The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, effectively was the father of the global discussion about the nature of political life and governance with his book, The Republic. In it, Plato argued that, after considering the various possible forms of government, a state that was governed by a so-called philosopher king, advised by a council of wise elders, was the best among all the other alternatives. But Plato also argued that even this form of government, just as with oligarchy and democracy, could well trend downward towards the worst type of government, a tyranny.
To modern readers, given the Athenian reputation as the birthplace of democratic thought and practice, Plato’s views can seem surprisingly hostile towards democracy. This comes stunningly into view when he argues that when a poorer majority successfully overthrows its wealthier overlords, the inevitable tendency is that an especially appealing demagogue will step forward to protect the interests of the lower classes and that such a man easily persuades followers that he is the vehicle for achieving their desires. Such devolution leads inevitably towards tyranny, as people invest their support in their “democratic” demagogue. This demagogue, in turn, becomes corrupted by this grant of unlimited power. Eventually, he becomes a tyrant, surrounded by an entourage of supporters for protection, and for the absolute control of his people.
In the 20th century, political philosophers such as Karl Popper fingered Plato’s ideas as an impetus for the rise of totalitarianism, seeing the ancient writer’s preference for those philosopher kings and their dreams of grand social engineering and ideal societies leading inevitably to the monstrous, grandiose plans of Hitler and Stalin (along with obligatory stopovers at the ideas of Fredrich Wilhelm Hegel and Karl Marx). For others, the Platonic ideal fed the idea of the technocracy movement, where the elitism of engineering-style optimum solutions also led down another garden path toward authoritarianism, but this time by way of Edward Bellamy and Thorstein Veblen.
One of the technocracy movement’s pamphlets, from 1938, argued, for example, “Technocracy is the science of social engineering, the scientific operation of the entire social mechanism to produce and distribute goods and services to the entire population of this continent. For the first time in human history it will be done as a scientific, technical, engineering problem. There will be no place for Politics or Politicians, Finance or Financiers, Rackets or Racketeers.” Problems solved.
The revulsion with the untidiness and seeming inefficiency of the democratic process appears to attract those who long for cleaner, leaner, societies where things get done without all that democratic messiness. And that, of course, takes us to today’s lesson: the secret of success for people like Rodrigo Duterte, Vladimir Putin – and Donald Trump. For those not following international politics beyond South Africa, the Greater London mayoral election, or those infuriating American primaries, Rodrigo Duterte is the Philippines’ president-elect, and the famously straight-talking mayor of the city of Davao, the main city on the southern island of Mindanao. Or, as he was described in a recent article in The Economist, “The front-runner is Rodrigo Duterte, a vulgar, impolitic mayor who has never sought national office, is not backed by any big party and appears wilfully ignorant on policy. His simple line – the system is broken; I’ll fix things – resonates with millions of people.” That sounds rather dramatically like Donald Trump’s appeal, doesn’t it?
Max Weber, the sociologist who virtually created the discipline of sociology, defined charisma in political leadership terms, saying it was, “[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader…. How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.” That rather sounds like the impact Duterte has been exerting on the Philippine electorate – or, for that matter, how Donald Trump has connected nearly 11-million American voters during the Republican primaries.
Now, extending this idea of political charisma to our present time and circumstances, and in particular to someone like Donald Trump and amplified via the impact of mass and social media and the notion of celebrity, American historian Daniel Boorstein added, “The celebrity in the distinctive modern sense could not have existed in any earlier age…. The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness. [Italics added] His qualities – or rather his lack of qualities – illustrate our peculiar problems. He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event. He has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness…. He is made by all of us who willingly read about him, who like to see him on television, who buy recordings of his voice, and talk about him to our friends. His relation to morality and even to reality is highly ambiguous.”
In discussing that Philippine electoral result, The Economist had gone on to note, “More worrying than Mr Duterte’s boorishness is his contempt for democracy and the rule of law. He has spoken approvingly of the extrajudicial killing of suspected criminals, and sneers at Westerners who ‘want to rehabilitate instead of just killing’ criminals. He promises to end crime within six months of his election, and says his presidency is ‘going to be bloody. People will die.’ People who fret over human rights, he said at an event on April 27th, are ‘cowards’. He praised Ferdinand Marcos, a long-time dictator who was overthrown in 1986, for his ability to ‘change the system’.
“To supporters, such talk shows that Mr Duterte will get things done. ‘Voters don’t care about process,’ says Alan Peter Cayetano, Mr Duterte’s running mate: they just want things to work. Another Philippine politician once said something similar: ‘The times are too grave and the stakes too high for us to permit the customary concessions to traditional democratic processes.’ That was Marcos in 1973, months after he declared martial law. He went on to torture and kill thousands of his countrymen.”
And that might cast some sunlight on the mind-set of a significant chunk of the appeal of Duterte, Trump – and of Vladimir Putin and others like them, for good measure – to the respective nations’ voters.
While Putin has been elected and re-elected in relatively fair elections, he has made no bones about his near-messianic task assigned to him to make Russia great again, to right the recent geopolitical wrongs inflicted on Russia, and to rid his nation of those scourges of soul-sapping liberalism and a misbehaving press and malign NGO sector. No wonder he has been making cheerful remarks about Trump – and vice versa.
One key difference between these kinds of leaders and would-be leaders, versus earlier crops of charismatic philosopher-king-men-on-horseback, is that nowadays they go through the formalities of elections, regardless of what they might secretly wish to be their path to power. In the old way of doing things, the caudillos would come into authority via the bayonets of the army. They would be determined to set things straight, to do away with all the miscellaneous foolishness of corrupt politicians and put some order into government, just as long as, as with people like Juan Peron in Argentina over a half century earlier, the shirtless ones were calling them to lead.
Nowadays, though, the silly formality of the ballot box is a crucial intermediary step. Once that is accomplished, the real leader can fulfil promises to wall off a country’s neighbour, arbitrarily tear up a nation’s treaties, expel every undocumented immigrant/illegal alien in the country, dispense with the possibility of people from the wrong religious faith from entering the nation and bang his fists on the negotiating table until he gets the deal he expects from all those exploitative trading partners. And in his spare time, “make the country great again”.
Or, as Mark Danner, a UC Berkeley professor of journalism, recently wrote of Donald Trump and his campaign’s successes so far, “These ‘exceptional powers or qualities’ include not just the reputed business genius – a mysterious power that makes the promulgation of specific policies redundant – but the ability to tell a story about why ‘our country is in big trouble’ that is simple, convincing, and satisfying. ‘Our leaders are so incompetent,’ he says again and again. Why have we lost jobs? Because ‘our leaders are terrible’, the system is corrupt – he knows because he buys politicians as part of his business: ‘No one knows the game better than me’ — and other countries, whose leaders are much smarter than ours, take advantage of us. This includes not just Mexico and China but the countries of Nato, Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia, the fabulously rich oil autocracy for protecting which ‘we get nothing. Nothing.’
“Why has this ‘fascinating intersection of celebrity and neo-fascism’ — the words are Carl Bernstein’s – found its following now? Trumpism is partly the child of the 2008 Wall Street collapse and the vast sense of political corruption and self-dealing it brought in its wake: the sense that the country was looted on a vast scale and that the politicians of all stripes made sure the criminals were not punished.”
And that seems to follow the pattern of Duterte and Putin as well. Duterte, for his part, following his polling victory, has said he wants to butcher criminals, for example, while Trump had said earlier that he could shoot one of those bad guys, right in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York City, without shaking his followers’ faith in his leadership. And the less said about Putin’s tactics the better, perhaps.
Now, put these various attributes together and the connection back through to Plato’s thoughts on governance (with due allowance for the intersession of the ballot and social media) swims into focus. The hope of a people is a leader, given to charismatic inspiration, and elected on the faith of those people. He will be a man who will right wrongs, sweep the moneychangers and criminals from the temple, and fix the people’s economic circumstances and wipe away their grievances. He will do this by looking beyond the useless impediments of laws and rights to do what simply must be done.
Back in 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt had said of Louisiana Governor Huey Long (just before a deranged gunman had killed him), a charismatic, populist demagogue who was rapidly gaining popularity among the electorate, that he, Long, “was the most dangerous man in America”. At the time of that Great Depression, there was real fear Long could well gain national executive power in the country, echoing the pattern across Europe at the time.
Today’s demagogues, moving beyond Plato’s explanations, have found that it is easy to marry the adulation of crowds with the frenzy of celebrity, via mass and social media in a way not available to others previously, to reach for power. The challenge is that they must first gain their power via the ballot box, but the means by which they get there is troubling – but, more important, still, it is what they do once in power, as well as the means they employ to stay there at the pinnacle. Nearly 80 years ago, novelist Sinclair Lewis wrote a book, It Can’t Happen Here, that profiled a media savvy demagogue’s rise to power in America. Perhaps it is time for a reissue and a reread.