September 23, 2019

Plato’s advice for the Trump years: Find God

Even more alarming than the rise of an intemperate real estate tycoon/reality TV star to our nation’s highest office has been the blunt realization that our democracy is fragile.

“Even democracy ruins itself by excess,” Will Durant writes in his book “The Story of Philosophy,” in the chapter summarizing Plato.

“Its basic principle is the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy … at first glance, a delightful arrangement; [but] it becomes disastrous because the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses.”

Ring a bell?

Over the past several months, at least half the country probably has felt like we’ve been locked in a theater, forced to watch a political horror film. In this terrifying plot line, our established form of social organization — our hero, Democracy — has been threatened and undermined by a number of dark forces that seek its destruction, including, but not limited to, its future leader — The President.

If you doubt this, allow me to offer a few examples:

The first shock to the system came when a man, described by Atlantic magazine as “a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar” ran a successful campaign for president by pandering to white nationalists, inciting violence against his political opponent, praising authoritarian leaders, scapegoating minorities and immigrants, and maligning the country’s free press — a democratic institution if there ever were one — as the “crooked, dishonest media.” (How ironic that the progenitor of the decade’s biggest fake news story — that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States — is now inveighing against the dangers of fake news.) 

Next came the revelation that although this man triumphed in the broken system of the Electoral College, he lost the popular vote by one of the widest margins in American history. But it didn’t matter; he got the votes he needed where he needed them, and the rest will literally be history. 

“As to the people,” Plato writes, “they have no understanding, and only repeat what their rulers are pleased to tell them.” 

“To get a doctrine accepted or rejected,” Durant writes, paraphrasing Plato, “it is only necessary to have it praised or ridiculed in a popular play.” 

Between his ratings-winning reality TV antics and his vastly entertaining tweets (the only play I imagine Trump is capable of writing), we have seen him sell his policies, insult his critics and rile his base. He has made clear he speaks only to the PEOPLE. But as Durant reminds us, “Mob rule is a rough sea for the ship of state to ride; every wind of oratory stirs up the waters and deflects the course.” The outcome of this governing style is tyranny or autocracy, Plato teaches, because the masses so crave attention and affirmation, “that at last,” Durant writes, “the wiliest and most unscrupulous flatterer, calling himself the ‘protector of the people,’ rises to supreme power.” 

Thus the crumbling of democracy begins.

After winning the election, President-elect Donald Trump suggested the future direction of our country by assembling a government bent on certain destructions. So far, he has appointed a number of leaders who advocate dismantling the public school system, the Environmental Protection Agency and the government itself. His chief strategist and senior counselor, Steve Bannon, has described his vision for the future in the most dystopian terms: “I want to bring everything crashing down,” Bannon said in 2013. “And destroy all of today’s establishment.”

It follows then, that the country’s first (albeit deeply flawed) effort at socialized health care would come under threat, with the new president and his Congress promising to repeal legislation that will leave 18 million Americans uninsured. 

There also is Trump’s lack of reverence for the cumulative achievements that enabled his own, and for the sacrifices those before him made to Make America Great. Yes, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) insulted Trump by calling him “illegitimate,” probably not different from how Plato might describe him. But to not acknowledge Lewis’ contribution to the civil rights movement is irresponsible and dangerous. If the head of the country doesn’t acknowledge the sacrifices of its leaders, it not only discourages future sacrifice but dispirits the body politic that admires those leaders. Democracies raise their heroes; a government by the people means crediting all of those who help build it. Placing personal insult above the communal good is the self-serving work of an autocrat and undemocratic.

For the next four years, as at least some of the ideals, principles and foundations of our democracy unravel, many of us will live with the constant thrum of fear. Democracy requires the belief that a nation’s interests are in common; if the citizenry is vehemently divided, the upshot is civil war. 

What we need now is something that inspires hope, commitment and sacrifice; which offers comfort to the afflicted and courage to the faint of heart; the only thing that can humble kings reveling in their power and glory; the thing Plato considered an absolute prerequisite for every strong nation: We need God.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.