The warning bells sounded by Andrew Sullivan in his recent New York Magazine article, “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny”, merit your attention. Although clearly no conservative (he has Donald Trump squarely set in his article’s sights), Sullivan rightly identifies how well-intentioned democracies slide into the arms of despots who quickly then short-circuit the system and rule with terror and absolute power.
Sullivan looks back to Plato’s Republic and shows how the current American culture is eerily lining up with what Plato predicted about a freedom-unchecked civilization. The below quote from his article is lengthy, but worth your time:
Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” What did Plato mean by that? Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”
This rainbow-flag polity, Plato argues, is, for many people, the fairest of regimes. The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.
The very rich come under attack, as inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Patriarchy is also dismantled: “We almost forgot to mention the extent of the law of equality and of freedom in the relations of women with men and men with women.” Family hierarchies are inverted: “A father habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents.” In classrooms, “as the teacher ... is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.” Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in. The foreigner is equal to the citizen. And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.
He is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time — given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion. He makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class — and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess—“too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery” — and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.
Unless you have been in a coma the past decade or so, what Sullivan references from Plato is a mirror image of what we are experiencing today in America. And for those that know their history, it’s just déjà vu all over again.
The Emperor’s Has No [Divine] Clothes
In her work, Religions of the Hellenistic Roman Age, Antonia Tripolitis describes the society of 2,000+ years ago the following way:
The Hellenistic-Roman world had witnessed a succession of barbarian invasions, bloody civil wars, various recurring plagues, famines, and economic crisis. Moreover, confidence in the traditional cults and their gods that served as the basis of the political, social, and intellectual life was waning. The general populace no longer placed its hope or faith on the ancient gods, whom they believed could not alleviate their daily encounters with the vicissitudes of Hellenistic life. . . . This was a period of general material and moral insecurity. The unsettling conditions of the time led people to long and search for soteria, salvation, a release from the burdens of finitude, the misery and failure of human life. People everywhere were keenly awake to every new message of hope and eagerly prospecting for a personal savior, someone who would bring salvation, i.e., deliverance or protection from the vicissitudes of this life and the perils of the afterlife.
Again, what was then, is today. The political saviors who came on the scene back then weren’t shy in taking advantage of the situation Tripolitis describes. Soon, politics was blended with religion, with the end result being that the leaders were celebrated as something much more than they really were.
In the East, kings were regarded as sons of the gods and venerated as such from earliest times. In Egypt, the pharaoh was the son of the sun-god, and as such, his subjects were forced to swear absolute obedience to him.
During his conquests, Alexander the Great encountered the oriental concept of divine kingship. After he died, he was buried in Alexandria where a priest was installed for him as the founder of the city and as the son of Ammon. The Greeks were accustomed to the idea that gods could appear on earth and that divine men could do marvelous things, but up to this point they had never bowed before a ruler as the epiphany of a deity.
After Alexander came Antiochus IV Epiphanes who assumed divine epithets while alive, which no other Hellenistic king had done to that point, such as Theos Epiphanes ("God Manifest"). Then came the worship of the Roman emperors, which began at Ephesus in 29 B.C. when a temple was built to the deified Julius Caesar. His and other emperor’s rules delivered stability and prosperity to the unstable climate and so they were rewarded with reverence and admiration.
Emperors such as Augustus were not only recognized as political heads of state, but also immediately revered as the nation’s sōtēr (saviour) and euergetēs (benefactor). Some like Vespian didn’t take the public adoration seriously, while others such as Caligula and Domitian (who demanded to be addressed as Dominus et Deus – “Lord and God”) most certainly did.
The important point to take away from this quick review of ancient history is highlighted by University of Glasgow professor William Barclay who wrote: “The extraordinary fact is that emperor worship was not imposed on the Roman Empire from above; it grew from below” (my emphasis).
Again, we see the exact same thing happening now.
The Future Fuehrer
As America continues to both implicitly and explicitly hold God’s funeral, it forgets that someone is always waiting to take the Creator’s place. It might be a German Fuehrer who takes matters into his own hands and has hymns like Silent Night rewritten for him. Or maybe the leader is unwittingly assisted by his admirers that resemble MSNBC’s Chris Matthews who said of Obama: "This is bigger than Kennedy. [Obama] comes along, and he seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament."
Today’s pervasive fear of economic and political instability coupled with the current moral and mental insanity that seems to have no ceiling parallels perfectly what Plato and Tripolitis reference. It sets the stage for a new emperor just as historian Arnold Toynbee observes: “By forcing on mankind more and more lethal weapons, and at the same time making the world more and more interdependent economically, technology has brought mankind to such a degree of distress that we are ripe for the deifying of any new Caesar who might succeed in giving the world unity and peace.”
Rest assured, he’s coming.
Scripture clearly describes a point in the future when that Caesar will be crowned by a fawning world desperate for peace and prosperity. The new emperor will seem to have all the answers, and will rise from the chaos of the nations (Rev. 13), but after he has delivered a false veneer of peace, the Bible says he will then, “cause deceit to prosper, and he will consider himself superior. When they [the people] feel secure, he will destroy many and take his stand against the Prince of princes” (Dan. 8:25).
The world will have forgotten the admonition of Hamlet who said, “The spirit that I have seen may be a devil; and the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.”
Andrew Sullivan shouldn’t be so afraid of Donald Trump. Bad as Trump is, there’s someone much worse coming, and the really terrifying thing is the people of the world are paving the way for him right now.