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History Repeating : November 21, 2016

Development: A bellicose strongman emerges from the crowded political field to assure an anxious majority in a state with self-rule that their best days are still ahead of them. They bargain away their rights in exchange.

Parallel: Virtually every major city-state in ancient Greece at some point or other went through the same predictable political cycle.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to power, a good deal of deserved attention is being paid to the prescience of Richard Rorty’s 1998 book, Achieving Our Country.” In particular, 18 years ago, Rorty predicted the following:

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

As terrifying as this prediction-turned-reality is, though, it’s far too simple to project onto Rorty’s prediction that our current situation is unique. Rather than zooming in on this for answers (as a critic of the book in the The New York Times recently noted, “People are furiously arguing about what played a key role in this election — whether it was white working-class despair, a racist backlash or terror about the pace of cultural change. It seems reasonable to think that all three played a part.”), I would argue we’ll learn more by zooming out.

Indeed, I’d argue that perhaps something even more basic to humanity accounts for the lion’s share of why Trump has happened. I’d even accept, if there were any credible scientists offering such an analysis, that it’s genetic.Why? This has been happening somewhat consistently ever since humans in the Western world first decided that self-rule was a worth a go.

In his wonderfully readable 2005 history of international power struggles in the 5th century BC, Persian Fire, Tom Holland outlined a historical summary that echoes Rorty’s 1998 predictions to a tee:

There were few leading cities anywhere in the Greek world that did not at some point during the seventh and sixth centuries BC fall into the hands of a high-aiming strongman…. “Tyrannides,” the Greeks called such regimes — “tyrannies.” For them, the term did not have remotely the bloodstained connotations that the English word “tyrant” has for us. Indeed, a Greet tyrant, almost by definition, had to have the popular touch, since otherwise he could not hope to cling to power for long. Trumpets, slogans, and public works: such were the enthusiasms he would invariably parade. He would also be expected to provide, to a people that might have been racked by faction-fighting for decades, the stamp of firm government–at the very least…. Naturally, in exchange for granting his fellow citizens the blessings of order and prosperity, a tyrant could be expected to make a few demands of his own. He might require that certain illegal measures, certain regrettable precautions, be overlooked: bodyguards, for instance; controls on free speech; the occasional midnight knocking on doors.

Trumpets [“I’ll keep you in suspense”], slogans [“Make America Great Again”], and public works [which Trump made much ado about during his victory speech, but which in this case is simply another part of his long, long grift].”

The part of Holland’s historical summary to pay the most attention to, of course, are the “few demands” a populist strongman can be expected to make. With steady attacks on The New York Times and Washington Post; demand for apologies from citizens who respectfully speak out about their fears; and promises to deport up to 3 million illegal immigrants (in other words, expect more of this), Trump would seem to be anxious for a head start on that part of the deal.

Most recent bona fide tyrants have died terrible deaths, many at the hands of the very people they oppressed, which should cause anyone thinking “because this seems to be just part of the human history cycle, why not run with it this time” to reassess their long-term objectives.
SOURCE: edward_ winkleman – Read entire story here.


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