Cleon, demagogue of Athens during the Peloponnesian War and the archetype of democratic demagogue feared by conservatives like Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle.
The following essay is a re-print of an op-ed I just wrote for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blogline.
Conservatives who plan to vote for Trump might want to consider for a moment just how much Trump violates the basic principles capital-C Conservatism cherishes: order; paced, digestible change; caution/pragmatism; stability and moderation in leadership; robust institutions. It is hard to imagine Burke, Buckley, Kirk, Disraeli, and other Conservatives reading Trump as anything other than the type of demagogue political philosophy has long warned can be spawned by democracies in tumult. Just go read Thucydides if you don’t believe me.
I say this one inclined to such Conservatism. I worked for the GOP on/off throughout the 1990s. I am hardly a liberal, even if I am an academic. But if you can’t see the demagogic potential in Trump – the likelihood that he’ll use the law to pursue his enemies or enrich his family; his demonization of out-groups; his belligerent, apocalyptic tone – then you just haven’t been paying attention. Trump just proved that there is a potential for something like authoritarian, maybe even fascist, politics in the US, and that should scare the hell out of all of us.
Ross Douthat and others have raised the notion of “pundit accountability.” At major turning points, or on crucial issues, commentators should make plain their preferences and predictions, and why. US presidential elections are obviously such a moment, and this one more than any in a very long time due to the nature of one of the candidates. It is a cliché to say every four years, that ‘we are living through the most important election of our lifetime,’ but this year it is genuinely true. Donald Trump is such a unique threat to American democracy, and he is so grossly unqualified for that office, that even outlets which normally do not endorse candidates have felt compelled to endorse Hillary Clinton, or rather reject Donald Trump. As Foreign Policy put it, “A Donald Trump presidency is among the greatest threats facing America, and the Republican standard-bearer is the worst major-party candidate in history.” In so many words, yes.
In short, this election is now a referendum on Trump, with status quo Clinton reduced to a bit part in the Orange One’s ongoing, sprawling psychodrama of a massively rigged election to deny him victory. Clinton is a fairly normal politician, with fairly typical taints of money-grubbing and abuse. The Bush administration too ‘lost’ emails (22 million), as did the Trump organization under subpoena, and just about everyone in Washington uses their access to feather their nest, an outcome of the nation’s sprawling, open lobbying culture and privately financed campaigns. This is not to excuse Clinton. Everyone would have preferred some cleaner and fresher candidate, like Obama in 2008, and the Clintons’ lust for power is as unnerving as it is relentless. (I voted against her husband twice.) But Trump is something quite different and far worse. Elsewhere I have argued that he is a normative threat to American democracy because of his authoritarian tendencies and apparent desire to change the Republican Party into something like the National Front. But even if he stays within the bounds of long-standing American democratic practice, he is still grossly unfit to govern as a practical matter:
Trump is woefully uninformed and disinterested, even worse than Sarah Palin, and more disturbingly, he has shown no inclination to learn or study-up as the campaign has progressed. He is just as intellectually soft now as he was 18 months ago: by his own admission, he scarcely reads and gets his information from ‘the shows;’ he has repeatedly made basic errors of understanding, regarding, for example, nuclear weapons; he showed up for the debates woefully under-prepared. Even a mildly engaged candidate would have picked up a lot of new information over the course of the campaign, with an ever-improving stump speech and presentation. Instead, Trump has gotten worse; he recently spoke of a global banker conspiracy to destroy American sovereignty, which sounds like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Trump is almost willfully foolish and ridiculous (which also suggests it may be an act).
So he would be something of an empty suit with advisors running most of his administration, fighting with each other and trying to be the last one to get his ear (just as it was with George W. Bush). Few serious people want to work for him either, compounding the questions of his intelligence with a staff of hacks who would make heckuva-job Brownie look qualified.
He is a serial liar, which would corrode almost everything he did as president, because no one would trust him or know if he genuinely stood behind his own policy pronouncements. He cannot stay on message, which means he would have huge trouble communicating with the public, much less serious people in American institutions: the meandering, undisciplined way he talks means he almost certainly does not have the mental focus to discipline himself to run something as complicated as the US government. One could see him walking out of cabinet meetings out of sheer boredom and just delegating the whole thing to Steve Bannon.
He is wildly unstable: it would be a risk to both Americans and foreigners to trust him with the awesome powers of the presidency. He is vindictive: he will almost certainly focus on using the powers of the government for his own personal purposes (chasing enemies), leaving actual policy-making to others.
He has no experience in government at all, and the ‘policy proposals’ on his web-site are thin and/or regurgitation of standard GOP talking points. He has no history of public-service or public spiritedness: he has used his charity to pay his bills, was caught openly lying about giving to veterans, and has exaggerated his charitable contributions for years. He has no experience or training in thinking about the ‘commonweal,’ as his bragging about not paying taxes shows.
He will almost certainly use his presidential authority to alter the law to enhance his family’s business interests like some banana republic where the president’s family cashes out: he has resisted putting his assets, post-victory, in a blind trust; he refuses to release his tax returns; he has used his campaign contributions to pay his own companies. He will likely direct government contracts to his own organization.
He is a sexual predator who may well face distracting law suits throughout his presidency. His language and behavior toward woman make him an appalling role model to young men in an era where the president is also a cultural celebrity.
He may be ‘low energy’ himself: he is older than Clinton, badly overweight, almost obese, exercises ‘as little as possible,’ eats terribly, woke up at 3 am to tweet in a rage, looked tired and petulant in the debates, and his doctor’s ‘health review’ was a joke.
He would face enormous opposition throughout the government and Washington: Congress, including now much of the GOP, loathes and fears him; his relationship with the press is terrible, and an increasing number of venues which normally do not endorse candidates, like The Atlantic or Foreign Policy, endorse Clinton out of sheer terror over a Trump presidency; Washington’s interest groups, lobbies, think-tanks, NGOs, etc. are nearly monolithic in their rejection of him. His ideas of executive leadership come from business, or rather the pseudo-business world of reality TV, where posturing, alpha-male CEOs bark ‘you’re fired’ with macho, slashing hand-motions, and so on. Government does not work that way at all: Trump has idea no to compromise, learn, or admit error, as his campaign shows.
In short, Trump is a demagogue straight out of Thucydides or Plato’s fears about democracy: an unstable, vindictive, lazy, short-tempered, self-aggrandizing, narcissistic megalomaniac. This is the closest the US has ever come to electing a Mussolini-figure, and it is terrifying.