Earlier this week, and in advance of the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, Andrew Sullivan produced a video for BBC Newsnight, detailing how the election campaign and Trump’s success reminded him of Socrates’ account of the rise of a tyrannical regime in the eighth book of Plato’s Republic. The video has made it into pretty heavy circulation, and as someone who has taught this particular text in part or whole just about every year since the inauguration of President Bush (43, not 41 — I’m not that old yet) I’ve been asked by a more than a few people “How accurate is Sullivan’s presentation?” and “Can we or ought we derive a different lesson from Socrates’s analysis?” This post is my reply to those questions.

Sullivan does not sufficiently stress a key component of the analysis offered by Plato: that the nature of the regime that rules the city relates to the nature of the “soul” inside each individual citizen. When we bring that component back in, I think, we can see why Trump is not the tyrant-in-waiting Sullivan sees him as, and more importantly, why we as democratic citizens are not (yet) the kind of individuals who would be sucked into that death spiral of growing tyranny.

First, how accurate is Sullivan’s portrayal? Sullivan’s picture of the would-be tyrant as Socrates paints it, in correlation with a picture of the “political milieu” of the city and citizenry in which that would-be tyrant thrives, is very accurate: freedom “to do whatever one pleases,” prizing equality above all else, kids ruling their parents and teachers fearing their pupils. The key conclusion in the text is that: “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy… — the greatest and most savage slavery out of the extreme of freedom.”

There is one important respect, though, in which Sullivan’s video seems inaccurate in retelling Socrates’s tale. He doesn’t say anything about “the drone,” a kind of a social insect/instinct that buzzes and spins around the soul of the youth brought up under the conditions of “extreme” democracy, where freedom becomes license and the equality that is prized is specifically the equality of desires. The drone stirs up a frenzy in the democratic citizen such that the very lowest desires, the ones for food, drink and sex, which Sullivan does call attention to in the video, come to be held as the very highest goods, first, for each individual citizen and, secondarily, for the would-be tyrant. In one of the most memorable images of the dialogue, Socrates describes how these desires come to rule “in the acropolis of [the youth’s] soul.” So while Sullivan gives us the impression that what matters is that the would-be tyrant (perhaps Trump, the video is saying) is ruled by the base desires, the key point in the dialogue is that each young person in the “extreme” (or “late” or “decaying”) democracy is ruled this way as well.

This point is so crucial that I would even say that this is the lesson of the Republic as a whole. The discussion Sullivan points to, then, is not so much about how a Trump can happen, as it is about how each of us living under the condition of democracy must guard “the acropolis of our soul” from its invasion and occupation by the worst — the “unnecessary” — desires.[1]

In other words, Sullivan seems right to bring us back to the “cycle of regimes” passage of the Republic in light of current events. But Trump is not the main story.[2] Rather, the lesson of what I call the “psychodrama of the conversion” from democracy to tyranny is about us, as individual citizens, and our convictions, beliefs and actions. Socrates does want us to think about the work we can do to minimize injustice in the city, but more importantly our attention is called to the task each of us has in choosing a life worth living for ourselves. The discussion of the regimes in the city is for the sake of showing his young charges — Socrates is more like their father or their coach than their “friend” as Sullivan has it — not just “that justice is stronger than injustice,” but also “what each in itself does to the one who has it that makes the one [justice] good and the other [injustice] bad.”

Sullivan has done us a tremendous favor by reminding us of the danger of an unlimited extension of the democratic impulse, especially in its majoritarian aspect. But he’s missed the psychodrama that is the true focus of the passage he refers to in the Republic. We should think about the connection between our moral psychology and the ruling powers in our societies, about how that applies to the American and the “liberal democratic” order of the past decades, and then lastly about the election of Trump, the success of Brexit, the rule of Viktor Orban in Hungary, and rise of the AfD (Alternative for Germany party), among other events. That, rather than hand-wringing about Trump’s populism and the way he and others vilify “the elite” or “the establishment,” is what stands the best chance of preserving our souls as citizens living under the conditions of (limited) democracy.

Our question is: how can I rule myself by means of that which is best in me? If we attend, every day, to this question, in concert and conversation with others, Socrates tells us, then we needn’t fear the rise of the tyrant — both because the conditions of a tyrant’s success likely won’t congeal and because, if they should, the worst has no chance to destroy what is best.


[1] Socrates offers a three-part analysis, where you have “necessary” and “unnecessary” desires, the latter of which divide into two kinds. Necessary desires would be the normal desires to survive and reproduce, which are healthy enough. It’s the unnecessary desires that are really dangerous; they are either “hostile to law” but can be checked by laws or mores, or they bring one to “dare to do everything” possible with food, drink, and other bodies. It is that last kind that brings about tyranny, first and foremost in the soul of the corrupted democrat who has come to feel an “enforced equality” of all pleasures and desires, such that the pleasures of conversation (or doing mathematics) are no better or worse than, well, ANYTHING.

[2] Nor does Trump fit the image of Socrates’s “would-be tyrant,” who instead would more closely resemble Alcibiades, a leading and complicated figure in the Athens of Plato’s youth, who has long been posited as the historical inspiration for the account.