In the 4th century B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle created two bodies of work, Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. Both deal with the question of what it means to be good on a practical level. Whereas the former work explores the connections and conflicts between personal happiness and virtue and what it means to live a “good” life, the latter raises the discussion to how these concepts apply to those charged with helping the community live a “good” life—in other words, politicians.
In Politics, Aristotle states that there are three general types of government, based on the number of people wielding power:
1) Monarchy – governance by one person
2) Aristocracy – governance by a few people, relative to the size of the community
3) Constitutional Government – governance by many, a representative government
He further argues that no type of government is inherently bad. For example, if a monarch is thoughtful and a true leader, and he unfailingly governs with the well-being of all his subjects in mind, he is the proverbial benevolent dictator. It is simply a matter of what laws are implemented, the motivation behind them, and whether or not those laws help those governed in their quest to live a “good” life. The idea is that, through ethical governance, people can go from merely surviving to striving for excellence, from being mice to being men.
All this depends on man being able to suppress his baser instincts. This is known in Judaism as the yetzer hara, the congenital evil instinct that drives him to put his wants and needs ahead of anyone and everything else. It is this instinct we see when a child refuses to share his toys, when he points to someone else after getting caught doing something wrong, and when he leads a group of hangers-on in bullying someone who is different. Most of us learn to tame this instinct, and to channel its energy in more productive endeavors; the desire to have becomes the desire to succeed.
In politics, however, there is an intrinsic danger, and that danger is power. Lord John Acton, a 19th century British historian, wrote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” According to Aristotle, each type of government has the potential to degenerate into its “evil twin”: a monarchy metastasizes into a tyranny, an aristocracy transforms into an oligarchy, and a constitutional government turns into a democracy. The corrupted form of each exists when those with power horde and abuse that power, then rely on fear, mindless obedience, or oppression to control the community. The common characteristic of these regimes is that their goal is to rule in favor of the governing body. The king is only concerned with his well-being. Those in the oligarchy are only interested in protecting their financial empires. And democracy is when a constitutional government becomes mob rule, when the hue and cry of the day is, “What’s in it for me?”
Trump rode to power because our constitutional government, one created by men who struggled with designing something that would give voice and representation to the disparate interests and concerns of a nascent nation, has devolved into a democracy. Governance has become all or nothing; for one interest to win, the other side must lose. Compromise is a dirty word. Trump promised his supporters that he was their champion, that he would take care of those who voted for him. He promised to subjugate those who were not like them, who, simply by virtue of being different, posed an existential threat. Once in office, he nominated for Cabinet positions the most rich white men in decades, with an average net worth of over 8 billion dollars. After he signed an ill-conceived and even more badly implemented travel ban, a federal appeals court affirmed the stay on the executive order despite his lawyers’ argument that a president has ultimate and unreviewable authority to issue orders. When questioned about his refusal to divest or his tweet against Nordstrom after they dropped his daughter’s line of products, he hid behind the claim that, as president, he is not subject to federal ethics laws.
In short, the constitutional government created by our Founding Fathers, men who fought for liberty from a tyrannical monarch, is now in the hands of a man who would be king, aided by an oligarchy of the very businessmen he railed against during his campaign, and supported by a minority of the country’s population who willingly run roughshod over anyone who is not like them. A thick vein of self-interest ties them together, but it remains to be seen whether this cord will bind them closer or end up strangling them. Their self-interests will inevitably clash; such is the parochial nature of self-interests. The saddest part is how we as a country were lifted from being mice to men over two hundred years ago, only to teeter on the verge of becoming mice once more.