It is easy to forget the temporary nature of our existence. We not only lose sight of our own mortality, but also become totally oblivious of the fact that our socio-economic context and political structures that shape our lives and ideals are neither permanent nor everlasting.
While we feel and recognise the immediate changes around our lives, the political structures and institutions appear as though they are immovable structures in our landscape.
History shows that this is not the case. What has interested great thinkers and philosophers throughout the ages is not so much the human tendency to sink into false consciousness, which is taken almost for granted, but to identify how political systems change over time, and how one political system can slowly evolve into another.
This recurring theme of apprehending the trans-generational changes that take place in politics was taken up recently in the New York Magazine to account for the rise of Donald Trump. The American author Andrew Sullivan described how Socrates noted, nearly two and half thousand years ago in his dialogue with his student Plato, that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”
Socrates’ evocative comment, during one of the most famous political dialogues in history, captivated Plato. Musing about the nature of democracy he thought that a political system founded on the will of the people is inherently unstable because of its susceptibility to demagogues. Plato disapproved strongly of the system, especially since he felt that his mentor was executed under a democratic political system.
The success of democracies may have astonished and surprised Plato. He probably would have marvelled at the way that high-minded and well-crafted constitutions, with the separation of powers, have safeguarded democracies from descending into fascism. However, can we say that he was entirely wrong; are constitutional safeguards enough to protect human beings from populist uprising and demagogues?
Putting aside other historical examples of where democracy did indeed give way to fascism after collapsing under the weight of populist movements, fuelled by fear and hate, the rise of Trump attests to Plato’s prophetic insight. He poses a threat to the US Constitution.
For centuries, the Constitution has been a political firewall against fascism in America, but that is only half the story. It hasn’t always safeguarded basic human rights. The men (and it was all men) who drafted the US Constitution believed that all men were created equal and yet many of them owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson even thought that black people did not feel empathy like white people; that they did not require rest from work like other human beings. His deeply misguided beliefs about black people allowed slave holders like Jefferson to work their slaves to the brink of death and to divide slave families forcefully, without any sense of contradiction or guilt.
The Constitution failed to protect millions of African Americans who endured unspeakable crimes for centuries. When slavery was finally abolished in 1865, their basic human rights were nevertheless denied for at least another hundred years. It took the mass civil rights movement to ensure that constitutional rights were extended to all American citizens for the first time, minorities included.
Notwithstanding the myopic assertions of the gun lobby whose members protest against even the slightest curtailment of the Second Amendment which grants the right to bear arms, the US is not shackled to its Constitution. Like all historical documents, including religious texts, I should add, its interpretation is subjective. How one interprets text depends on the assumptions taken for granted. Thomas Jefferson’s racist views about black people may appear to demonstrate cognitive dissonance, but if he believed that black people were not fully humans to begin with, then there seemed to be no good reason, in his mind at least, why basic human rights should be extended to them. This of course, is the 21st, not the 18th century and the major battles for human rights, we are led to believe, have been won.
But is that really the case? It would be a mistake to take anything for granted. Let’s not forget that under the guise of national security thousands of Japanese-Americans were kept in internment camps during World War Two after an executive order by President Roosevelt. The US Constitution did not protect them. With his fondness for executive orders, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility for Trump to implement something similar. Of course, it was reassuring to see the near universal condemnation of his call for the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and to watch federal judges stand up to his unconstitutional policy, but Trump may have an ace up his sleeve to enforce his Muslim ban.
The rise of Trump and those like him is why Plato and his kind disapproved of democracy. The question is, has the political context in America changed such that its past contradictions may resurface once again? Trump has been voicing thoughts and ideas that are believed across the US; he didn’t appear in a vacuum. It’s been building-up for months, says Max Fisher: “In American politics and media and popular discourse, Trump is just the tip of an iceberg that runs much deeper than many Americans would like to believe. America’s climate of anti-Muslim hatred and fear is rampaging out of control. And it has very real and legitimately scary implications for the millions of Americans who follow Islam.”If you think that Trump’s Muslim ban is a devious plan from the mind of a madman acting alone, think again. During the election campaign, Jeb Bush, who had denounced Trump for his divisive rhetoric, thought that it was perfectly acceptable to allow Syrian Christian refugees into America but not Muslims. The distinction between Bush and Trump is largely one of scale, not of content. The identity, politics and ideology of the people running the Trump White House are also important in this context. He is most definitely not alone.
Cancer is said to have a better public image than Islam in the US. Conversations about Islam and Muslims have moved beyond reasonable grounds to indulge bigoted world views, to spread lies, misinformation and now, fake news.
The rhetoric has not been cost free and its role in radicalising right-wing white extremists and terrorist can be thought of as nothing less than the role of so called hate-preachers who radicalise equally misguided Muslims. Regardless of the constitutional safeguards, Trump may well be one terrorist act away from repeating America’s past mistakes. Large sections of his own constituency believe that Islam is not a religion but a political system similar to communism that uses a deity to advance its agenda of global domination.
The dangers of this kind of thinking, as others have pointed out, will enable Trump to pursue his ban on Muslims without breaching the First Amendment. “Thinking about Islam in these terms,” says Professor Jocelyne Cesari, “allows people to reconcile a commitment to First Amendment rights with a sense of Islam as an existential political enemy.”
The stakes could be high. “Once you look at Islam as a political ideology, especially one that is threatening, you can ignore or neglect all kinds of civil procedures or protection of religious freedoms that go with the status of being religious in this country.”It has been encouraging to witness the strong push back against Donald Trump. His menace may have dragged people out of their slumber and political apathy, and growing numbers are waking up to the fact that rights cannot be taken for granted but need to be defended constantly. This may be the only silver lining of his presidency, but it would be unwise to assume that the US Constitution and its defenders will always succeed in resisting opportunist demagogues and bigots. Ignoring Plato’s unease about democracy would be a mistake.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.