By Stephen Cullis and Simone Witney
Stephen Hawking had one word to say when asked to describe the phenomenon known as Donald Trump: demagogue. We have to go back to 5th Century Athens to discover the origins of this term and to see whether or not its a cap that fits the cotton candied bonce of the current President elect of the USA.
The term ‘demagogue’ was not initially pejorative; it literally means leader of the people, (demos = people, agogos = leader) whether good or bad. Compare the following statements:
- “A flourishing state can always support unfortunate individuals, so everyone should join together to defend it.” “Trust not in hope, which is the prop of desperate men, but in judgement based on a knowledge of our resources which can be depended upon.”
- “Democracy is incapable of empire”. “ Bad laws which are never changed are better than good laws without authority.” “Compassion is due to those who can reciprocate, not to our natural enemies”*
Are these quotes from Obama and Trump? No, they’re from two rival politicians in Athens around 427 BCE during the long drawn out war between Athens and Sparta. The first was Pericles, who had authority through his own integrity, and influenced people by reasoned argument, empathy, and appealing to their sense of honour. The other is Cleon, who exercised power by intimidation and by being prepared to be more violent in policy than anyone else: proposing, for example, the entire destruction of men and enslavement of women and children of a disloyal ally. He rose to power as Athens was suffering a period of social unrest and depression. Clearly I’m thinking of Cleon as a possible fit for the Don. Cleon is not given an easy ride by the ancient sources. The playwright Aristophanes and the historian Thucydides both depict him as an over-the-top, outrageous figure, stirring the people of Athens up with vulgar speech and exaggerated insults and threats to his opponents – remind you of anyone? The more he shouted in his squealing pig voice as he strode about the stage, the more the mob got excited.
The parallels don’t stop there, the inscriptions from the period balance the negative press of the time indicating a canny business mind and a shrewd, if risk prone decision-making character: great successes but equally great failures. Are we in for a similar ride with Prez Trump? It might be worth checking Cleon out in detail to make up your own mind by reading Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War or some of the plays of Aristophanes, one of which, the ‘Knights’ is a relentlessly bawdy attack on Cleon, in the guise of a sausage seller.
Sausage seller: Mate, I can barely read or write, let alone educated, I know nothing about nothing.
Demosthenes: Ignorance and uselessness! Perfect for a politician’s job. Rude, crude and shameless.! The most important qualifications for a politician!**
This is the persona which has ever since fixed the meaning of demagogue.
The war lasted 27 years including short periods when hostilities were suspended. Thucydides, whose work, by the way, is a standard text at West Point, identifies the cause as the rivalry between the two great powers of the region: Athens and Sparta. Now, in the 21st century, we are looking at three superpowers led by Putin, Xi Jinping and Trump, with the latter already showing signs of turning his presidency into a personal fiefdom.
- Thucydides translated by R Livingstone.
**Excerpts from translation of the Knights by G. Theodoridis available online.