Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, 2018

by Elias Blum

Trump is what the ancients would have called a ‘tyrant’.

We associate tyranny with harsh and repressive rule, but the origins of the word in classical political thought were more nuanced than that. The tyrant is not necessarily a harsh or authoritarian ruler, but a corrupted populist who debases the republic and treats it as if it were his own personal fiefdom.

Tyrants come to power through popularity, and usually sustain themselves in office by winning elections – although often with a fair amount of corruption, nepotism and deceit.

Tyrants claim to rule on behalf of ordinary people, but it is a sham; they rule, in fact, to serve their own personal interests and those of their corrupt little clique.

Tyrants see law not as a heavy club beat people down, but as a subtle, pliable instrument, which can be bent, twisted and selectively applied; law under a tyrant does not necessarily become more harsh, but it loses its impartiality.

Above all, tyrants do not rule by force or fear, but by an appeal to the passions – they are persuaders, communicators, and masters of the sort of vile-lipped sophistry that Plato attacked in Gorgias. Trump is not alone in this.  There are others, too, in other countries closer to home. But, in the English-speaking world, Trump is the virtuoso.

It’s not that Trump merely lies; if he did, we would be called out on it, and would never have been electable. No, he does something far more diabolical: he makes the boundary between truth and untruth appear to disappear. He spins a web of words so dense, so impenetrable, so entangling, that you are caught and devoured before you even know it. All you will remember of Trump in years to come is that he’s a ‘very stable genius’, who beat ‘crooked Hillary’ and ‘low energy’ Bush. He’s a master manipulator of the message, medium and mind.

That should worry anyone who cares about genuine democracy: a democracy not dependent on the popularity of particular persons, but embedded in stable institutions and in fair rules fairly applied; a democracy conducted with decorum, in which we have regard for truth; a democracy with a sense of responsibility, where we seek to reason together through moral argument and to discern and achieve common goods, rather than serving selfish, partisan or short-term interests.

I’m tempted to say, ‘against fake news, Good News’, but that’s probably a bit too simplistic.