Aristotle Explains the Trump Phenomenon


Aristotle’s discussion of factional conflict in his Politics gives historical insight into Donald Trump’s meteoric rise to political popularity. Ordinary Americans are acting in defense of their perceived economic interests and against the reign of political correctness.

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Recently, my work as a teacher of political science required me to reread book five of Aristotle’s Politics. This book gives Aristotle’s account of the causes of factional conflict in political communities. Of course, I make a habit of telling my students that ancient political philosophy remains relevant to understanding our own modern political situation. Nevertheless, even I was amazed, on revisiting Aristotle’s Politics, how helpful it is to understanding the rise of Donald Trump.

Trump is, as everybody knows, given to boastful exaggeration. He is not exaggerating, however, but telling the truth when he says that the political movement he has assembled is one of the biggest stories in American politics for several decades. Students of American politics, whether they like Trump or not, should try to understand such an astonishing development. This duty is particularly acute for the conservative student, since Trump’s success is a phenomenon of the American right; he has coopted a significant portion of conservative voters and brought himself close to winning the nomination of America’s conservative political party.

Unfortunately, many conservative intellectuals seem to have worked themselves into a state of indignation that makes it difficult to understand the Trump phenomenon. They have convinced themselves that a vote for Trump is necessarily and obviously an act of grave political irresponsibility. Yet Trump has won the votes of millions of ordinary, decent Americans. You would not have to travel far in America to find any number of your fellow citizens who could give you reasonable reasons for their support of Donald Trump’s candidacy. The conservatives who are most strident in their complaints about Trump’s supporters, however, are for the most part surrounded by people who think as they do. They are in a kind of bubble, but that bubble of like-minded people is not representative of the country as a whole.

To understand the Trump phenomenon, to get some objective view of it, one must get out of the bubble. And there is surely no place further outside the bubble than the mind of Aristotle. His thoughts are not provoked by our own political struggles or shaped by the emotions that such struggles necessarily foster. He was just trying to understand the nature of politics for all time. His is a position rare for its detachment, and one from which we should try to understand our own problems.

Trump’s rise is intelligible as an example of the recurring phenomenon that Aristotle treats in book five: factional conflict that roils the politics of a city and threatens to destabilize its regime. Not all factional conflicts aim to overturn the existing regime. Sometimes, Aristotle teaches, those engaged in factional conflict aim merely to get control of the existing government. This is what we are seeing: Trump claims that those in charge have proven themselves incompetent, and his supporters agree.

Aristotle, moreover, identifies for us the basic human motivations that lead citizens to engage in factional conflict. In general, he teaches, human beings become factious over equality and inequality. That is, political conflict arises when some think that they are made unjustly unequal or unjustly equal. If they think they deserve to be equal but are held in an inferior position, they engage in factional conflict. And if they think they deserve to be superior but are held to an equal position, they engage in factional conflict.

So far this makes perfect sense, although it is perhaps too abstract and general. Of course human beings wish to be justly equal or unequal, but in relation to what? The question of just or unjust equality can only be understood in relation to some goods in which human beings expect to share equally or unequally. Aristotle identifies the goods (and evils) over which people usually engage in factional conflict: “profit and honor and their opposites.” They fight for gain or glory, or in order to avoid loss and disgrace. Put another way, human beings engage in factional conflict for the sake of self-interest and self-respect.

What light does this account shed on our current situation? Can Donald Trump’s supporters be understood to be acting on such considerations as Aristotle identifies? Let us begin with profit or self-interest. There is an obvious sense in which Trump’s supporters are acting in defense of their own perceived economic interests. In contrast to other candidates, Trump is distinctive because of his strident denunciations of illegal immigration (as well as his occasional suggestions that even legal immigration is presently at too high a level) and of America’s free-trade policies of recent decades. Yet it is not difficult to see how such phenomena are contrary to the interests of Trump’s largely middle- and working-class supporters.

From the standpoint of the American working class, free trade and immigration are two sides of the same coin. They both tend to drive down the wages of American workers by giving American employers access to a larger pool of potential employees: either persons in other countries, or persons from other countries who come to America. A larger labor pool necessarily means that laborers will not be able to demand as high a wage for their work. This problem is exacerbated, of course, when American workers are made to compete against workers from very different countries who are accustomed to a much lower wage. And it is exacerbated further when these competitors are in the country illegally and hence in no position to demand the kinds of wages to which Americans are accustomed.

The defender of global free markets in goods and labor has an obvious (and much relied upon) answer to such complaints: Such arrangements are beneficial to the whole society in the long run, because they drive down the prices of the goods produced by human labor. Whatever truth this argument may contain, it is probably not sufficient to convince people like Trump’s supporters. After all, working people desire—and are obligated—to support themselves and their families not in the long run, but in the short and middle run. The later prosperity of the society as a whole is small consolation to them if they find themselves disadvantaged not only momentarily but for periods that might add up to much of their working life.

So much for profit. What about honor? Is there a sense in which Trump’s supporters can be understood as engaging in factional conflict in defense of their own self-respect? There is, but to understand it correctly we need to understand another of Aristotle’s distinctions. Aristotle bases his political teaching on his understanding of human nature, on what humans share as members of the same species. Yet it is also essential to a correct understanding of political life to know that human nature presents itself in different forms in political communities. In every city there are, on the one hand, the few—the wealthy and the refined—who think they deserve to be superior to the many and, on the other hand, the many who merely strive to secure for themselves a certain equality. This distinction is especially relevant with regard to the striving for honor: The few seek distinction and glory, while the many seek more modestly not to be dishonored or humiliated.

There are two obvious ways in which Trump’s followers view his candidacy as a tool by which they can vindicate their self-respect or avenge and rectify a certain humiliation. The first relates to the discussion of economic interests above. Trump’s supporters believed for a long time that the leadership of the Republican Party—and perhaps of both political parties—was seeking to advance the economic interests of working people. Now that they no longer believe this, they feel that they have been not only disadvantaged but also misled and manipulated. They are reacting, understandably, with anger.

The second way relates to the way Trump launched his candidacy last summer: as an unrepentant opponent of “political correctness.” Many Americans experience the reign of political correctness as a form of dishonor or humiliation. It is not necessary to go into detail here, because almost everyone knows how this works. Suffice it to say that the purpose of political correctness is to inform, or rather to warn, certain Americans that their opinions are not respectable. They had better keep them to themselves, and if they should venture to express them, they had better be very careful about how they do so.

Political correctness is not a principle that applies to all members of our community equally, like a proper code of civility. It rather leaves some free to denounce with indignation, while requiring others to disagree only with trepidation, if at all. Those who are ruled by political correctness—as opposed to those who rule by it—thus feel it as a form of humiliation and are therefore exhilarated by and feel loyalty to someone like Trump who is willing and able to defy it.

Because Aristotle helps us to understand the Trump phenomenon, he is also useful in suggesting how to deal with it constructively. Factional conflict cannot be disposed of by denouncing the people engaged in it. They are moved by basic human passions that they cannot be talked out of, and in any case they would expect to be denounced by those they have come to regard as their political enemies. It is necessary not merely to deplore the effects but to address the causes, the underlying inequalities of profit and honor that generated the factional conflict in the first place. Donald Trump may be defeated this year and decide to leave politics. But I suspect that Aristotle would counsel us that as long as middle American concerns about free trade, immigration, and political correctness remain unaddressed, we will not have seen the end of the political movement that Trump has called into being.

Carson Holloway, a political scientist, is the author of Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration.

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