By David J. Depew
Are we reliving what Plato saw as the transformation of populist demagogues into dictators by means of rhetoric? Must we avoid the comparison between Trump and Hitler?
The teachers who influenced me most in graduate school were escapees from Hitler. They fought like tigers with each other. The classically conservative political theorists Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss viewed Herbert Marcuse as a hopelessly naïve lefty. But Arendt wouldn’t so much as share an elevator with Strauss.
Still, these German-trained intellectuals shared something that their American students, including me, didn’t: a visceral sense of the fragility of the social and political order.
The physicist Leo Szilard, who enlisted Einstein to tell Roosevelt that it was possible to build an atomic bomb and that nobody was better equipped to do it than German physicists, was said never to put his suits in a closet or his socks in a dresser drawer. He kept them in a suitcase and carried in his pocket as many passports as he could round up just in case he needed to make a run for it.
My teachers may not have been quite that jumpy, but they were hyper-alert. To keep an appointment with the philosopher of biology Hans Jonas, with whom I was to discuss my term paper, I had to wade through a sea of students who had occupied the Graduate Center at the New School in New York. It was the Cambodia/Kent State crisis in May, 1970. They were a decidedly harmless lot, over whose recumbent bodies Jonas, too, had had to make his way. Unlike many blue-work-shirted, bearded, birkenstocked professors of the day, however, Jonas was far from expressing solidarity with them. He was not about to dishonor the intellectual life by failing to keep his office hours. When I entered his room I found him railing, beet red, about the Hitler Youth. He had seen this movie before.
My teachers shared something else. They saw the present through the lens of the ancient Athenian experience, and made sure we did too. There have never been better portraits of democratic citizens, populist demagogues, and the transformation of the latter into dictators than we find in the culminating books of Plato’s Republic. Plato says that democratic citizens imagine themselves as athletes in the morning and artists, perhaps rock stars, at night. They define freedom as experimentation with their identity. The demagogue plays on their fear that oligarchs or foreigners or somebody will limit that freedom. By casting himself as their protector and liberator, he eventually subordinates his fellow citizens to his own desires, to which he himself becomes increasingly hostage.
Speech in the form of public address—rhetoric—is the currency in which these transactions unfold. Part of Plato’s aim was to tie the story of Athenian decline to the rise of the Sophistic movement, according to which words, sentences, and arguments do not have real meanings at all, but only effects on audiences. These effects are inflected by the possibilities offered by (as yet untamed) new media: literacy in Plato’s day, mass circulation newspapers in Hearst’s, radio and film in Hitler’s, digital social media in Donald Trump’s. Demagogues live in a chattering, texting, sexting, twittering aviary. As Blaise Pascal noted many centuries later, they can’t stand their own company. Nor can you ask them what their settled beliefs are. They don’t have any. And even if they did, beliefs, motives, intentions - the signs of assurance that liberal journalists and orthodox Republicans are now trying to find in Trump - are far too weak a reed on which to base predictions.
These days we are advised to keep the Hitler analogy in check. Trump, a simulacrum of the digital media he used to deploy the old “champion-of-the-people” commonplaces, is less like Hitler than like the media mogul Berlusconi—or better yet Benzino Napoloni, Jack Oakie’s memorable send-up of Mussolini in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Our hold on democracy, we are also assured, is far deeper than the Weimar Republic’s. We tested long ago whether government of, by, and for the people could long endure. It has - by being ever more tolerant and pluralistic.
This is where the analogy to ancient politics breaks down. Still, I wonder whether the very prohibition on using the Reductio ad Hitlerum is a sign that our guard is down.
In the face of the self-proclaimed autochthony of The People, whose legitimate gripes Trump both revealed and exploited, the current situation of the U. S. can plausibly be viewed through the eyes of the German intellectuals who raised my consciousness. Seeing events as they did through Athenian eyes, I am less and less convinced that it can’t happen here. In some ways, it already has, though with a little luck, reversibly.