By Mark E. Button
Some of the most relevant reading for understanding the political ascendency of Donald Trump comes to us from ancient Greece. For as long as there have been organized democratic societies, there have been subterranean fears of (and dark desires for) tyranny: the personal domination of one, in place of the political rule of the many. Sophocles, Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle diagnosed these fears and desires and contributed a diverse range of ideas about how to check the anti-political devolution into tyranny. One of the most important insights within this ancient literature comes to us from the great Athenian playwright Sophocles and his Oedipus Tyrannus: “Hubris breeds the tyrant.” To fully appreciate the relevance of this warning for our times, we have to ask what hubris is and what makes it possible.
Today we tend to think of hubris as a personal character trait that is synonymous with an individual’s overweening pride or arrogance. In keeping with this individualistic orientation, some scholars connect the signs of hubris to narcissistic personality disorder and hope to treat it accordingly (medication, psychotherapy, etc.) But these associations and ways of framing matters do not adequately capture the original and more explicitly political understanding of hubris as the spiteful and often violent attack on the principle of equality under the law. Torture, rape, and other actions that seek to denigrate or humiliate others so as to make oneself or one’s country appear dominate and superior: these are the classical signs of the kind of hubris that matters most in political life.
Instead of seeing hubris as an “ordinary vice” of youth and rich men, the citizens of the world’s first democracy in ancient Athens viewed hubris as the democratic vice par excellence. They did so because hubris is a deadly solvent to relationships of civic equality and because they knew themselves well enough to know that as a collective political body they too were capable of the twin excesses of hubris and tyranny – especially toward women, minorities, asylum seekers, non-citizens, and foreigners. In other words, the charge of hubris appropriately attaches to more than just singular political agents for it also refers to the psychological and political conditions that make it, and its ultimate consummation in tyranny, possible. What are those conditions today?
Central among them is fear, especially the fear of the loss of sovereign mastery in a setting of complex global interdependency and within a rapidly diversifying social world. In this sense, hubris is a vicious response to fear and one that seeks to maintain (or regain) relative superiority – both psychological and political – by maligning, humiliating, and mistreating others, particularly those who are perceived as one’s rivals or enemies. You will know a hubristic “leader” by their fear of the other (whether Mexicans, Muslims, or transgender people) and by their hypersensitivity to criticism. But the underlying problem here is not arrogance or imperious bombast; the central issue is instead the rejection of equal moral standing and respect for human dignity.
Thus, if hubris is a vicious response to fear that pulls the powerful apparatus of the state in a tyrannical direction, what American politics most needs is a virtuous response to fear that can push the country on a more democratic course. This response could take many forms today, but it must begin with the vigorous public defense of civil rights, equal justice, and basic human decency. To sneer at these principles as the smarmy expression of “political correctness” is to misconstrue the source and the standing of these values: they are the foundational moral ground of any decent politics and the basic guard rails of just co-existence.
The gratuitous flaunting of what is considered “politically correct” – a featured act at nearly every Trump presidential rally – is a noisy side-show compared to the more brazen flaunting of what it means to be qualified for democratic office. Whether the United States averts this “star of disaster” in 2016 or not, it is likely that the billionaire barbarians will remain at the gates of the city until self-styled populists inoculate themselves against their own love of hubris and political tyranny. And this remains part of the great political and ethical value of reading and observing Oedipus Tyrannus, Antigone, and many other dramas from ancient Athens: by seeing our democratic forbearers succumb to their own tyrannic passions, perhaps Americans can muster the courage to awaken from their own anti-political fantasies.
Unfortunately, this kind of necessary political awakening is not on the horizon. Prominent members of the Republican Party continue to express deep anxiety that their presumptive presidential nominee is not really one of them. According to one recent Republican Party defector and maven of proper conservatism (George Will), big donors can help save the party from itself, but only if they refuse to assist their cash-strapped billionaire nominee. Given Trump’s recent discovery of the Republican brand, his “flexibility” on social policy questions, and his intemperate views about national security policy, the public hand-wringing about Trump’s conservative credentials are understandable enough. But these moral tests for partisan leadership (which are really internecine fights for influence within American conservatism) distract us from a more important political test that Trump seems likely to fail. This is a test that assesses his (or any candidate’s) standing as a zoon politikon, or a political animal – someone who has the capacity and disposition to reason with, and listen to, diverse and equal citizens in the shared pursuit of the public interest. By that basic measure, every time Trump dismisses a critic as a “loser,” questions someone’s religious faith, or refuses to seriously engage a member of the media, he reveals that he is in politics, but not really of (or passionate about) sustaining democratic politics.
Trump is the anti-politician whose corporate “toughness” is supposed to help America “beat” China, Russia, and Mexico. The posture of the anti-politician is a rational one to do adopt in a time of rampant distrust of American political institutions; but being anti-political is another thing all together. Dissatisfaction with our current class of politicians should not be allowed to spill over into a hatred of politics itself because it is only through politics that we can ever hope to govern ourselves and thereby sustain a crucial dimension of our freedom. And we cannot afford to embrace the ancient myth that hubris inevitably succumbs to devastating ruin – for leaders and countries alike. Sophocles’ warning about hubris should not be restricted to the dangers of elites glutted with a surfeit of power and wealth, but should be taken as a warning for democratic citizens who are also enticed by the illusions of sovereign mastery in a rapidly pluralizing, complex, and uncertain social and political world.
Mark E. Button is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah and author of Political Vices.