Ye gods, what havoc does ambition make among your works!
Joseph Addison, Cato 1.1
As news reports make clear that the grim specter of despotism has begun to prevail all the world over, it may be a salutary exercise to remember that tyrannical abuse of authority is enshrined and even championed in some of our oldest literature. In the Iliad, when Agamemnon makes a trial of the Achaeans under his command, he finds that – contrary to his expectation – all are eager to abandon the field and head home after years of fruitless war. (Perhaps the Trojan War can be viewed as a precursor of America’s foreign adventures – military quagmires waged for dubious motivation, entailing that unpalatable combination of wholesale slaughter and crime at which humanity seems to excel.)
Odysseus rallies round and attempts to stop the men by doubling down on this cheerfully antidemocratic sentiment:
Let there be one ruler, one king…
…εἷς κοίρανος ἔστω, εἷς βασιλεύς… [Iliad 2.204-5]
Perhaps we ought to be more surprised that the men are recalled to their martial project not by a speech calling for common effort or reminding them of the chance for personal emolument which may follow a successful siege, but a miniature disquisition on their personal inferiority to the king. Thersites is meant to be a reviled character, and Homer paints an unflattering portrait of him, but he is the only one to advocate for what a dispassionate observer of the facts might call common sense.
After pointing out that Agamemnon has already appointed to himself a hefty share of plunder and captive women, he notes that Agamemnon had erred in affronting Achilles, who was a better man than himself. Thersites urges the men to return home and let Agamemnon finish the war on his own, when Odysseus strikes him. This violence inflicted upon their champion actually instills a sense of delight in the men for whose benefit Thersites had just advocated.
This acceptance of personal despotism may strike the attentive reader as unrealistic, but it is easy for to be idly carried away by this propaganda, and Odysseus’ soundbite formulation, “Let there be one ruler,” has the sort of captivating quality which all propagandistic sloganeering is meant to. “Drill Here. Drill Now. Pay Less.” has such a harshly commonsensical sound about it that all more prudent alternatives are gracefully elided by its elegant tricolonic balance of six syllables.* Sideshow Bob, in a Simpsons episode in which he steals the mayoral election, explains why the citizens of Springfield need him:
Your guilty conscience may force you to vote Democratic, but deep down inside, you secretly long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king.
Many (I am among them) have expressed surprise that so many Republicans have abased themselves to such a shocking degree for a man who seems so patently unworthy of it. The subtext of this is of course that we could, though still appalled, understand the fervor to defend him if he were more intelligent, more charming, less loathsome and vile. Yet this seems to miss the point that loathsome and vile is what Republicans have been shilling for over the past several decades. Who are the mainstream figureheads of their public outreach? Hannity, O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh. They are loud, obnoxious, and perfectly content to advertise their stupidity as a kind of common-man credential. Roger Ailes developed the Fox News model with the specific intention, not of vying with CNN for straightforward news coverage, but of appealing to an audience who would find ready comfort in propaganda already prepackaged for their prejudices.
After Romney’s defeat in 2012, the Republican party reportedly did some strategizing, and decided that they may need to jettison racism, misogyny, and other forms of unregenerate barbarism in order to win elections. Four years later, Trump offered a kind of catharsis for real Republican values, and became so beloved because, like so many reality stars and social media figures before him, he showed that it’s okay – nay, even profitable – to be a vile piece of shit. Trump ungirded the belt of restraint imposed by the fastidious managerial class of Republicans (like William F. Buckley, Romney, etc.), and urged Republicans to stop sucking it in, to let the fatty accretion of 19th century prejudice hang free.
In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon explains that Commodus was killed by his domestics once they had reason to fear his violence. Commodus was succeeded by Pertinax:
Such an uniform conduct had already secured to Pertinax the noblest reward of a sovereign, the love and esteem of his people. Those who remembered the virtues of Marcus were happy to contemplate in their new emperor the features of that bright original; and flattered themselves that they should long enjoy the benign influence of his administration. A hasty zeal to reform the corrupted state, accompanied with less prudence than might have been expected from the years and experience of Pertinax, proved fatal to himself and to his country. His honest indiscretion united against him the servile crowd, who found their private benefit in the public disorders, and who preferred the favour of a tyrant to the inexorable equality of the laws.
Chafing under the virtuous discipline of Pertinax, and missing the vicious and licentious indulgence of Commodus, the praetorian guards murdered Pertinax in turn and literally sold the office of emperor to Didius Julianus. In much the same way, the Republican base, molded by years of racist, misogynist, and crackpot ranting, was eager to throw off the oppressive yoke of feigned civility, and return to the gilded age of honest and forthright evil.
Having lived my entire life in the south (Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee), I remember friends’ dads who were still ardent enthusiasts for the Confederacy, the “lost cause”. Of course, this was peppered with the sort of apologetics (developed during Reconstruction) which insisted that the Civil War was a conflict about states’ rights. Though we may lament the “rise” in white supremacy, I suspect that the old Pertinacious restraint has simply been removed, and that these guys are just happy that Trump allows them to be honest (a privilege which he rarely affords himself). That is, we have experienced, not a rise in racism, but simply a revelation of it.
The narrative of the “lost cause” is central to the current crisis. Much has been made of the kompromat which may have induced certain once reluctant Republicans (like Lindsey Graham) to lodge their lips on the Trumpian sphincter, and there may be something to that notion. Yet the simplest explanation is that they are simply engaged in the bald and unapologetic pursuit of power. One may modify Samuel Johnson:
Greek, sir, is like lace despotic power; every man gets as much of it as he can.
Any sensible and cynical power broker could easily see that the base won’t go away, even if Trump does. They have become unshakeable in their faith, and regard him as something close to a savior. (Lest this seem exaggerated, just watch Rick Perry talk about him as God’s Chosen One, or look up the videos of the Trumpians saying that they would pick Trump over Jesus.) One day he will be gone. But the damage won’t. His ideas won’t. His base won’t. And what began as but a recrudescence of infantile barbarism will be revealed as one of the dominant forces in our politics for some time to come. Trump himself will be “the lost cause.” Whether he is impeached or voted out, he will always be a martyr to his acolytes. Every time his swamp monsters abase themselves in public, they are simply auditioning for the role of St. Peter to Trump’s Christ. Trump revealed that what had begun as a base loosely organized around talk radio and cable news talking points could be transformed into an intensely loyal hive mind ready to give obeisance to one person.
It may be time to consider altogether abandoning executive power as a governing instrument. Even Agamemnon was ostensibly just primus inter pares, serving as something like a president of the Trojan expedition (seeing that the other kings did not owe him hereditary fealty or anything of the sort). Yet, his wanton abuse of power in his conflict with Achilles lay at the root of the suffering in the Iliad. Had all decisions been made by a council of equals rather than an irresponsible executive, it is likely that the conflict would not have led to Achilles’ withdrawal. Yet, Agamemnon’s position as executive meant that he stood as a metonym for the war effort itself, and so Achilles justified renouncing what was at root a communal and cooperative endeavor because he could not brook the insolence of the man presiding over it. (It is moreover clear that the problem was not simply the intransigence of the two men, but the wanton abuse of power on Agamemnon’s part.)
Much of our popular entertainment is devoted to the pursuit of power in the hands of one person. Audiences who wasted the better part of a decade on Game of Thrones were eager to see who would finally sit on the Iron Throne, despite the fact that the internal logic established by the narrative itself showed a.) that it actually didn’t matter to practically everyone in Westeros who sat on the throne, and b.) that there is no finality implied by that first sedentary moment upon the throne, since several rulers were killed off in the course of the series. Amidst all of the other interesting narratives, we really just wanted to know who would seize power – the very possession of it has the power to enchant us.
Similarly, our contests for president have resulted in a twisted political system which rewards organizing, not around an idea, but around a person, and regarding that person as the captain or figurehead of the team. This was true even during the Clinton years, when Democrats mounted a defense of a man who really didn’t need or warrant defending simply because he was the boss.
Of course, the presidency, like all of the basic elements of our government, was a contrivance of the founders, some of whom floated the idea that it (along with senate seats) should be a lifetime appointment. It was intentionally designed to be limited to a small elite (indeed, so petty were many of the founding generation, the requirement that a candidate be a citizen born within the U.S. was designed to exclude Alexander Hamilton from ever attaining the office) and was not intended to be a democratically elected office.
It was a bad idea then, and it is a bad idea now, especially given the size of the population governed by this one person, and the immense power which they have at their disposal. No individual, irresponsible to the will of the nation, should be trusted with such power, especially as it has apparently become the operative norm that no president can be held accountable for any crime. What is this but semi-elective, short term despotism? Indeed, a recent Pew Research poll suggests that Republicans in particular have become more keen on eliminating the system of checks and balances altogether, granting presidents more absolute and unrestrained power in order to “address the country’s problems.” Naturally, this is because they think that their man (and by extension, their team or even they) will be the conductor of the old tyranny train as it takes off from despotism depot.
Naturally, like most critics, I have no useful schemes to suggest as alternatives, if for no other reason than that I suspect that the human drive for individual power is too deeply entrenched to allow for such a radical shift in political organization. In America, the popular will has repeatedly been thwarted by design. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the founders had something of a fond partiality for classical learning and exempla. Although Classics department websites may tout knowledge of Greek as some introduction to “the civilization that invented democracy,” one would be hard pressed to find a literature as virulently anti-democratic as the classics. And to think, it all started with Odysseus’ assault on Thersites. Maybe it is time to reconsider Thersites as the true tragic hero of the Iliad – the one man who, in arguing that the common soldier’s subservience to Agamemnon primarily benefited Agamemnon, could have saved countless lives had his counsel prevailed. In this light, maybe Odysseus deserved another ten years of suffering. I only fear that we can expect at least as many for ourselves.
What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? (Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, 5.1)