Like Rome, America Could be Ripe for Tyranny

Of all the journalistic essays published as Donald Trump emerged last year as a serious presidential contender, perhaps the most haunting was Andrew Sullivan’s New York article, “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny.” It explored the Trump phenomenon through the prism of Plato’s Republic and the Greek philosopher’s observation that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” Sullivan explores Plato’s critique of late-stage democracy, when the rich are attacked, barriers to equality are crushed, deference to authority withers, multiculturalism and sexual freedom create a polity “decorated in all hues,” the foreigner is equal to the citizen, and shame and privilege become anathema. Writes Sullivan: “And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.”

For Sullivan, who read the Republic in graduate school, Plato had planted in his mind “a gnawing worry” about the mortality of democratic regimes caught in this vortex of late-stage civic and personal excess. “It was increasingly hard not to see in Plato’s vision a murky reflection of our own hyperdemocratic times,” writes Sullivan, “and in Trump a demagogic, tyrannical character plucked directly out of one of the first books about politics ever written.”

Plato’s warning centered on political and societal developments in democratic regimes that inevitably eat away at the structures and mores of those regimes until a demagogue appears out of the mess with promises of a return to stability and predictability. But ultimately Sullivan places his focus, with near hysteria, on the demagogue. He does explore America’s increased democratization through history—the steady demise of institutional barriers designed by the Founders to protect the American republic from “the tyranny of the majority and the passions of the mob.” And he decries the emergence of “media democracy”—talk radio, the Internet, cable television, and social media, all of which have been “swiftly erasing almost any elite moderation or control of our democratic discourse.”

And thus, in Sullivan’s view, the way was paved for the emergence of the demagogue Trump, who transformed the frustrations of millions of white, working-class Americans into what Eric Hoffer called a “facility for make-believe” and what Sullivan calls “the evocation of hatred.” Sullivan invokes the…

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