There’s an insightful article in New York Magazine that discusses how Plato in his “Republic” outlined thousands of years ago how democracies die.
In Plato’s writings there is an eerie echo of the moment our own American society finds itself in right now — an era of entitlement, of increasing disdain for inequality, of insistence on personal liberties with no tolerance for the liberties of others, of despising the elite, of destroying patriarchy, of contempt for authority, of no shame. Parents fear their children, teachers fear their students, students mock their teachers, foreigners are treated the same as citizens.
For Plato, this all leads inevitably to one result: tyranny.
The ancient philosopher describes the tyrant as someone, most likely a member of the elite himself, who seizes the moment by capturing the spirit of the times. He commands the loyalty of a large mob because he speaks against other elites, who in turn try but fail to stop him. He presents himself as the solution to the excesses of the age, while himself indulging in every sort of pleasure and privilege that the morally bankrupt democracy has to offer. He is the manifestation of the hopes and whims of the mob.
Sound like anyone on the national stage right now?
It sounds a little like all three of the remaining viable candidates — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump — in some respects.
But Clinton and Sanders ultimately are catering to weakness, to envy, to helplessness, to the people who want to be perpetual children taken care of by a government mommy and daddy.
Trump, on the other hand, is the giant striding across the landscape. While he, like Clinton and Sanders, condemns the elite, he alone is seen as actively fighting them. And along with the elite, he condemns the weak, the criminal, the terminally helpless, the leeches on society that constitute his opponents’ base.
Plato is useful in understanding the danger of this moment we find our country in, but to understand Trump and why he likely will triumph in the end, we should look to another philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, and his writings about the Ubermensch, or Superman.
Nietzsche despised the “slave morality” of Christianity. His attitude came from his analysis of history. In Nietzsche’s view, as spelled out in “On the Genealogy of Morals,” modern concepts of good and evil arise out of resentment of the weak for the strong, and actually represent an inversion of the original categories of good and bad.
He makes the case that originally, good was a concept applied to the nobility, and that it implied physical strength, an abundance of health and energy, and activities that served to promote those qualities like adventure, dancing, hunting and war. For Nietzsche, the original idea of good was embodied in “vigorous, free, joyful activity.”
But according to Nietzsche, the noble and powerful are also cruel without remorse, “triumphant monsters who perhaps emerge from a disgusting procession of murder, arson, rape, and torture, exhilarated and undisturbed of soul, as if it were no more than a students’ prank, convinced they have provided the poets with a lot more material for song and praise.”
In the Nietzschean view, this ancient concept of good was suppressed and inverted by the “slave morality” of Christianity, which the philosopher sees as extolling weakness as virtue. This honoring of weakness leads eventually to a societal breakdown, similar to what Plato described, and to nihilism, the idea that all values are relative and baseless. The true nihilist has no loyalty, no beliefs and no purpose, with the exception of destruction.
If this conjures images of the violent protesters we’ve seen politically this election season, it should. It’s easy to see parallels between Plato’s and Nietzsche’s analyses on that point.
Just as for Plato social conditions of late-stage democracies give rise to tyranny, so for Nietzsche the prevalence of nihilism in a society must give rise to the Ubermensch.
The Ubermensch returns to the old morality in which might is right, power is its own justification, and the “slave morality” is rejected. The Ubermensch, whom Nietzsche also called the Anti-Christ, is his own measure and makes his own rules. There is no outside, objective standard of morality or reason to which the Ubermensch is beholden. His justification rests only in action needed to achieve victory, however victory is defined.
Nietzsche somehow saw this as admirable. It’s been argued that he was speaking mostly in terms of art and artists, but an objective reading of his writings suggests otherwise. His concept of the Ubermensch has inspired all manner of villainy, and the embracing of the Ubermensch concept, by men like Hitler and Mussolini, didn’t work out well for most people.
Yet, here is Trump, and his character fits every description of the aspects of the Ubermensch. He is wealthy, powerful, elite and seemingly immune to attack. Every attempt to stop him that has relied upon reason or traditional morality has failed because the Ubermensch, and The Donald, is beyond those things and rejects them.
While flouting Christian behavior (with divorces, affairs, questionable business practices, a lavish lifestyle, and rumors of grossly self-indulgent behavior), he nonetheless wins the support of many Christians. While having supported liberal politics for years, he becomes the standard bearer for conservatism. While having hired illegal immigrants and supported the DREAM Act, he finds himself the champion of closing the border.
Other politicians share some or even all of Trump’s characteristics, but The Donald is the exemplar. At the Olympian table, he is Zeus hurling thunderbolts, and he promises to vanquish any titans who oppose him.
Once he wins the election, any expectations of Trump held by his supporters or his enemies are off the table because the Ubermensch is his own master.
His slogan is “Make America Great Again,” but in the end, Trump is about making Trump great.
Is America truly ready for that?