In my last piece for Public Seminar, I argued that the best reading for our political times of Plato’s presentation of the tyrant who emerges from “extreme democracy” rests not in thinking of Trump as a tyrant. Instead we should be alert to what Plato would have us understand about the kind of regime (politeia) each of us should nourish in our own soul. All the same, there are good reasons to reflect on President Trump’s style of leadership — the archetype with which he most aligns — and how we, as democratic citizens, ought to respond. It is my contention that the archetype is neither the tyrant nor the Fascist. Trump is a demagogue — but how do we know this, and how does this knowledge direct our response?
In order to see which archetype most closely fits the public persona of candidate and now President Trump, it is helpful to look at historical figures with whom these types are traditionally associated. In an analysis of Trump the candidate published by the Washington Post last February in advance of the “Super Tuesday” primaries, Michael Signer carried out just this sort of comparative analysis by identifying the ways in which Trump was acting like demagogues of the past. A closer look at some of the figures Signer names in his historical review allows us to situate President Trump with more precision. Most telling here is the parallel Signer draws between Trump and Cleon, made through intermediary figures — other “American Cleons” so to say — such as Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy. Cleon, briefly, was the paradigmatic demagogue for classical authors, and a crucial figure for Thucydides in demonstrating and explaining the decline of Athens after the death of Pericles and over the course of the disastrous war fought against Sparta and its allies in his retelling of the Peloponnesian War.
What is most significant about this Athenian demagogue, at least as far as Thucydides’ retelling goes, is the brutality and unapologetic crudity with which Cleon operated and that his policy prescriptions consistently displayed. Most striking among these is his advocacy of the murder of the entire adult male population of Mytilene and the enslavement of its women and children as punishment for their rebellion against Athenian hegemony.
Thucydides records Cleon’s policy speeches or, as the author describes his method, provides a record of “what the situation demanded be said.” According to Thucydides, the Athenians accept Cleon’s policy prescriptions one day and reject them the next, which Thucydides understands as indicative of the extent to which Athenian democracy has been corrupted after the death of Pericles and the general failure of Athenian citizens to maintain a proper sense of right and interest that good governance demands. Such sense is to be associated with the aristocratic virtue of phronesis, perhaps best translated as practical judgment.
As Signer notes in indexing Trump against Cleon, a key element of Thucydides’ “breakdown hypothesis” is the way in which the demagogue manipulates the people’s passions precisely by telling their democratic followers that they should not be moved by their passions. In Cleon’s case, we see this in the way he tells the Athenians that in pursuing this cruel policy of ultimate (death) and universal (for every adult male) punishment for the Mytilenians they would be coolly and rationally pursuing their interests in justice, and rightly — with phronesis — avoiding sentimentalizing the situation with feelings of guilt or pity for their future victims. He does so, of course, while actually stirring them into a bloodthirsty frenzy that is anything but an act of phronesis, let alone justice. Here the figure of Cleon presents for comparative analysis the defining characteristic of the demagogue: the political figure who succeeds by appealing to people’s passions precisely by flattering them into believing that they are cool, collected rational agents who are intelligently pursuing their best interests while ignoring the “emotional nonsense” of the demagogue’s competitors in the democratic space. Those competitors are usually painted as elitists who “sucker” the good people by playing with their emotions in order to achieve the limited, special interests of the elite against the general interest of the people. Think for instance of the famous moment after the Nevada Caucuses in which then candidate Trump said he “loves the poorly educated” because they are more intelligent. This is a classic Cleon move: I, unlike the elitists, recognize the supreme rational authority of the “poorly educated” who “know better” than the soft, effeminate elites.
This is where, I believe, we see the key difference between the demagogue and the tyrant and the Fascist. The demagogue understands himself (and it is, traditionally, a masculine and masculinist self — though Marine Le Pen is challenging this today) and presents himself as a democratic actor aligned with the people on whose behalf he is acting in order to return the democratic institutions to the people and their own rational, real interests. On the contrary, the tyrant and the Fascist expressly put themselves in contest with democracy and democratic institutions. Hitler, for instance, consistently expressed his disdain for democratic institutions and Mussolini’s political rhetoric was fundamentally populist and nationalist but anti-republican. This does not make the demagogue less dangerous or less distasteful for limited government and for republican principles, but it does mean that we are making a mistake if we believe that President Trump is, or wishes to be, a tyrant or a Fascist/totalitarian leader. Rather, like the “American Cleons” such as Long and McCarthy, he is an expressly populist and anti-elitist leader who wraps himself in democratic garb. So far this position would also describe Eugene Debs, William Jennings Bryan or Bernie Sanders. But what secures President Trump demagogue status is that he also pursues a policy that willfully distorts the rational interests of the people and flatters them for their rational acuity in believing such a distortion.
And here we come to why it matters that we engage with President Trump as the demagogue he is and not as a tyrant or a Fascist.
To resist the policies and the strategy of the demagogue requires a different response than resisting a tyrant or a Fascist. Here it is helpful to bear in mind our other great classical source for the details of Cleon’s career: Aristophanes in his Knights. Aristophanes, in composing and performing this play in 424 BCE when Cleon was at the height of his power, was providing a model of such resistance. The precise point of the caricature of Cleon in this play — in addition to being funny and successful of course — was to manipulate his audience’s emotions in order to prompt them to recognize that Cleon was manipulating their emotions. This is the kind of response we need today. A response that unapologetically appeals to the emotions of democratic citizens as democratic citizens and our innate sense we are all equal participants in the exercise of public reason — and anyone who pretends otherwise needs, like an Athenian Knight, to be knocked down off his horse. This is the kind of response we see, for instance, in Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of Sean Spicer or Alec Baldwin’s Trump. It is crude and it is over obvious; yet it is also brave and necessary. The demagogue and his coterie cloak themselves in the majesty of democratic governance in order to appeal to what is base. In response, we need cultural expressions that cloak themselves in what is base in order to appeal to what is still majestic in our democratic aspirations.
Let us, in short, not mistake Cleon for Creon — the antihero of Sophocles’ Antigone, who truly was a tyrant. And let us not emulate the erudite Sophocles, whose tragedy about Creon’s tyrannical and ultimately homicidal response to the divine justice embodied by his own niece’s burial of her brother so high-mindedly displays the terribly destructive power of human law run amok. Instead let us take as our model for response the crude Aristophanes, whose “brutish” comedies responded to the events of the day with the coarsest tricks of physical comedy and wordplay that nevertheless served very high-minded purposes.