Andrew Sullivan on Trump and Tyranny: A Response

Andrew Sullivan, having retired from blogging and writing after first giving us the idea of same sex marriage and then being lambasted by his followers for wanting to be tolerant to their enemies who lost over that particular issue, has returned to the public square, inspired by Donald Trump.  His long essay in New York magazine recently was entitled the rather inflammatory “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny.”  In it he shows his familiarity with both the Republic by Plato and The True Believer by Eric Hoffer.  I have read Hoffer, but I have not read Plato in the original.  [If I were doing my college years over again, I’d do something like St. John’s or Thomas Aquinas.]  Anyhow, Sullivan sums up Plato’s ideas of late democracy thus:

And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become.  Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread.  Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”

This rainbow-flag polity, Plato argues, is, for many people, the fairest of regimes…… But it is inherently unstable.  As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending.  And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy.  There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.

The very rich come under attack, as inequality becomes increasingly intolerable.  Patriarchy is also dismantled:  “We almost forgot to mention the extent of the law of equality and of freedom in the relations of women with men and men with women.” Family hierarchies are inverted: “A father habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents.”  In classrooms, “as the teacher….  is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.”  Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in. The foreigner is equal to the citizen.

And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.

He is usually of the elites but has a nature in tune with the time–given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion.  He makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt.  If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further.  He is a traitor to his class – and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee.  Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence….. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.

Sullivan argues that American democracy is not as dominated by the donorcrats and the plutocrats as we thought, and that it is actually stronger:

Many contend, of course, that American democracy is actually in retreat, close to being destroyed by the vastly more unequal economy of the last quarter-century and the ability of the very rich to purchase political influence.  This is Bernie Sanders’ core critique.  But the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultrarich has been mostly a dud….  Sanders, who is sustaining his campaign all the way to California on the backs of small donors and large crowds, is, to put it bluntly, a walking refutation of his own argument.

OK, at the presidential level.  But as I have argued before, in a media world Washington DC is the closest to the people, and City Hall the farthest.  And the Senate is elected from the states, so it is as close to the people as the state capitals, which are farther than Washington; and Representatives are elected by district, which puts them even farther away from the media scrutiny of the people.  And state legislatures are elected by smaller districts within the states, which makes them more remote from public attention than the governors, who are elected statewide.  The more local, I contend, and yes I know this turns whole ideologies on their head, the stronger ‘crony capitalists’ become.  At city hall, mercifully, you have two contending elements; the local business elites and the NIMBY homeowner activists.  Fortunately for us all, they usually fight each other.  I will argue in a future post that NIMBY community activists are often more motivated by fear of the unknown and devotion to the present order than property values as such [particularly when the NIMBYs are renters!] but where they are homeowners, and where they actually do benefit in the values of their huge illiquid assets from the things they propose, well, they’re crony capitalists of a different sort.

I am no enthusiast for Trump becoming president.  I will vote for Sanders or Gary Johnson – William Weld rather than for him.  I expect Hillary to be our next president, like it or not.  If Trump does win and become president, however, I don’t think he will be any more successful in ending our democracy than Obama was. Obama was about stretching the limits of the presidency and the bureaucracy as far as he could stretch them, and he got some excesses but we did not become a complete dictatorship by any means.   Trump will be no more successful.  If he does win the presidency, an anti-Trump coalition or party [it may be under a whole different name than the ‘Democratic Party’ by that time] will capture control of Congress in November 2018, and we will return to our normal state of gridlock and stasis in Washington.

If there is a path to authoritarianism in America, it does not run through the White House.  I think there are several major problems, however, which can push us in the direction of a soft authoritarianism.

  1. At Blue Kennel we have liked to quote Francis Schaeffer from 45 years ago, when he frequently said and wrote that the ‘majority’ within the Silent Majority had only two ultimate values; affluence and personal peace.  Moral character and freedoms outside these two values were secondary, and Schaeffer thought that people might trade other freedoms and limits on government for these two values.  And he thought that the younger generation [my generation, now the older one] was coming around to a similar attitude.  [I think many of them put the newer sexual freedoms under the category of ‘personal peace’ and defend them for that reason.]  And, admittedly at a time when the affluence of the working class is decreasing [not sure how their ‘personal peace’ is] they are looking for someone to blame, and are willing to sacrifice other values.  I have the vice of surfing comment threads, and I see plenty of people who imagine that when all the ‘illegal aliens’ are rooted out of Southern California, it will be again the Earthly Paradise.  I tend to doubt that, myself.
  1. Related, and probably the same thing ultimately, is the craze for ‘freedom from speech’ which we have discussed here on Blue Kennel, and the general desire for ‘freedom from’ which so often is more important than ‘freedom to’.  Many young college students today desire ‘freedom from’ speech that makes them uncomfortable in any way, just as their parents may have wanted to control the land uses of their neighbors so that they could have ‘freedom from’ uncomfortable and strange things.  We are trying to promote a bill against asset forfeiture in California.  We get Republican resistance, partly because the police union action committee is well funded, but on emotional grounds many of the legislators came out of an era when ‘freedom from’ crime was a more serious matter than ‘freedom from’ asset forfeiture.  And at the local level, a lot of the issues fought over are about land use, a favorite topic at Blue Kennel, and land use regulation is about ‘freedom from’ over ‘freedom to’.
  1. Another part of it may be, it occurs to me, that things that have to be explained are more difficult for a democracy to understand.  I’m not going to explain to you here what ‘asset forfeiture’ is.  If you don’t know, look it up.  But everyone knows what crime is.  So Police are Good, even when they aren’t.
  1. I think I posted some time ago on the nature of public trust and that the people trusted elected officials less than they trusted unelected ones. And elected legislatures have indeed handed a good deal of their power to unelected agencies.  A couple of years ago we had a fight over whether bonfire rings should be kept on local beaches.  Two administrative agencies, the Air Quality Management District and the Coastal Commission, were fighting each other!  Neither of these agencies are elected.  We are fortunate in this country that unelected officials and unelected persons with authority do not often take bribes, but the unfortunate side of that is that the public puts a higher trust in their judgment than they do in the judgment of people they do elect.  Whatever this attitude is, it does not lead to a sustainable democracy.
  1. The judiciary is, by its very nature, not very democratic.  At the federal level, the judges are appointed, and they often read the desires of elites into the Constitution, which is what the Supreme Court says it is.  Admittedly in the case of Obergefell, public or democratic opinion was ready to validate that decision in a number of states; but the idea of same sex marriage, for example, caught on among the elites.  At the state and local level, judges are actually elected in many states; but the very fact of their localness puts them farther away from the public eye, and furthermore they don’t campaign on ideological grounds but on the grounds of character and personality.  This makes it hard for the public-at-large to know the character and qualifications of judicial candidates, and strengthens the influence of local donorates over them.

So I do see a lot of trends toward increasing authoritarianism in this country.  As I quoted Aldous Huxley in another post, we compensate for it by expanding sexual freedom [and I would add the ‘freedom’ of abortion and doctor-assisted suicide and other beginning and end-of-life issues], which I called the Last Freedom, as a compensation.  But I don’t think the Presidency will be the seat of an authoritarian dictator anytime soon.

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