Speaking to a sea of old, white men, Trump applauded himself (literally) for eliminating more government regulations than any other administration, helping poor Americans put multiple children through college on the roughly $4,000 in tax benefits they would receive this year, and bringing a “righteous vision” of optimism back for “all” Americans. Because, in Trump’s words, “Americans are dreamers too.” He strategically strutted people of color across the political stage to represent victims of gang violence perpetrated by the illegal immigrants who make up the MS-13 gang (politically positioned as the new ISIS), beautiful clean coal workers, and the persecuted Christians of North Korea. Everyone else was white. The Christian family who adopted the heroine addict’s baby because God told them to, the brave soldier who saved his friend, the poor family who lost their son to the unjust prison system of North Korea, and the aid worker who helped in Houston. All white. All Christian. All puppets. And all receiving prayers from Trump.
He mocked the democratic opposition several times throughout his speech, waving his hand toward them as he talked about his four-step immigration plan that includes beefing up ICE (the new gestapo), how he’s fixed the economy, and how he intends to improve prisoner reform. (The private sector will swoop in and save everything, because Trump’s given all our money away via his tremendous tax plan.)
The president didn’t mention the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment in our country. Nor did he talk about climate change, net neutrality, education, civil rights, Russia, or the epidemic of gun violence in our schools. He included the Second Amendment and religious liberty in the same sentence, separated only by a conjunction. He couched his agenda to break immigrant families apart by calling for an end to endemic “chain migration.” He declared a new war on drugs in response to the opioid crisis. Because, “As long as we have confidence in our values, faith in our citizens, and trust in our God, we will never fail. Our families will thrive. Our people will prosper, and our nation will forever be safe and strong, and proud, and mighty, and free.”
Not only did 75 percent of last night’s viewers approve of Trump’s speech, the majority of them felt proud, safe, and supported. And although we would like to assume these were all Republicans, they weren’t. Thirty-three percent of those who responded to the CBS News poll self-identified as independents.
Progressives who saw last night’s spectacle and those who are just reading about it today may be wondering how this nationalistic frenzy continues to grow and if it can even be stymied. I propose that the appeal of Trump and his incredulous political rise were explained in unusually prophetic terms by Plato over 2,000 years ago in The Republic, a series of dialogues about politics, justice, human nature, education, and virtue.
Plato proposed that political regimes follow a predictable evolutionary course, from oligarchy to democracy to tyranny. Oligarchies give way to democracies when the ruling elites politically cultivate their own interests, rather than those of the people they rule. “Democracies give way to tyrannies when mob passion overwhelms political wisdom and a populist autocrat seizes the masses. But the tyrant is not quite a tyrant at first. On the contrary, in a democracy the would-be tyrant offers himself as the people’s champion. He’s the ultimate simplifier, the one man who can make everything whole again.”
Plato reminds us that political regimes are not made of stone or wood, but of human beings. Of human natures. In Book IV, he explores the human nature of a tyrannical person, and then takes that one step farther in exploring the politically tyrannical person and regime. A tyrannical person is born from a wealthy, democratic family who indulges in “lawless desires.” But unlike his father, the tyrannical son takes his lawlessness one step farther. He is impulsive, living for feasts, sex, luxuries, and reveries. He has an insatiable need to quench his desires. He goes into debt to the wrong people. And because he can’t get along without dominating or being served, he “never tastes of true freedom or friendship.”
Pretty timely for a 2,000-year-old discussion.
Plato suggests that the shift from democracy to tyranny is simple: a surplus of freedom produces an excess of factions and perspectives, most of which are fixed on narrow interests. Trump flattered these factions and indulged their passions and fears. He is the demagogue who manipulates the masses in order to overturn democracy.
Trump speaks to the white, Christian, male populace that feels deposed by the Left’s move toward inclusion, civil rights, and a global, human perspective. Female Trump supporters are standing by their men and by the only worldview they feel maintains their place in the ruling race. This unseated constituency festered and grew restless under the Obama administration and now celebrates “a swindling demagogue who cultivates their fears and positions himself as their protector.”
As Plato observes, “States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters.” And just as Trump has grown out of the political pendulum swinging too far too quickly to the Left, the solution to Trump will also grow from a collective human demand for change. As long as we have confidence in the values of civil rights for all, secular government, environmental responsibility, and global justice and act in accordance with this confidence, we can bring our nation back to the twenty-first century.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Elbridge Gerry, who later served as James Madison’s vice president, suggested that “people are dupes of pretended patriots and are misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men.” Let this not define the progressive movement. We must stay woke and watchful and led not by the opinions of others but by our own moral and political compasses. We must tune in, make our voices heard, run for office, march, and vote.
What would this morning’s news reports have said if the politically progressive had tuned in and participated in the polls last night? Would the nation have woken up to a 75 percent approval rating of Trump’s SOTU speech? Or would the true state of our nation be revealed by a truly national reaction to this ridiculous demagogue?