If you could bring a historical figure to today's world, and could talk with him or her, who would you choose?
I would choose a philosopher, most probably Plato. And if I could talk with Plato about our world, there is one thing about which he wouldn't be shocked: the rise of Donald Trump. Indeed, Plato was against democracy because he thought it would automatically lead to a reign, not of rationality, but one based on popularity and the ability of getting elected. This, he though, would lead to tyranny. It would lead to a government where emotions would take over careful analysis, where bad policies would be created, and where wars that could have been entirely avoided would be fought.
If I could bring back Plato, he would certainly be amazed by our progress in science, but not in politics. His analysis on the weaknesses of democracy is still confirmed today at every speech Trump makes. Plato would be amazed that we still make the same mistakes, and still give more attention to the best rhetoric as opposed to the best reasoning (or rather more depressed than amazed).
Is the rise of Donald Trump a justification for Plato’s argument that democracy is not a good way of running a country? As I am writing these lines, Trump is the only likely candidate to be the nominee of the Republican Party in the upcoming American presidential election. I consider that because Trump is so close to being elected President of the most powerful country in the world, then Plato’s argument can be seen as valid.
To ask this question is to ask what argument is best for the justification of democracy. While Plato would argue that political freedom is when a government makes good decisions, other philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill, argue that political freedom is achieved when you can live how you choose to, regardless of whether your decision is the best rationally speaking. And if you think like Mill, then Donald Trump’s rise is unfortunately justified and legitimate.
American society is changing. The empire created by European immigration is now in a process of transformation, with one of its main consequences being the creation of a white minority by 2050. Because people react strongly to this change, they forget the common good and tend toward an easy, racist and emotional discourse made of catchy slogans with no political reflection sustaining them. People are often incompetent and irrational; even though information is available, few are those who do research. Because of this, people vote for what appears to them as being the best alternative.
Arguably, appearances end up driving political choices. As Hanna Arendt argues “appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality”. That is something that Donald Trump understands. He knows how to sell himself to the voters, using simple language and good rhetoric. Trump has lied many times in public and is often fact-check to be wrong, sometimes shifting his opinions until he finds the most popular one. But people, at least those who vote for him, don't care.
People are autonomous, a factor which, according to Stuart Mill, is essential to human wellbeing. They choose their own reality. That reality is dark, and shows the United States as a force which should demonstrate power as humanity has done before in 1961 in Berlin, in 122 AD in Britannia or in 220 BCE in China – by building a wall.
Thus democracy is possibly a “rule by ignorance”, as Plato argues. However, that implies that there is a moral good that can be known by reasoning. But we can doubt there is one – at the very least, it is hard to define. Is a moral good what is best for the people, or what the people want? And even if we consider both answers to be true, isn’t the people who we should be asking this to? Those problems are at the heart of political theory.
So can we blame democracy alone for the rise of Donald Trump? If he can keep elected with the democratic process, is that because of democracy itself?
Certainly not. The real problem lies in the image Americans have of their country, a falling empire, to which they wish to give it the status it used to have. Coupled with a society of image and media sensationalism, here you have it: Donald Trump.
His election would undoubtedly be a bad idea. But if in November he ends up getting elected, then we should not blame democracy, but the system and society in which democracy take place in the United States.
Lioui Benhamou is a first-year Politics and International Relations student at the University of Manchester