Democracy and My Teachers

By David Depew

The insurrectionist end of Donald Trump’s presidency was foreshadowed on its first day, when he said that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than President Obama’s, or any previous president’s. Insisting that you should believe him rather than your lying eyes was the hallmark of the Trump regime. His favored way of arguing was a double fallacy. It was circular reasoning based on what’s called the argumentum ad populum: Let groundless falsehoods fly, get people to swallow and amplify them, and then claim they must be true because so many people say so. A perfect and perfectly empty circle.

I found strength throughout this disgraceful time in the fact that the teachers who influenced me most in graduate school were escapees from Hitler. They may not all have been as jumpy as the Hungarian-born physicist Leo Szilard, the man who enlisted Einstein to tell FDR that it was possible to build an atomic bomb and warn him that nobody was better equipped to do it than German physicists. He didn't teach me, but I word got around that he kept his clothes in a suitcase and carried around in his pocket as many passports as he could round up in case he needed to make a run for the border. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who did teach me, did not feel quite like that. Her confidence that she could speak her mind freely was grounded in her abiding gratitude that our country gave her what the Nazis took from her: citizenship. Nonetheless, she and other German refugees I studied under were all alert to the fact that political stability can disappear quickly.

Growing up, they had assumed that the country of their birth was civilized. They knew that its higher education system, which had opened its riches to them, was the best in the world. But they saw Germany lose a war, become a failed republic, and collapse into a murderous cult that deprived them of citizenship and killed their families and friends. It would have killed them too if luck had not been with them. Their gift to me and their other American students was to transmit something of their visceral sense of the value, contingency, and fragility of democratic republics. They chipped away at my assumption that it can’t happen here.

Part of their gift was the habit of looking at the contemporary world through the eyes of the ancient Athenian experience. There has never been a better portrait of how the weaknesses of democracies can be exploited by populist demagogues than what we read in the culminating books of Plato’s Republic. Democratic citizens disdain self-control and other old-fashioned virtues by defining freedom as loud proclamations of their personal identities. Demagogues play on their fear that oligarchs, foreigners, or elites will limit the freedoms they cherish. A tyrant who flatters them arises who is better able than his rivals to tell himself the lies he constantly tells others, in the process becoming ever less able to satisfy his bottomless desires and ever more paranoid about plots and betrayals.

Fanned by an untamed media revolution--a sudden surge in the ability to read and write-- distorted communication was everywhere in 4th century BCE Athens. Plato worried that claims that don’t have to defend themselves in person would foster a belief that words don't have meanings but only effects, as if speaking were no more than throwing stones at people. Even minimal consistency in what one says from one moment to the next disappears on that view. My teachers worried about Hitler’s use of radio and film the way we now worry about the digital social media that Trump has used so effectively to bypass fact-checking gatekeepers and assemble a mob of true believers.

We have a lot going for us. We are not post-World War I Germany. Still, the fact that we have just dodged a bullet reminds us that to keep a republic you must above all bear in mind how easily it be can threatened.