it is yet another sure sign of a corrupt people. Do we also think that a Hillary administration will not, in the decisive sense, be a Bill administration? In the same way that the Bill administration was also a Hillary administration? Her election may satisfy the letter of the 22ndAmendment, but its spirit? In this as in so many other dreary ways, modern America resembles nothing so much as the “banana republics” Americans once confidently ridiculed.
So we’re quite doubtful that Trump is a would-be tyrant in this, the more precise sense. But what about the other sense—the abuse of power? Here we’re a little more wary. Trump has said disturbing things, in particular about free speech. His critics have seized on these as “proof” that Trump is dangerous and unfit for the Presidency. That may be, but these few off-the-cuff comments are at most hints in that direction, not proof. Trump is not exactly disciplined from the stump. He shoots his mouth off a lot and probably says many things he doesn’t really mean and makes many threats for the sake of rhetorical bluster. We may be wrong about that, and we will duly apologize if President Trump begins serially persecuting his political enemies. When will Sullivan apologize for his support of Obama’s tyrannical measures?
However, let’s think this issue through for a moment. What the anti-Trumpites are really saying is that they have no faith in the effectiveness of American institutions, in the separation of powers, in the integrity of the other branches of government, or in the American people themselves to check a lawless president. And why should they, given not just the last seven-and-a-half years but the last twenty? Or thirty? Our government hasn’t functioned as is it supposed to do—as its “parchment barriers” say it must—in a generation at least. The reasons are deep and complex and we once again refer you back to Cato the Elder’s analyses of the administrative state. But the idea that Trump is some unique danger strikes us as a joke.
Shall we go through Hillary’s tyrannical instincts and abuses of power one more time? What is likely to come from a second Clinton Administration? Do we need to go into detail? Or is it sufficient to say: every Obama-era left0wing cause and more. Every fresh enthusiasm will be pressed to the max. She will govern at least as lawlessly—and probably much more so, given that Obama has paid absolutely no price for his lawlessness, and therefore she will be emboldened to press the pedal to the floor. Congress either doesn’t care or is ineffectual (both, really) and the judiciary is on their side.
Still and all, we hold no grudge against those who say they simply cannot vote for Trump. We hold conscience sacred and cherish the fact that (for now) we all still live in a polity that allows for such principled stands.
We do, however, find their reasoning beyond faulty. We’ve explained why in this post and elsewhere on this blog. Indeed, to explain why may be said to be the purpose of this blog. We now turn to a reason we’ve not yet explicitly explored, because it is depressing. But given the direction the Trump conversation is going, it can no longer be avoided.
Sullivan was far from the first to argue that Trump is (or wants to be) a tyrant. That’s been a staple of leftist rhetoric for at least six months—since it became clear that Trump’s candidacy was not a joke, that he might win the Republican nomination and even the Presidency. We’re not among those who take seriously Sullivan’s claim to be a “conservative.” But he is more honest than the actual conservatives. Their complaints about Trump’s unfitness imply the same conclusion that Sullivan states openly: they seen in Trump a potential tyrant.
We return to the non-trivial distinction between tyranny and Caesarism. We think Trump is neither. But if he is one, he is certainly a Caesar and not a tyrant. America is already post-Constitutional and has been for a long time. Obama’s signal accomplishment has been to make that abundantly clear. While we would attack many of George W. Bush’s decisions on policy grounds, we find the claim of his anti-Constitutionality to be overblown. But just to show that we are non-partisan and broadminded: the fact that the United States Congress has not declared war since 1941, despite fighting in every region of the globe, almost without a break, since that date, is the single-strongest proof that the Constitution is no longer the supreme law of our land.
Historical parallels are rarely exact and real life never unfolds exactly as even the greatest works of political philosophy predict they will. 2016 America is some respects a late-stage democracy but in others it is more decisively an oligarchy. If the American people are not thoroughly corrupt—not all of them—a big enough plurality is, and they serve as shock troops and foot soldiers for the ruling oligarchy. The Corrupt Bargain: High+Low v. Middle. And the middle is not nearly so strong—or, we must concede—so virtuous as it used to be.
To those on the “right” most appalled by Donald Trump, ask yourselves: would an incorrupt republic have elected Barack Obama? Twice? Especially after his manifestly dismal first term? Would an incorrupt republic have settled for the only-slightly-above-average son of a former president—for no greater reason than that he was the son of a former president? Would an incorrupt republic have looked past all of Bill Clinton’s manifest sordidness and elected him over a decent, if uninspiring, steward of American dignity?
The third leg in the ruling triad—replacing, you might say, Ronald Reagan’s three-legged stool—is the administrative state. It was built by the ruling oligarchy and their allies in government and the intelligentsia. It is to our governing arrangements what the drive-train is to an automobile. The oligarchy drives. The lower masses and the middle and upper fringes both go along for the ride and get to influence the direction and some of the stops. The administrative state makes it all work—but also, like KITT the talking car, has a will of its own. It allows itself to be driven, but only to destinations it approves, and—crucially—resists when anyone tries to take the car off road or turn it around.
Our fondest hope for Trump is that he can take control of the car and make it once again respond to popular will. That sounds difficult—and the reality is much more difficult than it sounds. For there is
no single popular will any more, or anything close. The country is more divided—fractured—than it has ever been, and yes, that includes the run-up to the Civil War. Lincoln was dead right when he wrote to Alexander Stephens
that North and South were divided by only one substantial difference.
Today, our differences are myriad and vast. Some substantial number of the people living within America’s borders do not identify as American in any meaningful sense, including most of its Davoisie, no matter their formal “citizenship,” a concept we’ve allowed to cheapen into insignificance. And among those of us who self-identify as Americans, we are not merely divided between liberals and conservatives—indeed, that old distinction hardly matters any more, if it even still materially exists. The real division is between the oligarchs, their armies, and the mandarins of the administrative state on the one hand—and everyone else. Neither side is particularly united in and of itself. The former is by nature a fractious collation of competing interests: rich and poor, elite and underclass, white and “other”, other v. other, and so in in ways too numerous to count. But each little part knows what it wants and it knows that it can only get that, or some of it, if all stick together.
The other side mostly wants to be left alone to live as they always have. And since they mostly live similarly, this side is more naturally united. But, being too preponderantly white, they cannot say so or act on their common interests without arousing Nazism charges, which they’ve internalized to the point that even the possibility that someone on the left might call them “racist” causes the brain immediately to seize up and change the subject.
Mostly, both sides are united in their opposition to, and dislike—even hatred—of the other. In ancient terms, there is in our polis
no “like-mindedness” (homonoia
), which Aristotle equates with “political friendship” (Nicomachean Ethics
IX 6) and which the Romans called “concord.” The plebs and patricians of ancient Rome were often at each other’s throats, too, some might point out—as a way of shrugging plus ҫa change
. But the “orders
” of Rome did not disagree on the good life, on the content of goodness itself. They each, and equally, loved their fatherland and contended with each other over the distribution of offices and honors. They understood the necessity of concord—they made it a goddess
and built her atemple
—even as they so often fell short of her mandate.
Contrast that with modern America, a country in which Al Gore mistranslates e pluribus unum as “Out of one, many” and in his error is actually more accurate to the spirit of our times. With a result Aristotle predicted:
When people do not keep watch over the commons, it is destroyed. It results, then, that they fall into civil factions, compelling one another by force and not wishing to do what is just themselves (1167b13-16).
Is the magnitude of the challenge beginning to sink in?
Here’s the really depressing part. Recall the point above about Caesarism and inevitability. If Sullivan (looking past his errors) and the “conservatives” (in spite of their prissiness) are right, then not only does America deserve Caesarism, there’s not really anything we could do to stop it. Neither Sullivan nor the conservatives could possibly admit that but the internal logic of their arguments demand it. If it’s true, then we have a very difficult matter to think through.
The historical Caesar led the party of the people, i.e., in the context of that time, the lower orders or the “left.” That’s roughly analogous to what Steve Sailer calls our “Coalition of the Fringes.” Our “right” is the historic American majority, and those who self-identify with its interests and/or desire to be a part of it. This division is not nearly so neat as optimati v. populari in ancient Rome, as (for instance) the richest Americans tend to be on our “left” while our “right” tends to be significantly poorer than the blue city upper middle class and also rejects many tenets of “conservative” policy orthodoxy. No wonder conservative pundits have had such a hard time understanding what is going on. Although if they spent any time studying history, they might recognize that such patterns are rarely neat. Even in Rome, many nominal patricians were by the time of the Civil Wars dirt poor, many of the leading optimati were homines novi, and Ceasar himself was an equestrian.
At any rate, the point here is that just because the “left” “won” and claimed the curile chair for itself that time, that doesn’t mean it will always do so. Even though the cycle of regimes, on the downslope, shifts inexorably leftward, a left-wing Caesar is not inevitable. The optimate Sulla, after all, won the first round and later relinquished power in a surprising act of forbearance. Caesar defeated Pompey only because of the latter’s foolishness at Pharsalus. Like the Battle of Waterloo, that was a near-run thing and could have gone either way.
All of this is to say: if we must have Caesar, who do you want him to be? One of theirs? Or one of yours (ours)? We may return to this dismal theme later. But for now, let us leave it covered with the veil by which it is justly covered.
For things may not have sunk quite so far just quite yet. Despite all of America’s wretched fractures and self-inflicted wounds, there is still—we believe, for now—an American majority broadly united by American interests. We caused immeasurable harm to our country via post-1965 mass immigration and the strip-mining of our industrial base. Those who say “we can never go back” are certainly right, but their insistence on continuing “forward” is perverse. Trump is the first major political to come along and say “Let’s stop digging!”
We doubt that America will ever be able to assimilate the current plethora of immigrants to the same admirable extent that we assimilated the giant Ellis Island cohort. But we can surely do better than we’re doing now. And even to try will require Trump’s wall and much else. So let’s get on with it.
Similarly, we’re fairly confident—for myriad reasons—that America’s manufacturing sectors will never return to their full mid-20th century glory. But the recent “insourcing” trend has proved that Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound” need not always and forever suck only in an outwardly direction. So why not adopt industrial policies that further this salutary, pro-American trend?
And the two go together. Getting control of immigration and setting sound industrial policy will, together, improve the economic prospects of the lower half of our workforce to a greater extent than either would in isolation. This will in turn at least partially unify their currently disparate interests. Common economic interests can serve as the foundation for common cultural and political interests. The result—someday—may not be exactly an idealized Concordia. But it would be much better than what we have now—and much, much, much better than the future we’ll devolve to if we don’t radically change course.
Just because we can’t time travel back to 1965 doesn’t mean we must continue to hurtle toward a 2065 in which America is third-rate and Third World—and no longer meaningfully American, culturally, nationally or in its principles.
The foregoing may be the most optimistic thing I will ever write. Don’t ask me if I believe it. I do, however, know this: none of it—none—is possible unless we can get control of the administrative state. Trump is the only candidate who offers even a glimmer of hope on that score. We at JAG have received friendly criticism along the lines of “What you say about the administrative state makes sense, but there’s no way in hell Trump consciously understands himself as acting toward that goal.”
OK. So what? Trump doesn’t have to have read Kojeve
to see that something is very wrong in American politics. That not only are majority interests ignored, the popular will is similarly and routinely thwarted. The people have repeatedly said “no” to more immigration, “no” to more free trade, and—after a brief post-9/11 enthusiasm—“no” to war without end or purpose in the Middle East. But the administrative state, as noted, will not allow itself to be driven in a direction it does not want to go.
It therefore must be broken. Only Trump has promised even to try. Not in those terms, to be sure. But he knows that the will of the people is not being heeded by our ostensibly “democratic” institutions. This is another point that Sullivan gets wrong. 2016 America is “democratic” only its late-republican cultural rot. It is certainly not “democratic” in the precise sense of “rule of the demos,” or the people—in the sense that popular will as expressed through votes controls the government. The government rather controls us. And it is certainly not “democratic” in the sense of offering “maximal freedom” or “full license to do ‘whatever one wants’,” as Sullivan claims. In an observation that should be remembered but mostly is not, Mark Steyn noted
almost seven years ago that:
At some point we will come to see that the developed world’s massive expansion of personal sexual liberty has provided a useful cover for the shrivelling of almost every other kind. Free speech, property rights, economic liberty and the right to self-defence are under continuous assault by Big Government. But who cares when Big Government lets you shag anything that moves and every city in North America hosts a grand parade to celebrate your right to do so?
“We,” collectively, have not quite yet reached this predicted point of recognition. Sullivan certainly hasn’t. He conflates one freedom—arguably the least important for human flourishing—with the whole of freedom and then blames freedom for our problems.
That’s not to say that all we need is more freedom—the go-to, knee-jerk response of every “conservative.” Different times pose different challenges that call for different remedies. Right now, what’s needed most is reassertion of the primacy of the political, of the people’s sovereignty, of their natural right to rule themselves over and against the wishes of the Davoisie and the dictates of the administrative state. That will probably require, for the time being at least, more control and less freedom in certain areas. It will certainly require more control over the borders, more control over our hiring and employment practices, and less economic freedom.
“Conservatives” may shriek. But those whose mission and hope are to conserve the actual American nation rather than policy abstractions will see the necessity. Similarly, we hope that those whose dearest wish is to conserve and restore the“abstract truth” at the heart of American principles
will also see the necessity. There is no saving America’s creed without saving America itself—the actual, physical America with its land and its people. When and if that is accomplished, and the grip of the administrative state smashed or weakened, we can get back to the project of expanding and restoring our other freedoms. But to focus on the latter now to the exclusion of the former is to fiddle while Rome burns.