Francis Fukuyama was an optimist. In his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, he put forth the proposition (if you’ll forgive my oversimplification) that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, Western liberal democracy had finally gained a permanent foothold and there would, ultimately, be no returning to the authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century.
Of course, it hasn’t turned out that way. After a very brief period during which it looked like Russia might emerge as a free society from the ashes of the Soviet empire, a former KGB agent named Vladimir Putin took power. Now, internally, Russia looks very much like the Soviet Union, but without the communism.
Over the last twenty years, countries we thought we could count on as fellow travelers have taken a dark turn. In places like India, Turkey, and Hungary, duly elected leaders have transformed themselves into populist proto-fascists, consolidating power, suppressing dissent and minority groups, intimidating the press, and promoting conservative policies centered around ethnic and religious identity. Even in the (thus far) solidly progressive countries of northern Europe there lurks a troubling undercurrent of white supremacy and nativist resentment.
Even the United States has proven susceptible to this growing reactionary cancer. It was a joke when, in 2015, the narcissistic businessman and inveterate self-promoter Donald J. Trump rode down a gold-plated escalator, Eastern European trophy wife in tow, to declare his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Six years later, nearly half of American voters are convinced (or are willing to tell pollsters they’re convinced) that Trump is literally the Savior of the Nation Anointed by God Almighty, that he single-handedly restored America’s reputation worldwide, and that his 2020 re-election was thwarted by a conniving cabal of baby-eating socialists who want to transgender your toddlers.
For the first time in history, between November 3, 2020 and January 21, 2021, the United States did not have a peaceful transfer of power. Trump and his enablers engaged in a widespread propaganda campaign to declare, with all evidence to the contrary, that Joe Biden’s victory was a fraud, and tried—unsuccessfully—to coerce or intimidate state-level officers (like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger) as well as federal elected officials (like Vice President Mike Pence) to either ignore or revise the obvious and legitimate results of the election. (I’ll set aside discussion of the Electoral College and its many defects for another time.) Trump’s incitements resulted in a deadly riot that penetrated the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, disrupting—again, for the first time in our history—the peaceful certification of the electoral results.
As of this moment, Trump has failed. Thus far, the Constitutional system has worked. Barely. But for the scruples of elected and appointed Republican officials, Trump could have overturned the election and managed, with the help of Republicans in Congress and/or GOP-nominated federal judges (perhaps even the newly conservative Supreme Court), to finagle a second term.
And since the election, Trump & Co. have relentlessly repeated and expanded on the Big Lie (i.e., that Joe Biden actually lost the election), and have beavered away at the state and local level to try to appoint or elect officials who have authority over “election integrity”—officials who will be willing to put their thumbs on the scales, or (if they can get away with it) blatantly falsify election results if it means the difference between a Democrat or a Republican winning. As of the spring of 2022, it looks like they will succeed in putting some of the pieces in place: Republicans are poised to retake both Houses of Congress come January 2023, and will control the lion’s share of state legislatures and governors’ mansions. It is not inconceivable that November 2024 will see a Constitutional crisis that will make the events of January 6, 2021 look like a kindergarten tussle. What happens if Donald Trump (or worse, someone smarter but equally devoid of morals) occupies the White House in January 2025, with a GOP-controlled Congress and the wind in his sails? Is there no way to short-circuit what seems like the inevitable consolidation of Republican power for the next 20 or 30 years?
All this lengthy throat-clearing and spleen-venting brings me to a new book by Andrew Fiala titled Tyranny from Plato to Trump: Fools, Sycophants, and Citizens. If you get nothing else from Fiala’s analysis, get this: 1) Trump is (thus far) merely a wannabe tyrant, and 2) the “Tragic Trio” of the Tyrant, his sycophants, and the “moronic” masses is nothing new. The ancient Greek philosophers fretted about this problem 2,500 years ago, and it’s a tension that is, unfortunately, unfilterable from an open and democratic society. People are free to be smart and productive; they’re also free to be stupid and self-destructive.
As Fiala drills home, tyrants (and aspiring tyrants) will always be with us. There will always be some percentage of human beings who are ambitious to a fault; toxic narcissists who see every transaction as a zero-sum game; people who think nothing of lying, cheating, and stealing (and perhaps even murdering), as long as they get what they want.
But without sycophants, aspiring tyrants are little more than annoying shouters on the street corner. Tyrants, despite their delusions of godhood, are not all-powerful; they need enablers and yes-men, wielders of the secret keys of power, and influencers willing to turn a blind eye to misdemeanors and atrocities alike.
The third leg of the “Tragic Trio” is what Fiala describes as the “moronic masses.” Fiala defends his use of the word “moronic,” explaining that supporters of tyrants often do so, not out of a sense of moral identification, but rather out of an admiration of (my term) pure chutzpah. The masses admire the tyrant for his rough-and-tumble attitude, his obnoxious propensity to ignore convention, to ruffle the feathers of the elites, to put on a show. For Fiala, this willingness to place schadenfreude and entertainment over moral or practical concerns “indicate[s] self-awareness. The people saying these things are not stupid or ignorant of the news or the political world. And yet these sorts of comments indicate a kind of moral blindness. This is moronic, in the technical sense of the term that I employ here.”
The moronic masses may be the hardest leg of the Tragic Trio to persuade. As we’ve seen, would-be tyrants can be defanged by sufficient Constitutional restraints and the determination of competent and professional Deep Staters (for lack of a better term) to do things by the book. Sycophants, mostly, will scurry for the shadows if a tyrant is thwarted or overthrown; they might even repurpose their efforts for the greater good out of a paradoxically self-centered desire to remain relevant.
But it takes mass effort to affect the masses. Traditionally, profound thinkers realized the way forward was to educate the populace. The establishment of public schools in the nineteenth century was a revolution (albeit imperfect) in literacy, numeracy, and informed civic engagement. Unfortunately, the twenty-first century is characterized by the slow death of independent journalism and the gradual takeover of schoolboards and other educational institutions by “concerned” parents who blithely assume (or speciously insist) they know better than subject matter experts and trained professional educators. Obviously, parents need to be engaged in their children’s education, but what is happening in recent decades at the state and local level is a transmogrification of reasonably objective education into jingoistic, conservative indoctrination. (And what can’t be co-opted from within can be re-routed, through the siren song of “school choice,” to private, usually religious institutions that benefit mostly the whitest and WASPiest and wealthiest families.)
What can be done to fix things? Fiala concedes (and who can argue with him?) that a perfect, and therefore perfectly just society is not achievable. Flawed human beings will never create a flawless society. There’s no silver bullet; not even a clear strategy gesturing toward a free, tolerant, and progressive society likely to persuade a majority of otherwise “moronic” voters. Fiala reminds us of Plato’s suggestion that “the philosophers [i.e., concerned citizens] will have to be forced to engage in politics.” In other words, there is no alternative but to openly and persistently participate in civic life and hope for the best. We can only try.
Listen to my interview with Andrew Fiala in episode #345 of the American Freethought podcast.