Several times over the last few weeks I’ve been tempted to skip writing a post and say “just read Andrew Sullivan instead.” Sullivan is my favorite conservative political commentator; no one on his side of the fence does a better job of making me rethink my views. He recognizes how profoundly obsolete the old liberal-conservative paradigm has become. Instead, as he puts it in his most recent post, we have an authoritarian right, a “sane” right, a “sane” left, and a left “committed to the notion that everything is a social construction and nothing else.”
Sullivan believes the sane right and left have more in common with each other than they do with their extremist flanks. Although I don’t believe the extreme left is nearly as powerful or malign as the extreme right, I have to admit that I usually do feel more comfortable around conservatives dedicated to enlightenment values than around leftists guided by Critical Race Theory, which has some good points to make but is essentially a boutique brand of postmodernism.
In his latest post, Sullivan re-reads Plato’s Republic for insight into Trump’s trajectory. I got a bit of exposure to the Republic in college, but Plato’s Socratic dialogues so bollixed my synapses that I swore off reading him ever again; to this day I can’t explain that business about his cave. (If you can — in language I can understand — I’d love to hear it.)
In short, Plato claims a republic has five stages, the fourth being democracy. If the people lack probity, though, the democracy deteriorates into the fifth stage: tyranny.
Sullivan sees Trump’s latest behavior, including the dismissals of the few halfway adult members of his cabinet, as consistent with the progression described by Plato. “When he first appears above ground he is a protector,” Plato says of the tyrant’s first phase, which is also marked by generosity (Sullivan cites the tax cut, although it doesn’t seem the public was fooled about its generosity toward the 99%).
The second phase of the tyrant’s rule is when the really bad stuff happens. Opponents become targets, and “the lion and the serpent element” in the tyrant becomes dominant. Trump’s recent actions strongly suggest he’s reached this stage.
And then the third phase is war.
Sullivan hopes Plato’s playbook isn’t the blueprint it’s looked like so far:
Part of me, of course, has long worried and hoped that my assessment of Trump as truly the tyrant of Plato’s imagination is melodramatic overkill. I’m given to excitability, even catastrophism. I’ve been wrong before. And there are many ways in which American life still seems the same. Political tribalism didn’t begin with Trump; neither did the appeal of populist authoritarianism, or the celebrification of politics.
Nonetheless, Sullivan concludes that “War is coming. And there will be nothing and no one to stop him.”
Who wants to face that? It’s much easier to think we’re all in melodramatic overkill mode. But let’s be honest. Most of us have had forebodings like this for a while.
Those of us on the sane left and right have an obligation to stop the madness. The sane right has more of an obligation, since its cooperation with Trump has allowed him to get this far and it has the legislative power to thwart him. But the sane left needs to organize for the November 2018 election (assuming we have that much time) and take at least one house of Congress, preferably the Senate since it can block the twisted enablers Trump is appointing to his cabinet and the courts.
This is real, folks. We can’t pretend it will all turn out okay.