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As the losing Trump campaign team extends this election season beyond its typical limits, by continuing to claim that the president has, in fact, won the 2020 election, one cannot help but notice how his conduct in office has threatened long-established and respected democratic norms.
Perhaps the most prominent recent account of the importance of such norms can be found in Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (2018). For them, the two most important norms that have long contributed to America’s relative political stability have been forbearance and restraint. Where modern liberal democracies have failed to cultivate and nurture these norms, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, they have drifted toward authoritarianism.
What kind of people choose to violate these norms? To answer this question, it is helpful to turn to the field of moral psychology – the study of what motivates people to make the choices they do – and to the work of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), one of the greatest moral psychologists to have written about politics.
Hobbes was keenly attuned to the political implications of moral psychology for reasons that will look familiar, in broad terms, to us today. Namely, he was attempting to understand a society that was fracturing apart, culminating in the bloody English Civil War that pitted Parliament against Crown and resulted with King Charles’s beheading in 1649.
British society in those times had undergone dramatic social, religious, and economic upheaval – with power slowly shifting from the traditional aristocrats to the increasingly wealthy and confident merchant class, who sought greater policy influence than was available under existing institutional structures.
Hobbes was therefore especially interested in what we might call the moral psychology of the rich. And his analysis might help explain why Donald Trump, in particular, might be especially tempted to ignore the “guardrails” of a modern liberal democracy, not least by failing to accept the legitimate results of a free and fair election.
According to Hobbes, “Of the passions that most frequently are the causes of crime, one is vainglory or a foolish overrating of their own worth, as if difference of worth were an effect of their wit or riches.” Rich people, Hobbes observes, assume “that the punishments ordained by the laws and extended generally to all subjects ought not to be inflicted on them with the same riguour they are inflicted on poor, obscure, and simple men, comprehended under the name of vulgar.” As a result, rich officeholders are naturally inclined to commit crimes, “upon hope of escaping punishment by corrupting public justice or obtaining pardon by money or other rewards.”
As the famous New York City hotelier and proud tax scofflaw Leona Helmsley once put it, “only the little people pay taxes.”
According to this principle of Hobbesian moral psychology, the president’s wealth and status have placed him, at least in his own mind, above the rules. He does not fear the consequences of violating the rules as ordinary citizens might, presumably because over the course of his long life the rules have rarely applied to him.
As Hobbes would elaborate in his On Man, “for dispositions are frequently made more proud by riches and civil power, for those who can do more demand that they be allowed more, that is, they are more inclined to cause injuries, and they are more unsuited for entering into a society of equitable law with those who can do less.”
In other words, don’t count on powerful rich people to obey any laws that threaten to inconvenience them.
While Hobbes’s language and context may render him remote to some readers, recall it was less than a decade ago that a Texas court accepted the argument that “affluenza” – a putative disability suffered by the children of the rich – mitigated the legal responsibilities of a very wealthy teenager who recklessly killed three victims while driving drunk.
If we combine the insights of Hobbes with the Texas court’s reasoning, we can speculate that Trump’s disregard for the democratic norms outlined by scholars like Livitsky and Ziblatt is merely a symptom of his own special case of “affluenza,” a deep conviction that the rules should never apply to someone as rich and powerful as himself. The consequences of this disregard, from his perspective, is utterly beside the point.
David Lay Williams is Professor of Political Science at DePaul University. He is presently writing “The Greatest of All Plagues”: Economic Inequality in Western Political Thought (under contract with Princeton University Press), which includes a chapter on Thomas Hobbes’s treatment of wealth, poverty, and inequality.
3 thoughts on “What Hobbes Can Teach Us About Trump’s Lawless Reign”
Was there really such a thing as British society so long before the Act of Union as the 1640s?
Please correct the birth and death years of Thomas Hobbes mentioned in the article.
Yes, good point. It was actually 1588 – 1679, a pretty good life-span but not quite a long as the dates you gave him!