The Return of the Tyrants and the Price of Democracy
H. David Baer

Democracy today is under siege. It is being replaced in parts of the world with soft authoritarian regimes that preserve but manipulate democratic trappings to guarantee perpetual rule for a single ruler. The ease with which the new authoritarians have dismantled democratic institutions has caught many by surprise, in part because twenty-first century potentates appear so cynical and transparent in their grabs for power. In the past, the great threats to democracy came from rival political ideologies—communism, fascism, Nazism. Today, however, the threat lacks strong ideological definition. The mini-dictators who would destroy democracy resemble not so much the totalitarians of the twentieth century, but rather the self-aggrandizing tyrants of ancient Greece.

Those ancient tyrants used their rule to pursue private gain with complete disregard for the common good. In Aristotle’s view, tyrannical regimes, dedicated as they were to personal self-aggrandizement, combined the worst features of democracy and oligarchy (Politics, Book V 1311a10). Like democratic leaders, the tyrant appeals to the people, but he does so through self-serving demagoguery. The tyrant’s true aim is that of an oligarch, namely, the accumulation of wealth. So, too, in our time, modern autocrats employ populist strategies to disguise the kleptocracies they create, which they use to accumulate massive personal fortunes.

The self-aggrandizing character of modern autocrats helps to explain, also, the stealthy way in which they have come to power. The ancient tyrants often rose to power by exploiting weaknesses within democracy. So, too, the modern tyrants have consolidated their hold on power by capitalizing on defects with liberalism. They did not seize power by overthrowing governments; rather they transformed the democratic systems into petty despotisms. In the twenty-first century, the greatest threats to democracy come from within.

Many of the dynamics contributing to democratic devolution are illustrated by the failures of democratic consolidation in Europe. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, policymakers tended to believe democratic evolution was inevitable. The greatest challenges in facilitating that evolution, so they believed, were technical. The experts, overestimating the capacity of capitalism to generate prosperity and create the social conditions necessary to sustain democratic governance, recommended “shock therapy”—the immediate introduction of full free market capitalism into societies that had functioned on command economies for more than a generation. But “shock therapy” required rapidly privatizing state businesses, a process that was invariably accompanied by large-scale corruption. While the well-connected few got rich, almost everyone else got poorer. Economic liberalism produced manifest injustice, and the democratic systems aligned with economic liberalism appeared rigged. Consequently, the peoples of Eastern Europe, at least large segments of them, could discern no vested interest in a liberal democracy, and have proven largely indifferent to its demise.

Through much of the 1990s in Russia, for example, average citizens saw their savings evaporate in hyperinflation, while a handful of oligarchs secured enormous wealth through rigged public tenders and inappropriate relationships with banks. Massive corruption in the Russian economy contributed to its total collapse in 1998 (Sattler 2016, 43–48). Instead of prosperity, Russia’s experiment in liberal democracy brought a criminalized economy, lawlessness, and widespread poverty. As Plato and Aristotle might have predicted, the anarchy generated by democratic rule led people to look for a strongman, Vladimir Putin.

The strongman, however, as Plato and Aristotle might also have pointed out, does not address and repair the social woes that led to his rise. He makes them worse. Nineteen years after Putin first ascended to power, the Russian economy is still run by oligarchs and weighed down by corruption. Just 110 people control thirty-five percent of the country’s wealth (Sattler 2016, 164). Some speculate that Putin may be the richest man on earth (Washington Post, February 7, 2018). Russian elections, meanwhile, have become a sham. If the people should ever desire a change in their government—well, they no longer have a say in the matter.

A similar, if less extreme story, could be told about the rise of the Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban. Hungary’s transition to a free market economy was carried out by ex-communist elites who were conveniently positioned to benefit from the process of privatization. At the same time, an assertive Constitutional Court, exercising muscular judicial review, placed into law key democratic liberties that were never fully appreciated by a majority of the Hungarian people. Throughout the democratic period, however, quality of life and standards of living deteriorated for many. Two years after the global economic crisis of 2008, a landslide election carried Viktor Orban into power, allowing him to rewrite the country’s constitution and dismantle its democratic institutions. In the absence of constitutional restraints, Orban has created a regime with symbiotic, porous boundaries between state, party, and key oligarchs. While those in the party’s upper echelons have grown enormously rich, a third of the Hungarian population now lives below the poverty line (Budapest Business Journal, Dec. 13, 2017). Should the people want to change their government, a rigged electoral system repeatedly criticized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe makes a peaceful transition of power well-nigh impossible.

Liberal democracy in Europe has failed to deliver societal goods at a level needed to meet people’s expectations for a better life. That failure, coupled with the population’s shallow commitment to democratic institutions, creates an opportunity for populist strongmen, who, once in power, entrench themselves in power through political and economic corruption. Eastern Europe, of course, does not have a long history with democracy, a factor that one suspects would make its people susceptible to the manipulations of a tyrant. Yet unsettling signs exist that a basic commitment to democracy is weakening even in the United States.

In a research survey conducted by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa, respondents were asked to rate the importance of living in a democracy (The New York Times, Nov. 20, 2016). Although two-thirds of Americans born before 1950 thought living in a democracy was essential, not even a third of those born after 1980 thought the same way. Almost 25 percent of millennials even say that democracy is a bad way of running the country (Mounk 2018, 105–107). If the commitment to democracy among some Americans is as flaccid as this data suggests, one wonders how disturbed they would be should a populist strongman assault democratic norms and institutions. Persistently stagnant wage growth, economic insecurity caused by globalization, declining confidence in political institutions, frustration with the factionalization and unending stalemate that appears to render democratic governance impossible—general dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the country might render an American population with increasingly shallow commitments to democratic institutions susceptible to the populist machinations of a tyrant.

Indeed, one suspects much of Donald Trump’s appeal originated in his populist strongman image. “I alone can fix it,” Trump declared at the Republican National Convention, reinforcing the cult of personality central to his career as a politician. Those who admire Trump like him for “telling it like it is”—a claim which, while patently false, captures his willingness, like other populists, to violate social norms and say what people are thinking. In ways truly striking, President Trump comports himself like the tyrants described in Aristotle’s Politics.

The tyrant, Aristotle says, surrounds himself with flatterers (Politics, Book V, 1314a5). So, too, President Trump demands obsequiousness from his staff. One need but recall footage from the first full meeting of his cabinet, in which members went round in a circle extolling the wonderfulness of Trump, starting with Vice President Mike Pence (whose Twitter account appears specially dedicated to praising the Grand Poo-Bah) (The New York Times, June 12, 2017). The tyrant, Aristotle says, humiliates his subjects (Politics, Book V 1314a17); so, too, from Sean Spicer to Jeff Sessions to Rex Tillerson, Trump publicly criticizes and undermines his own staff. Another trick of the tyrant is “to set men at variance with one another and cause quarrels between friend and friend” (Politics, Book V 1113b17). Trump’s sole political tactic consists in polarizing the electorate, sensing that a people divided by intractable partisanship will not act to restrain him.

But most troubling of all is the way in which Trump’s rule, like that of the ancient tyrants, aims at his own self-aggrandizement. The full extent of Trump’s financial relationships remain hidden because the president refuses to disclose them. Even so, however, a clear picture is emerging of a president who, like the East European autocrats he admires, refuses to separate his family’s business interests from the interests of the country.

Consider the case of Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In 2007 the Kushner family borrowed $1.2 billion to purchase a New York office building on Fifth Avenue, inauspiciously numbered 666. Almost immediately, the investment in 666 Fifth Avenue tanked, thanks in part to the 2008 financial crisis. The office building lost millions; meanwhile the $1.2 billion commercial loan marched toward maturity. Jared Kushner needed to find investors to pick up the enormous debt. Throughout 2016, during the course of Trump’s political campaign, Kushner met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak as well as the head of a Russian-owned bank (Frum 2018, chapter 4, kindle location 960). Kushner failed to disclose a number of those meetings on his application for national security clearance, and their subject matter remains unknown. Hence, connecting these meetings to Kushner’s financial woes is purely speculative, and, as far as we know, no Russians have invested 666 Fifth Avenue. But the meetings remain suspicious. Later, in November 2017, right after Trump was elected, Kushner met with a Chinese holding company called Anbang Insurance Group to discuss financial backing for 666 Fifth Avenue (Frum 2018, chapter 4, kindle edition location 947). When the Chinese deal fell through, Kushner then turned to the government of Qatar, an important American ally where the United States maintains a large air force. Unfortunately for Kushner, the Qatari government also declined the unique business opportunity (The Intercept, March 2, 2018).

At this point, of course, Kushner was an advisor to the president entrusted with a portfolio in the Middle East. A few months after Kushner’s unsuccessful business meeting with the Qataris, the government of Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and, allied with other countries in the region, moved to put Qatar under an economic blockade. President Trump, instead of working to de-escalate tensions between these key U.S. allies, began tweeting his support for Saudi Arabia and criticizing Qatar (Frum 2018, chapter 8, kindle edition, location 2293). According to reports, Kushner also backed Saudi Arabia and directly undermined efforts by Secretary of State Tillerson to de-escalate the conflict (The Intercept, March 2, 2018). Given how contrary to U.S. national interests the actions of the president were, one cannot but wonder if the policy he and Kushner adopted toward Qatar was not related to the family’s effort to bankroll a bad investment on 666 Fifth Avenue. According to The Washington Post, concern that countries were manipulating Kushner through his business interests was one reason he was refused security clearance (The Washington Post, Feb. 27, 2018). 

In a bygone America where people understood the importance that norms of governance play in guarding against tyranny, the Kushner affair alone would have been enormously scandalous. Today it is not the only, and probably not even the worst, scandal involving conflicts of interest to surround the Trump presidency. In ways without precedent, Trump is merging the national welfare with his private interests. The dangers posed by that merger, overlooked or undetected by many, were well known to the Founding Fathers, who knew about tyrants of ancient Greece, had studied the fall of the Roman Republic, and personally experienced the tyranny of King George. For the authors of the U.S. Constitution and for generations that followed, tyranny was an ever-present and recurring danger. The price of liberty, they believed, is eternal vigilance. Which makes one wonder: how much longer will we be free?

H. David Baer is professor of theology and philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.


Works Cited

Aristotle, Politics. Trans H. Rackham. The Loeb Classical Library, vol. 21. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

“Ahead of Russian Elections, Putin Releases Official Details of Wealth and Income.” The Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2018.

Frum, David. Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2018. (Kindle edition)

“How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red.’” The New York Times, Nov. 29, 2016.

“Jared Kushner’s Real-Estate Firm Sought Money Directly from Qatar Government Weeks Before Blockade.” The Intercept, March 2, 2018. 

“Kushner’s Overseas Contacts Raise Concerns as Foreign Officials Seek Leverage.” The Washington Post, February 27, 2018.

Mounk, Yascha. The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save it. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

“One-Third of Hungarians Living in Deep Poverty.” Budapest Business Journal, December 13, 2017.

Sattler, David. The Less You Know the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

“Trump’s Cabinet, With a Prod, Extols the ‘Blessing’ of Serving Him.” The New York Times, June 12, 2017.


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