In Plato’s Crito, the philosopher introduced the parent-child analogy. In this formulation, the state is to the subject as the parent is to the child: as the child must obey the parent, so must the subject obey the state. It is a highly structured and conservative analogy that has been used to support the basic rightness of state judgment. But it is based on a personal relationship — one comprised of individual influence, variability, and imperfection. And it has gained a particularly dysfunctional resonance in the current American political climate.
The parent-child analogy does not presume that the state leader acts as parent, but that the state itself does. There has always been some overlap between state and individual when it comes to acting as parent to the people. Many heads of state are described in fatherly terms. It is often a term used for those who cultivated a larger-than-life status; these include leaders from Stalin to Pinochet, from Nujoma to Yudhoyono. Egypt’s Sisi tells the people they are the “apple of his eye.” In the case of the current U.S. president, the personal continues to combine with the figurative. A National Review article published before Trump’s election cited various Americans who adopted him as a father figure. Former White House communications director Hope Hicks is said to have “loved him like a father.” Individuals from Michael Cohen to Kanye West to the MAGA bomber and many more have embraced this comparison. But as pater familias to the national family, with its diverse multitudes, the paternal comparison turns toxic.
In the wake of September 11, Frank Rich cast the national search for solace in familial terms: “When a nation is under siege, it wants someone to tell us what to do, to protect us from bullies, to tell us that everything’s O.K. and that it’s safe to go home now.” This sense of fatherly assurance has long appealed to American voters. When Barack Obama was elected, he had young children, and his actual fatherhood increased his popularity. A leader who replicates the conduct of an actual parent turns political life into something intimately familial. On the other hand, a leader who acts as a withholding, abusive, or divisive parent turns tribalism into something powerfully dysfunctional. A surprising number of Republican supporters have described and addressed the American president as a father figure, while opponents and resisters cast him as a toxic patriarch. Immigrants and minorities are excluded from the national family, while wealthy supporters are held close and given a generous (financial and legal) allowance. On social media, victims of the administration’s mistreatment rail against its spoiled favorites. Meanwhile, the favorites — and those who hope to become or identify with the favorites — unleash their derision on the president’s chosen scapegoats.
When Ibram Kendi described the president as being in an abusive relationship with America, he underscored what sort of political parenting is at work in America today. This state leader has millions of metaphorical children in the form of the American people. There are winners and losers, the selected and the excluded, the favored and the scapegoats. To be clear, the point of this paternal comparison is not to discuss how Trump has parented his actual children — although there too the favorites are bathed in self-absorption — nor to propose that he even sees himself as a national parent. It is instead to point out that the present political moment bears striking similarities to studied dynamics between narcissistic parents and their co-narcissistic children. It is also to propose that when a population in search of a father figure turns to a childish and abusive state leader for solace, the result is disintegration of the state.
In his Crito, Plato uses the parent-child analogy to cement the absolute rightness of state authority.
Now with regard to your father (or a master, if you happened to have one) justice was not equal for you, so that you didn’t also do in return whatever you suffered: you didn’t contradict him when he spoke badly of you, nor did you beat him in return when you were beaten, or do any other such thing. So is it then permitted to you to do so with regard to the fatherland and the laws?
Let’s unpack this analogy in the context of the Trump administration. Paternalism is about permanently governing or ruling a person in accordance with state law, while actual parenting is about forming an eventual adult and parent. Paternalism, that is, is about maintaining an adult in the (structural) position of child, whereas parenting prepares a child to outgrow the position of child. America is a young nation, and its political discourse has long replicated parent-child dynamics.
In present-day politics, there is constant slippage between the state and the father, and between voters and children. In a sense, American individualism — the inclination to tend one’s garden and take care of business regardless of circumstances — means that people tend to see the government as incidental. But it also means a populace less likely to rise up in protest and revolution. Dan Zak pointed out that we “can’t make any decisions, as a nation, without asking ourselves, “What would our Founding Fathers think?” Social media encourages childish sniping. When these conditions are combined with a state leader who knows no community, only enemies and allies, the result is a toxic family system on a national scale.
The standing presidential invitation to identify with the aggressor by uniting against scapegoats has turned America’s children against one another. Some compete for scarce and capricious parental approval, while others revolt and are met with venomous scolding. In many cases, the president is unambiguous about who the undesirables are. Women, minorities, immigrants of color, queer people, and the poor are driven out of the family reunion. Racism and misogyny are short cuts to what Adams calls the “Trump linguistic kill shot,” or denigration of opponents based on appearance. White men and women, on the other hand, even when they are poor, are invited to support (not actually join, but support) the winning team rather than the victims. It is telling that the example Plato uses is one of parental mistreatment, and that obedience in the face of mistreatment is cast as the gold standard for a functional state. That standard has become perverted in the present administration, for Trump’s figurative parenting combines the force of paternalism with the radical abdication of actual parental benevolence.
Weighing the justice of civil disobedience against the justice and necessity of state supremacy and respect for state order, Socrates poses the rhetorical question: “Does it seem possible to you for a city to continue to exist, and not to be overturned, in which the judgments that are reached have no strength, but are rendered ineffective and are corrupted by private men?” This question is directed to citizens, encouraging them to respect the state as they would their own fathers. There is however no provision for a national father who himself acts as the corrupted private man, shouting down criticism, retaliating against resistance. When the father abdicates the paternal role, encourages discord in the populace, and acts as a spoiled child — and when this happens in a populace in which many seek a strong and reassuring parent at the controls — then the result is an exhausted, demoralized, nihilistic, or obsequious population.
Living under a barrage of lies, gaslighting, and rage is exhausting. And much as the actual children of narcissists emerge with a weakened sense of themselves, so progressive Americans under this administration see the road out as narrow and treacherous. Treading gingerly so as not to alarm the center right is a common and comprehensible concern among Democratic strategists. But as anyone from a toxic household (or fascist regime) can attest, cautious movement — though understandable — does not really ensure protection. We need to disavow the present system and all its tentacles and consistently reclaim moral authority. Otherwise, America’s children risk continuing to live within an ever-deepening dysfunction.
Susanna Lee is Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Georgetown University, where she also directs the program in Comparative Literature. Her third book, Detectives in the Shadows: A Hard-Boiled History, is forthcoming with Johns Hopkins University Press in June 2020.