More than one recent commentator has noted presidential candidate Donald Trump’s similarities, both stylistic and substantive, to dictators of the past and present. It’s no surprise when Russia embraces a old-school strongman like Putin, but the popularity of Trump’s dictatorial swagger seems an odd fit with a freedom-loving country like America. But is it really? One person who wouldn’t have been surprised is ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who, in an eerily prescient passage from his classic dialog “The Republic“, detailed how easy it is for a democracy to come under the sway of a charismatic tyrant.
Book Nine: Lines 831-1031 (an original rendition adapted and abridged from the Jowett translation)
And democracy too has its own core virtue, the mad pursuit of which brings it to its own destruction… Freedom, which, as they tell you in a democracy, is the glory of the State –and a democracy therefore the only government under which a truly free man would ever choose to live… It is that single-minded obsession with freedom and the neglect of all else that creates the demand for tyranny.
When a democracy which is thirsting for liberty has evil men tending the bar, and getting her drunk on the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very indulgent in filling her cup, she calls them filthy rich and selfish bastards… Now, in such a State, can liberty have any limit?… By degrees the anarchy finds its way even into private homes, all the way down to the family pet.
What do you mean?
I mean that the father lowers himself to the level of his sons and fears them, and the son is on a level with his father, having no respect for either of his parents; and this is his freedom… In such a state of society the teacher fears and flatters his students, and the students despise their teachers; young and old are all alike; and the young man is on a level with the old, and is ready to face off against him in word or deed. Old men bow down to the young and are full of jokes and pranks; they are afraid to seem serious and authoritarian, and therefore they make fools of themselves imitating the young… No one who hasn’t seen it would believe it, how even the pets in a democracy are freer than in any other state! Every dog is as good as her mistress, and every donkey as free as his master. Even a horse will run you off the road as soon as look at you. Yes, all things are just bursting over with liberty!
Above all, see how sensitive the citizens become; allergic to even the scent of authority. Finally, they even ignore the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them. Such, my friend, is the beautiful and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny!
Glorious indeed. But what is the next step?
The same doom comes to democracy as to oligarchy –too much of any one thing causes an equal and opposite reaction. This is true not only in the weather and the seasons, and among the animals and vegetables, but above all, in forms of government. Too much freedom, whether for a nation or an individual, leads straight on to slavery… And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most extreme form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.
The common people have always some champion whom they adore and indulge… This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs. When he first pokes his head out above ground, he appears as the people’s “Protector.”… But how does a protector begin to change into a tyrant? It’s like the old fairy tale about the man who tasted human flesh, and turned into a wolf… And the people’s great protector is just the same. Once he has a mob on his side, he can’t be stopped from mayhem and murder. With false accusations he drags good people into court and disposes of them with the help of the law, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizen, he kills some and banishes others. All along the way, he promises the people he will abolish their debts and make them all rich.
After this, what can become of him? He must either die at the hands of his enemies, or make the full transition from human being to wolf. Soon he launches an outright assault on the rich. They drive him out, but back he comes. If they are unable to rid themselves of him by legitimate means, they begin to dream of assassination.
In return comes the famous request for a bodyguard, which is the common method of all those who have made it this far along the path to tyranny. “Let not the people’s friend,” they say, “be lost to them.” The people are quick to agree, they care more for him than for their own safety. The Protector’s enemies see which way the wind is blowing, and flee –if they are wise. If not, they stay and die.
Once they are gone, the Protector reveals himself in all his glory, not dead like a dog in the dust, but the conqueror of many, in the driver’s seat of the nation, no longer the protector, but a absolute tyrant indeed.
Note: Apparently I’m not the only one to draw this connection. If you are interested, here’s a wealth of variations on this same theme: