TYRANNOS

The Ancient Greeks Warned Us About Donald Trump

We might think tyrants are the opposite of democracy. But like it or not, they can spring from within democracies as well. And here we are. Buckle up.

12.10.16 6:00 AM ET

To understand President Trump, we must go back to ancient Greece. The key to its democracy was a large Assembly that the mass of male citizens elected directly. Members of the Assembly served in rotation as government officials. But sometimes, mostly because of outside threats, the Assembly named a single ruler for a set period of time. That ruler took over all the functions of the Assembly. The technical name for this ruler was tyrannos. In English: tyrant.

Tyrants arose in two ways: at the initiative of the Assembly, or of the tyrant himself. Often it was hard to tell the difference. In all cases, some large number of citizens clamored for the Assembly to name a particular tyrant. That clamor might convince the Assembly to hand over willingly. Or the tyrant threatened to take over by force, with popular support, and the Assembly gave in. At the end of a tyrant’s term, he might hand power back to the Assembly, or might demand that the Assembly prolong his term. Again, there was a fine line between the Assembly giving in willingly or under the threat of force.

In recent centuries especially, as it spread across the globe, democracy took many forms that were different from and more complex than the simple Assembly of ancient Greece. Yet the appeal of a tyrant endured. For example, the French Revolution threw the country into crisis. Within, France faced civil war, economic chaos, and the Terror. Outside, the other kings of Europe attacked the country to put the French king back on the throne, before the Revolution spread to overthrow them too. In this time of peril, Napoleon arose as a tyrant in the technical sense from ancient Greece.

It happened like this. In 1799 members of the existing democratic government, the Directory, asked their most successful general, Napoleon, to take over by force. He did so in a bloodless coup. The result was a consulate, modeled after ancient Rome, where a Senate elected three consuls to rule for ten years. Napoleon was first consul, and quickly froze out the other two. Three years later, a popular vote confirmed Napoleon as first consul for life. He remained popular in France throughout his reign. It was only by uniting their armies against Napoleon and defeating him in battle that his foreign enemies were able to put a French king back on the throne.

A more recent example is Mussolini. He rose from the ranks of the Italian Socialist Party to turn against them in 1914: They promoted working-class solidarity across countries, while Mussolini aimed to unite all of Italy against foreign powers. But the working class remained his biggest supporters. He aimed to expand the current borders of Italy northeast into Austria and south into Africa, on the model of ancient Rome. His chance came at the end of World War I, when Italy suffered economic crisis, mass strikes of peasants and workers, and the rise of militias of the left and right, including Mussolini’s fascists. Italy was still a constitutional monarchy with a weak parliament. In the elections of 1921, 14 parties won seats, and no party gained as much as a quarter of the votes.

In the fall of 1922, Mussolini’s militias massed at strategic points around the country and threatened to march on Rome to seize power. The prime minister resigned. The king asked Mussolini to form a new government. This was a legal transfer of power. Mussolini proceeded to appoint his followers to all key government positions and manipulated the voting rules to gain 65 percent of the vote in 1924 and 98 percent in 1929. He remained popular until Italy’s military defeat in World War II.

Mussolini had many admirers elsewhere in the democratic world. These included the president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. That same year, in his welcoming address to his incoming freshman class, Butler declared that “the assumption of power by a virtual dictator whose authority rests upon a powerful and well-organized body of opinion” produced leaders “of far greater intelligence, far stronger character and far more courage than does the system of election.” 

Let’s skip ahead to President Trump. His rise to power came from a direct appeal to a large mass of followers outside the current democratic system. He ran against both major political parties and the traditional media that both covered them and typically sided with one or the other. New social media, especially Twitter, helped him appeal directly to individual citizens. He staged live rallies that also gave his followers a feeling of direct connection with him. The followers of a tyrant acclaim him directly, not through democratic institutions. They trust him, not those institutions. He promises not to let them down.

In this way, we can understand how criticism from the mainstream—about racism, sexism, lies, and distortions of fact—meant little in the Trump campaign. His followers trust him to serve their interests. With the enemy at our door, we must rally behind a strong leader and not second-guess him. You salute and follow. This is no time to quibble or waver. He is our general in battle. Since the 9/11 attacks, America has been under attack by foreign enemies, and the existing democratic system proved unable to mount a defense. Instead, it only weakened our national character and thereby added an internal threat to the external one.  

Note that Trump railed against President Obama and Hillary Clinton as individuals: weak leaders, that is, incompetent tyrants. He saw in Putin of Russia a fellow tyrant worthy of his respect. Now as president, Trump retains his disdain for the norms and procedures of our democratic system. Why should he conform to it? He ran against it, and won. He is appointing anti-government officials and authoritarian figures—military generals and business tycoons. He will aim to bypass Congress and rule by executive fiat wherever he can.

Where does Trump get his ideas to rule as a tyrant? It is unlikely he studied ancient Greece or previous tyrants like Napoleon or Mussolini. Instead, similar forces in democracies lead to similar results. And his background put him in a good position to fill the role of tyrant when the opportunity arose. He inherited his father’s business and never reported to a corporate board. He was in charge. The real estate industry runs by deals: a particular site, project, and financing, different each time, and you try to make the best deal you can. Expect the Trump presidency to run the same way—like his deal with Carrier in Ohio.

Likewise, Trump’s television career and celebrity status gave him practice appealing to large numbers of strangers. Simple words, short sentences, vivid images, and opinions rather than facts. That’s how you reach the masses. And his business became a form of celebrity marketing too, where he sold the Trump name and image more than building things himself. He was a popular public figure, in business and in entertainment, long before his campaign.

Trump’s one Achilles’ heel might be that he lost the popular vote but won through a quirk of the country’s particular democratic system, the Electoral College. A majority voted against him. But there’s nothing he can do about that. He will just have to steam ahead and rule as he ran, as a tyrant. He will continue to bypass the traditional media and deal directly with his followers through social media. He will blame any new problems that arise on the rotten system he inherited, and the soft-headed rulers who came before him.

President Trump is not an aberration. A tyrant is a feature of democracy, not its opposite. He won as a tyrant, he will rule as a tyrant. Hold onto your hats.