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Being a classicist has left me with two not always useful habits of mind: to measure new things against old texts, and to think about current events as part of what the French call the longue durée.  This means that I’m always asking whether what looks like a crisis of the moment isn’t in fact a symptom of a much larger, slower change–the headache in the body politic that turns out to be not just a hangover, but a brain tumor. So in the wake of Michael Wolff’s new bestseller I’ve been wondering about our peculiar President of the moment.  Is Donald Trump just a headache that will go away at the next election, or is he a symptom of something slower growing and more serious? I think he is, and that the diagnosis might be found in Aristotle.

In the Politics (book 3, chapter 7 = 1279a) Aristotle sets out to consider “how many forms of government there are, and what they are.” He goes on to speculate about the correct or characteristic shape of each, and then about their “perversions” (παρεκβάσεις).    This gives the following scheme:

Correct Form Perversion
Rule by One Kingship Tyranny
Rule by a Few Aristocracy Oligarchy
Rule by Many “Polity” (what we might call “democracy”) Democracy (really ochlocracy)


In the correct forms, whoever governs, whether one or few or many, governs in the common interest, “but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, of of the few, or of the many, are perversions.”  What Aristotle calls “polity,” πολιτεία—literally just “(form of) government”—happens “when the citizens at large administer the state for the common interest.”

The people who wrote our Constitution looked at Aristotle, filtered him through Polybius’ account of the government of the Roman Republic, and set up a “mixed constitution” with elements of all three forms: a monarchical President, an aristocratic Senate, and a House of Representatives answerable every two years to the people at large. In theory, these should check and balance one another and prevent perversions.  If a president threatens to become a tyrant, the aristocrats in the Senate can check him; if the Senate becomes merely a rich man’s club, the House can refuse to fund their follies; if the House seems to be letting mass sentiment override prudence and the common good, a wise President will refuse to allow their bills to become law, and so on.  Behind it all lie the sovereign People, who have their say at every election.

But could the Founders have foreseen that all three elements of the mixed constitution would become perverted at the same time? That a toxic brew of populism, income inequality, and a Tweet-mad president would push the common good off the agenda of government?  And that the sovereign people would have devolved into a mix of identities and tribes that make finding and agreeing on the common interest nearly impossible?  I don’t like Aristotle’s diagnosis, but it seems to fit the symptoms.

–Lee T. Pearcy

Addendum 1/7/18: Shortly after writing about Aristotle and the common interest, I came across this post from one of my favorite old-retired-academic-guy bloggers (who turns out to be also a transplanted Arkansawyer), John V. Fleming, on the tax bill:

In my opinion, a genuinely humble one, a large part of our dilemma is a failure to recognize a truth that Theodore Roosevelt stated as “the fact that in addition to, not as a substitute for, individual responsibility there is a collective responsibility.” How can it be that the greatest democracy the world has yet known—a nursery and proving ground of seemingly infinite industrial, intellectual, and artistic invention and innovation–has a legislature that simply doesn’t work?

What he said (in my also humble opinion).



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Cicero’s De Officiis (“Tully’s Offices,” as it used to be called) was a late addition to my summer reading.  I dipped into it thinking that a work written in 44 B.C. and called “On Obligations” (or, as Andrew Dyck suggests in his magnificent 1996 commentary, “On Appropriate Actions”) might have some relevance to a problem that I’m now thinking about, moral agency in the Aeneid.  I found in addition a book that is helping me think in a new way about some of our current political dynamics.

Writing as he did before Christianity and before Kant, Cicero assumes that being good—being just, honorable, or humane—is not solely a matter of the choices that we make as individuals.  Humans in his world are not autonomous agents acting on the basis of individual will and intellect.  For Cicero, our moral agency, and in fact our very humanity, is in part created by other people through our connections with them, and being good and human in turn depends on our participation in those connections:

But because, as has been brilliantly written by Plato, we are born not only for ourselves, but our country claims one share in our upbringing, and our friends claim another. Moreover, as the Stoics like to say, all things which the earth bears are created for the use of humans, but humans are created for the sake of humans, so that they themselves can be of benefit to one another. In this matter we ought to take nature as our guide, contribute our part to the common good, and by the exchange of obligations, by giving and receiving, now by arts, now by labor, now by talents, bind tight the social union of human with human. (De Officiis 1.7,22)

That takes me to a recent article in the Philadelphia papers (the Inquirer and Daily News, both owned by the same company, share a web site). Helen Ubinas writes about a controversy over signs–not semiotics or the feminist journal, but actual signs, which people have been putting in their yards.  We’ve all seen the “Hate Has No Home Here” signs, with a stars-and-striped heart and the same message in Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, and other languages used by immigrants to America.  They sprang up in the aftermath of President Trump’s first immigration order (or Muslim ban), and there are still a lot of them around, at least in my neighborhood.

It doesn’t take much political savvy to conclude that the people with HHNHH signs probably aren’t Trump supporters, and so a Republican commissioner in Springfield Township has come up with an alternative sign, which Ubinas calls “a not-so-subtle, right-leaning, middle finger directed at those inclusive messages”–meaning the HHNHH signs. The alternative or Republican sign reads, “Love Lives Here. Love of God, Family, Friends, Country, Community & the U.S. Constitution.”

I want to use Cicero to suggest that these two signs show why Republicans, despite their unfailing fondness for ignoring economic reality, slashing social services, making abortion illegal, and blundering into wars in the Middle East, still manage to get people to vote for them in numbers sufficient to control the current Congress and send an ignorant, vulgar, misogynist liar to the White House. The fact is, Republicans are better at framing their message in a way that appeals to voters, as George Lakoff has been arguing for almost 40 years. “Love Lives Here” will win more votes than “Hate Has No Home.”

For a person who agrees with Cicero that being a moral human being means being involved in communities, families, and networks of mutual obligations, “Love Lives Here” is a better sign than “Hate Has No Home.” Helen Ubinas valiantly tries to invoke the inclusivity trope by proclaiming HHNHH “inclusive” and suggesting that mentioning God somehow amounts to “cutting out people who might believe in someone or something else,” but that seems a counsel of desperation. Ignore the messages, implied or not, in the two signs and look at their vocabulary, syntax, and rhetoric. One sign features a negative sentence (“has no”) about hate. The other has an affirmative sentence about love. Both signs exploit alliteration, but one pants feebly (H … H …N… H…H…), like an out-of-shape jogger, while the other piles it on: three Ls, two Fs, and a concluding series of Cs. One doesn’t just hint at the interlocking communities that make up human life, but talks about them. Given a choice between family, friends, country, and community, and maybe even God on the one hand, and merely excluding hate on the other, which would you pick? I know which I would choose, and I think Cicero would agree.

–Lee T. Pearcy


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