Plato on Trump

President Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Wildwood, N.J., January 28, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

I’m not a Trump partisan, but it strikes me as not unreasonable to frame the president’s appeal in terms of Platonic thumos, or spiritedness. In The New Criterion, political scientist Carson Holloway of the Heritage Foundation makes the case. In The Republic, Plato divides the soul into desire, reason, and spiritedness. These three are in turn driven by the quest for satisfaction of the body (desire), the mind (reason), and honor (spiritedness). I can hear David French and Jonah  Goldberg saying, “But Trump has no sense of honor whatsoever.” Okay. But Holloway says spiritedness manifests in the pursuit of dominance and fame, which sounds a little closer to the mark. The aggression, the unwillingness to concede wrongdoing, the incessant need to belittle his perceived enemies are all part of the thumotic package. Holloway notes:

Donald Trump [is] a preeminently thumotic being, far more spirited than the average person and even than the typical politician. This should be evident even from Trump’s pre-political career. Trump loves his buildings primarily not as valuable assets, but as expressions of his consequence. That is why his name is so prominently displayed on them. His thumotic character reveals itself no less vividly in his approach to politics. He is famously, even uniquely, combative. This is part of what distinguishes him from more conventional (and more boring) conservatives like Mitt Romney . . .

Moreover, the dominant themes of Trump’s political rhetoric make a straightforward appeal to spiritedness’s concern with honor and victory. What’s it all about? Winning! And when Trump turns from the positive to the negative and finds it necessary to condemn, he does not merely find conditions to be unsatisfactory or his opponents’ actions ill-considered. They are, rather, “a disgrace.”

Spiritedness is the key to understanding not only Trump himself but also his relationship to his supporters and thus his political effectiveness. To see this, we must further clarify the character of spiritedness and its role in the lives even of ordinary people. In the first place, it is a mistake to think that spiritedness is an entirely selfish passion. It is instead bound up with our natural sociability and with what the ancient Greeks recognized as the very powerful “love of one’s own” — our often fierce dedication to those to whom we are somehow particularly attached. Thus spiritedness comes to the defense of not only one’s own honor but also the honor of those with whom we share some identity.

Read the whole thing.

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