In a recent New York Times column, “The Revenge of the Lesser Trumps,” Frank Bruni talks about those who have been sucked into Trump’s orbit, fell out with him, and now are turning against him. He writes:
The problem with being Donald Trump isn’t just being Donald Trump. It’s all the other, lesser Trumps around you. It’s the versions of yourself that you create, the echoes of yourself that you inspire. They’ll devour you in the end.
I don’t mean his biological offspring, though they’re no picnic. I mean his spiritual spawn. I mean the knaves, nuts, schemers and dreamers who have taken their cues from him or turned his lessons against him. This is their moment. This is their month.
Bruni is thinking of such Trump White House insiders as Omarosa Manigault Newman, who has written a nasty, tell-all book about the administration, and Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who is cooperating with prosecutors after pleading guilty to eight criminal charges, going so far as to implicate Trump in federal crimes.
This phenomenon—corrupt leaders surrounded by equally corrupt followers—is not new with Trump of course. But it raises an interesting (if ultimately unanswerable) question: Does the would-be Nero or Mussolini corrupt those around him, or does he attract those who are already corrupt? (Using the masculine pronoun purposefully.) Bruni’s obviously not a philosopher or a political scientist, so he’s not making an argument, but he claims it’s the former: “It’s the versions of yourself that you create…”
Bruni finishes the column with a colorful image of a Borg-like Trump shedding cancerous offspring that take on a life of their own:
The genre usually invoked to describe his presidency is reality television. Science fiction is more apt. He’s an entity whose components split off to form independent existences that now threaten to undo him. His hunger for attention became Rudy Giuliani; his thirst for pomp, Scott Pruitt; his taste for provocation, Avenatti; his talent for duplicity, Manigault Newman. They’re an army of emulators, adding up to Trump. And they’re on the march.
These questions of corruption and tyrants were of the greatest interest to Plato and his mentor Socrates. Both suffered at the hands of tyrants, and Socrates himself was charged with (and ultimately lost his life for) corrupting the youth of Athens.
As you may know, it’s a bit difficult to separate the thought of Socrates from that of Plato. This is because Socrates never committed anything to writing; and because Plato wrote dialogues, the main character of which is often Socrates. That being said, I’m going to talk about two dialogues in which the distinction between them is pretty clear according to conventional wisdom: Apology and Republic. Apology is one of the early “Socratic” dialogues and is an account of Socrates’s speech at his trial. Experts tend to agree that of all the Platonic dialogues, it is most likely the closest representation of the thought and words of the historical Socrates. Republic, on the other hand, is a solidly Platonic dialogue from the mature period of his writing.
First, the speech in the Apology, where Socrates is defending himself against the charge of corrupting the aristocratic youth of Athens (like Plato himself). He has three accusers at his trial, only one of whom, Meletus, speaks. In this segment, Socrates is cross-examining Meletus and arguing against the claim that Socrates is willingly turning his neighbors and associates into bad people:
What follows, Meletus? Are you so much wiser at your age than I am at mine that you understand that wicked people always do some harm to their closest neighbors while good people do them good, but I have reached such a pitch of ignorance that I do not realize this, namely that if I make one of my associates wicked I run the risk of being harmed by him so that I do such a great evil deliberately, as you say? I do not believe you, Meletus, and I do not think anyone else will. Either I do not corrupt the young or, if I do, it is unwillingly, and you are lying in either case. (Apology, 25d – 26a)
Socrates’s argument here is that if he were to corrupt one of his neighbors willingly, turn him into, say, a thief or a murderer on purpose, he would inevitably be harmed by that neighbor (he’d be robbed or murdered in the end). No one wants to be harmed in that way; consequently, no one would willingly do this. Thus, it would follow that if someone like Trump has a negative influence on people around him, turning them into scoundrels like himself, he’s only doing it out of ignorance.
But Socrates goes further than this. Later in his speech he claims that it’s not possible for a better person to be harmed (that is, corrupted) by a worse person:
Do not create a disturbance, gentlemen, but abide by my request not to cry out at what I say but to listen, for I think it will be to your advantage to listen, and I am about to say other things at which you will perhaps cry out. By no means do this. Be sure that if you kill the sort of man I say I am, you will not harm me more than yourselves. Neither Meletus nor Anytus can harm me in any way; he could not harm me; for I do not think it is permitted that a better man be harmed by a worse; certainly he might kill me, or perhaps banish or disfranchise me, which he and maybe others think to be great harm, but I do not think so. I think he is doing himself much greater harm doing what he is doing now, attempting to have a man executed unjustly. (Apology, 30c – d)
There are a couple of pretty radical ideas here. First is Socrates’s claim that killing, banishing, disfranchising someone (or at least Socrates himself) doesn’t amount to harm. Clearly, according to Socrates, the only thing that really counts as harm is corruption of the soul. The second radical idea is that someone else can’t corrupt your soul; only you can do that to yourself. Anytus and Meletus aren’t harming Socrates by accusing him unjustly and having him executed; rather, they’re harming themselves—corrupting their own souls.
Applying this to the case of Trump, the claim then would be that Trump is unable to corrupt the souls of those around them, and thus unable to do them real harm. Those who fall into his orbit and end up disgraced and/or in jail are corrupting themselves. Whether this claim is completely true or not, there’s something to be said for it, I think. After all, Trump’s lawyers, Cabinet members, aids, etc., can always resign rather than follow his directions and get drawn into doing terrible things. On the other hand, Socrates’s claim that material, even physical, harm isn’t real harm is, it seems to me, impossible to defend. Think about Mexican immigrants, whose lives are being torn apart at Trump’s direction, or the women he has himself physically accosted and abused. Their souls might not be worse off, but they’ve most definitely been harmed by Trump’s actions.
Things are different in Plato’s Republic. As I said, this is a mature work of Plato’s, and he’s no longer simply recounting Socratic conversations (or at least Socratic-like conversations). He’s now the father of Western philosophy and is developing his own original thinking. In terms of the content of its ideas, the Republic is a sprawling work. It covers metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and political philosophy. The central issue is justice: What does it mean to lead a just life? What would the ideal, most just political organization be?
Much of the dialogue is taken up by discussion of how the rulers of the ideal city will be chosen, trained, and educated. Plato firmly believes that some people are naturally suited to being philosophers and thus the ruling philosopher kings (and others are more naturally suited to being soldiers or tradespeople). The upbringing of these potential philosophers is all-important. Socrates (the character now, not the historical person) says: “We must now look at the ways in which this nature is corrupted, how it’s destroyed in many people, while a small number (the ones that are called useless rather than bad) escape.”
The education of many aristocratic youth of ancient Athens was handed over to a group of teachers call ‘the sophists’. They taught rich young men how to speak and argue, preparing them for their lives as leaders of the city. Many had contempt for the sophists, claiming that they had a corruptive influence on these young men, teaching them skill in rhetoric and logic, for example, but giving them no respect for truth or wisdom. But in Republic, Plato isn’t buying that argument:
[Socrates:] Now, I think that the philosophic nature as we defined it will inevitably grow to possess every virtue if it happens to receive appropriate instruction, but if it is sown, planted, and grown in an inappropriate environment, it will develop in quite the opposite way, unless some god happens to come to its rescue. Or do you agree with the general opinion that certain young people are actually corrupted by sophists—that there are certain sophists with significant influence on the young who corrupt them through private teaching? Isn’t it rather the very people who say this who are the greatest sophists of all, since they educate most completely, turning young and old, men and women, into precisely the kind of people they want them to be?
[Adeimantus, Plato’s real-life brother:] When do they do that?
[Socrates:] When many of them are sitting together in assemblies, courts, theaters, army camps, or in some other public gathering of the crowd, they object very loudly and excessively to some of the things that are said or done and approve others in the same way, shouting and clapping, so that the very rocks and surroundings echo the din of their praise or blame and double it. In circumstances like that, what is the effect, as they say, on a young person’s heart? What private training can hold out and not be swept away by that kind of praise or blame and be carried by the flood wherever it goes, so that he’ll say that the same things are beautiful or ugly as the crowd does, follow the same way of life as they do, and be the same sort of person as they are? (491e – 492c)
Plato is suggesting here that the real corruption of the philosophic nature comes not from private instruction (by sophists or anyone else), but from the noise of the crowd. Young people tend to get swept along by the loud voices, the bluster, the thrill of being part of the multitude. (Images are now popping into my head of young people, kids even, at Trump rallies, waving ‘MAGA’ signs.)
All this leads Plato to a discussion of the worst form of government and the worst form of life for a person to lead: tyranny. A person who has a tyrannical soul is someone who can’t control him- or herself, someone who is pulled this way and that by his or her wants and desires. In this case, one is being tyrannized by one’s animal nature. Think of drug addicts, alcoholics, people with a gambling addiction, compulsive liars. This is the worst way to live. But even worse than this, says Plato, is the life of the actual tyrant.
[Socrates:] In truth, then, and whatever some people may think, a real tyrant is really a slave, compelled to engage in the worst kind of fawning, slavery, and pandering to the worst kind of people. He’s so far from satisfying his desires in any way that it is clear—if one happens to know that one must study his whole soul—that he’s in the greatest need of most things and truly poor. And, if indeed his state is like that of the city he rules, then he’s full of fear, convulsions, and pains throughout his life. And it is like it, isn’t it?
[Glaucon, another of Plato’s real-life brothers:] Of course it is.
[Socrates:] And we’ll also attribute to the man what we mentioned before, namely, that he is inevitably envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless, impious, host and nurse to every kind of vice, and that his ruling makes him even more so. And because of all these, he is extremely unfortunate and goes on to make those near him like himself. (508a)
Let’s contemplate the language here a moment. The tyrant (or would-be tyrant) is “compelled to engage in the worst kind of fawning, slavery, and pandering to the worst kind of people”; he is someone “envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless, impious, host and nurse to every kind of vice, and…his ruling makes him even more so.” Sorry for editorializing here, but this description, as far as I can see, fits Trump like a Speedo. He panders to Putin, for example. He’s clearly envious, untrustworthy, and unjust; it’s hard to imagine that he has any real friends. Pious? Forget about it. And he does indeed display every kind of vice one can think of.
[Before Trump was even inaugurated, the great Andrew Sullivan posted this piece on Plato’s anticipation of the Trumpian phenomenon: Click Here.]
Just note that the mature Plato is arguing against his friend and mentor, Socrates. Plato is here claiming that good people can indeed be corrupted by those who are worse than they are; and he seems to be implying that the tyrant necessarily corrupts those closest to him: “he is extremely unfortunate and goes on to make those near him like himself.”
As I said, there’s probably no way of definitively answering the question of whether Trump corrupts those around him or if he merely attracts those who are already thoroughly corrupt. All I know is, if he offered me a job, I’d run the other way.