The 2,100-Year-Old Word for Trumpism

Don’t know “Ochlocracy”? Better learn it.

03.19.16 4:01 AM ET

Everyone’s grasping around for the best historical Trump analogies. Nazi Germany still seems a little over-the-top to most people, although it’s certainly no longer crazy, depending on how you use it. More people seem to feel a little more comfortable with Mussolini, which is an easier lift—he wasn’t nearly as evil, and like Trump, he was a buffoonish bloviator. You could picture Il Duce tweeting. And of course there are loads of other fascists out there.

But there’s another way to look at Trump historically. I don’t mean to suggest that he doesn’t deserve to have the f-bomb dropped on him. He’s earning it more and more each passing week. But it seems more accurate to say (at this point, anyway) that he’s less committed to destroying the principles of democracy, which a fascist is, than he is to perverting them to serve his demagogic ends. Welcome to—new word alert!—ochlocracy.

Don’t know what that means? Better learn it fast. It basically means mob rule. No different from mobocracy, I suppose, but as Trump himself would say, much, much classier!

This Greek historian named Polybius coined the word. “Ochlos” means multitude or throng, but it carries a pejorative whiff. The angry mob. Unwashed. Polybius came up with this theory he called anacyclosis, which was kind of an evolutionary theory of systems of government. His study of ancient Rome led him to conclude that the stages went like this: 1, monarchy; 2, tyranny; 3, aristocracy; 4, oligarchy; 5, democracy; 6, ochlocracy; and 7, back to monarchy.

Being the young nation that we are, we managed to our great relief to skip the first few stages. We started right in on stage 5. But can you honestly say that it doesn’t feel like Trump has us teetering there on the edge of 5, lurching toward 6? You bet it does.

Now you might ask. All right, doesn’t sound crazy, necessarily; but exactly how does a society make the lamentable jump? For this we look back to the 3rd century BCE and the very Rome that Polybius studied. The patricians and the plebeians had clashed for decades. It was a class struggle pure and simple. The elite patricians made the rules. The more numerous plebeians had to follow them. The patricians had the status and for the most part the money. Some plebeians were wealthy, too, but for the most part, the plebeians got hosed, and the patricians stiffed them where it counted. Anyway the plebeians finally got fed up. The dictator, Quintus Hortensius, I suppose because he could count, decided to take the plebeian side of the argument and decreed the Lex Hortensia, or Hortensian laws, which held that all resolutions passed by the plebeians had the force of law and didn’t have to be approved by the Senate. Get it? The lower orders got to call the shots now. This is where the word plebiscite comes from.

Does this not describe pretty perfectly what is happening in the Republican Party right now? The plebeians here are the working-class Republicans—you know, the “poorly educated!”—who’ve been voting for Republicans for four decades now because of God and guns but have been getting taken to the cleaners economically by a party that may sort of care about them on some level but that, when it attains power, actually executes actions only in behalf of the 1 percent; a party whose entire economic agenda is determined by the 1 percent. Or more likely the 0.1 percent. They’re the patricians who dictate Republican economic policy.

Well, the plebeians have finally risen up. It was bound to happen. Now, my sympathy for them is limited. Trump hooked them with the xenophobia and racism. Make no mistake. That’s the opioid here. Without it, Trump wouldn’t have gained altitude with these people, and that’s to their shame.

But xenophobia and racism aren’t all this is about. It’s also about economic rage. That’s why there’s a kind of crossover between some Trump and Bernie Sanders voters, some people out there who are deciding between the two of them. Sanders is Trump without the racism. Well, and a lot of the personal coarseness and human repugnance. But they’re the two candidates who are talking to struggling and angry white Americans.

So the plebeians are rising up against the patricians in the GOP, just like in ancient Rome, and the patricians are freaked out. This explains this insane Kevin Williamson outburst in the National Review about how these dumb, lazy crackers have only themselves to blame for their misery. Well, it has another explanation: As many have observed, writers and thinkers on the right have always blamed the poor people’s plight on their own moral failings; it’s just that up until now, they’ve only had black people in their sights. It’s only natural that once they fixed their gaze on white people, they’d come to the same conclusion.

But in the context I’m talking about, Williamson, and the NatRev more generally, which has been dyspeptically anti-Trump, are speaking for the patrician class. Now to be fair, there have been a few conservative writer-intellectuals who have been writing for years that the Republican Party had to do more for the plebeians than God and guns. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, notably. But of course their pleadings have fallen on completely deaf ears in their party—except, to some extent, with Trump, which must gall them but which is true.

So back to the question. How do we slide from stage 5 to stage 6? It might start with Trump and his followers forcing a change on the Republican National Committee. Suppose Trump comes up 50 delegates short when the voting is done. The universal assumption today is that in that case, the party will find a way to screw him.

But what if he finds a way to screw the party? I wouldn’t put it past him, and admit it, neither would you. The party has done nothing to stop him so far, so why should we think it will be able to do so this summer? If Trump were to succeed at such an effort, what with his threats of riots and such, then the Republican Party would just have changed its own rules to allow him to be the nominee. The plebeians will have struck a statutory blow against the patricians, just like in 287 BCE.

Of course, for us to really slip into ochlocracy, he’d have to win the presidency. Let’s hope that can’t happen. And then maybe President Clinton can say to the patrician Republicans: OK, boys, these furious people you’ve been feeding shit sandwiches to for all these years while you get their votes by telling them how evil I am...how about we get together and actually do something for them?