In a provocative essay, Andrew Sullivan suggests America is an extreme democracy ripe for tyranny. America’s multiculturalism, sexual freedom, disrespect for any authority or expertise and intolerance of any inequality whether earned or natural characterise its extremism. These characteristics challenge the previous moderate democratic order and the result is a descent into public domain dominated by an incoherent mess of views, identities, and demands. From this incoherent public domain, a tyrant emerges with a promise to defend the old order and return stability to the public domain. From this promise or intent, he will find supporters in those who want to protect the old order as well as those dislike the extreme democracy. Sullivan comes to this conclusion via Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, who provides his analytical focus. Plato, in his famous dialogue, the Republic, described a process by which an extreme democracy emerges and with it a tyrant to change a democracy into a tyranny. Sullivan relies on this analysis to explain Donald Trump’s emergence as a viable candidate for the presidency. His analysis rests on three premises. First, he accepts that Trump fits Plato description: a member of the elite, who takes his chance to rule by using the mob who support him to his attack rival elites such as the wealthy. Second, Trump, like the tyrant, promises to bring order to the incoherency of the extreme democracy. Third, America is an extreme democracy ripe for tyranny.
Sullivan wants us to focus on Trump for he despises him and what he offers. Despite his prejudice, it provides no lasting insight for his essay remains at this superficial level of personalities. He avoids the difficult questions of why or how democracy changed, what motivates Trump, and why America’s political institutions have seemingly become fragile to the point of collapse. What marks the change from democracy to extreme democracy? He describes the characteristics but does not address the causes. To say it changed has to indicate that it had a turning point or a point of departure from when it stopped being a democracy and became an extreme democracy. A democracy and an extreme democracy are both marked by freedoms. How do the freedoms or the extent of the freedom differentiate a democracy from an extreme democracy? Sullivan does not look within the democracy, or Trump, to find what animates them. As he remains on the surface of symptoms and outcomes where many freedoms and the appearance of political, social, and moral incoherence which has made many people fearful. Perhaps it is what lies beneath the surface that scares him.
If he focused on what animates democracy, and Trump, he might have seen a different, darker, more disturbing message. Trump is only a symptom and is not a symptom of an extreme democracy but a potential harbinger. The deeper problem, and the more difficult problem, is how to reform American democracy, if it can be reformed, to avoid the extreme future that Trump appears to foreshadow. Even if Trump is defeated in this election we will not see America return to a healthy democracy that is less susceptible to the fate of becoming an extreme democracy unless the sources of extremism are address. However, such an analysis is problematic if not impossible within his essay for the fundamental problem within his essay—America is not yet, nor is it close to becoming, an extreme democracy.
Sullivan’s argument is based on the premise that America is an extreme democracy. He believes that the symptoms he describes indicate that extremism. In this analysis, he is mistaken and he is mistaken because he has relied on Plato for his analytical framework and not Aristotle. Had Sullivan relied on Aristotle rather than Plato he would have seen that an extreme democracy is a tyranny that lacks a tyrant. That America is not an extreme democracy, for it is not tyrannical, helps us to understand why it is not waiting for a tyrant. With Aristotle he would have seen an extreme democracy is tyrannical which is why it gives birth to or is receptive to a tyrant. Trump is not a tyrant in waiting, for he can only be a tyrant if he taps into the tyrannical ethos of an extreme democracy. Sullivan confuses great freedoms and great discontent, political incoherence, and political factions for extreme democracy. In other words, the political uncertainty with great freedoms does not indicate that extreme democracy exists. What America appears to suffer from is each of these elements; symptoms of extreme democracy, an apparent tyrant in waiting, oligarchic support for the apparent tyrant, without the necessary ingredient: the extreme democracy or the extreme democracy that has become tyrannical. Aristotle, who lived through extreme democracy, was able to describe its characteristic in his book the Politics.
If Sullivan had considered Aristotle, he would see that America only has the shadow of extreme democracy as do all democracies. The extreme democracy is more prevalent on social media than in the public domain. Without these characteristics, it cannot be considered an extreme democracy. If it cannot be considered an extreme democracy, then America is not yet ripe for tyranny. No matter what we may think personally of Trump, he is not a tyrant waiting to emerge from within an extreme democracy. He may be something else, but he is not going to rule as a tyrant nor is he able to draw on extreme democracy. However, to understand why Sullivan misunderstands extreme democracy, America, and Trump, we have to look at Aristotle’s ten characteristics of extreme democracy as tyranny.
- The first method of extreme tyranny: the prosecution and removal of prominent individuals.
In an extreme democracy s prominent men, and women, who might oppose what is happening either by the tyrant or the extreme democrats are prosecuted and removed from office or driven from the public domain. In the United States and the United Kingdom, we see an orthodoxy imposed where people are prosecuted for hate speech, elitism, racism, homophobia, or just labelled as “haters”. Yet, all societies are based on a shared opinion, an orthodoxy, that defines the public domain. A defence of this political orthodoxy is not itself a sign of extreme democracy. However, there is a subtle form of persecution, which is less public, but still relies on the demos for its effect. In the UK, we see that political and personal blackmail are used to drive people from the public domain or to control them if they want to remain in the public domain. In this way, the blackmail can derail the democratic will but its success relies on the demos to be outraged should the private information, the blackmail, be published. In a milder, not illegal sense, this is often called “opposition research”. Although characteristics of an extreme democracy emerge in certain places such as when individuals are shouted down in public debates, denied a platform at university lectures or talks, and met with a constant barrage of protests that are marked by threats of physical violence and financial ruin, they are the exception. When these activities are publicized, they are criticized and resisted for they fall outside the norm. They are not considered the norm, yet.
This characteristic is not met.
- The second method of extreme tyranny: favoring flatterers
Another characteristic is that flatters find favour and success within the public domain for their ability to tell the democracy what it wants to hear. In the extreme democracy, commentators, academics, and entertainers who flatter the public and the powerful find favour and success. Yet, such figures, who will flatter the powerful either the demos or the oligarchies or simply the person in charge, have always existed. The flatters who succeed are those who can parrot what the extreme democracy demands for which they are feted, celebrated, and rewarded. They are not going to tell the public the truth for that is not considered a road to success. They stop saying “what is” and say whatever the powerful want them to say. They have no desire for reform and if they do speak of “reform” it is to pander to the powerful not to restrain their appetites or grievances for they want fame more than the truth. In the age of social media this is quite common as flatters are those who usually seek audience shares and popularity to earn their wage. Yet, the audiences are fickle and quickly tire of those who flatter them since “what is” dispels what the flatters say. As Robespierre found the most powerful flatter will be consumed by the mob. If this characteristic was present, then we would need to ask Mr Sullivan why he is exempt.
This characteristic is mixed.
- The third method of extreme tyranny: sowing the seeds of dissension and slander, turning friend against friend, demos against aristocrats, and the rich against each other.
Here we start to see something of the current social media system that has begun to infect the political system. What Aristotle described sounds like the average fare on Fox News and MSNBC or could be considered Rupert Murdoch’s business model. What passes for news is designed to generate hatred, fear, uncertainty, and doubt about democracy, decency, and fairness. If someone can be attacked, humiliated, or bullied, you can be sure it can be done through the media who do this for fun and profit. Instead of a common good, we are constantly told how we are being “ripped off” or how someone is taking advantage of us or some group is getting special favours while politicians fail to act out of cowardice, bribery, corruption, or incompetence. We are never told the media’s interests in this approach only that they are reporting the “news”. The media excites the public to a frenzy since someone else must be to blame, never the journalists or their editors, since they direct it. Democratic due process and legislative process are seen as battlefield where all results are zero sum. The logic becomes “Unless we win, humiliate, and destroy our enemies, then we have lost, been defrauded, and humiliated”, which means that compromise is weakness and surrender. We no longer talk of what brings us together we only hear what divides us and makes us different and if that difference is not protected by law, then we must be suffering vicious, unremitting discrimination by anyone who does not share our views. We no longer talk of finding the change in ourselves. Given the hysteria that the media foment one wonders how soon pitched battles will break out on America’s streets. If it did, one could be certain the media would be there to cover it to generate advertising revenue.
This characteristic is met.
- The fourth method of extreme tyranny: favoring the dominance of women in the homes and lack of discipline among the slaves.
Here Aristotle reflects his historical context. In that era women rarely participated in the public domain and slaves were a constant threat for they could either betray their masters, murder them, or revolt. Today, these characteristic can be seen in the way children are drawn into the public domain to erode parental and societal authority. In such a view, all authority is questioned and resisted for its existence can only be explained by the fact that its legitimacy is based solely on its ability to oppress. Thus, when people are encouraged to believe that any authority exists solely by and for its power to suppress or express the arbitrary prejudices of those who possess authority, must be resisted.
The fundamental and original form of authority is the family structure. The authority in the family can take many forms so the issue now is not about patriarchy, it is about the nature of the family as a source of authority. The family forms a bulwark against society for it is a private space within which one can resist the corrosive demands of extreme democracy and tyranny. The family structure relies on authority in that it guards against incest, or treating children as sexual objects to be consumed by society, and sustains the belief that parents, not society or the state, are responsible for raising the young. Both of these rely on a harmonious relationship between husband and wife. Yet, what we find that the family is under constant attack with it being redefined so that incest can become a topic that no longer scandalizes, and thinkers who can speak of selling children as if they were lifestyle accessories or consumer goods.
This characteristic is met.
- The fifth method of extreme tyranny: preferring the company of foreigners.
Although the concern could be with immigration, Aristotle’s characteristic focuses on the regime’s nature. The tyrant prefers foreigners to the extent that he cannot rely on citizens to carry out his orders. In the current context, we can see how immigration becomes a political instrument either to promote liberty or to earn a profit. In the United States and the United Kingdom, the extreme democracy is marked by increased enfranchisement of foreigners. Yet, the focus is less on their ethnicity or their economic effect as the issue, even though these are important, than it is the political rights they obtain. In an extreme democracy, the tyrant knows that political power can be accumulated to serve or hinder those political rights depending on how the tyrant wants to rely on the foreigners for his power. If they are for immigration, they can expand the welfare state. If they are against immigration, they can expand the surveillance state. The extreme democracy and the tyrant will offer more and more political rights for this allows them to extend their power for such rights will need to be protected and promoted.
This characteristic is not met.
- The sixth method of extreme tyranny: the prohibition of hetaireiai and similar institution.
The term hetaireiai refers to what is known today as social clubs. Other institutions are common meals, education institutions or churches. The extreme democracy as tyranny cannot tolerate institutions that could set themselves apart or resist the demos. A private club, by definition sets itself apart and provides a space, like the family, within which one can live away from the demos’ corrosive demands. From these clubs, social groups, common meals, churches, as well as education, people can develop pride and confidence which would encourage them to think and act differently from the enforced egalitarianism. They can build an identity or self-belief beyond what society wants to impose. We can see this most clearly in American universities as students suppress free speech. They demand that identity politics be enforced and any thought or behaviour that resists must be punished and banished from the academy. If professors will not comply with the student’s ideological demands they will be boycotted and banished from the university. As the American university now is a business and not a place where students are educated; it reacts like business seeking to satisfy the customer instead of defending the truth or upholding its authority. Education is attacked as oppressive unless it demonstrates that it adheres to a curriculum which satisfies the students’ preferences instead of the state imposing an ideology. What the student prefers is what education is to deliver without realizing that this is not education. Churches and organised religion are also attacked for they demand a form of leisure that resists the ever present requirement to work. They believe in a day of rest. Without this leisure and the appeal to the divine, culture becomes impossible. Despite this effect, the clubs, universities, churches and other social institutions are not outlawed despite being under attack.
The characteristic is not met.
- The seventh method of extreme tyranny: preventing the subjects from knowing each other.
In the social media age, this seems to be an impossibility. We can use social media to create networks, share information, and know more people than ever possible in history. The issue, here though, is what is meant to know someone. To be their correspondence is a poor substitute for knowing them through a life lived in their proximity. If anything, social media reduces that possibility for it interferes with all aspects of friendship since it makes one completely open when friendship is the deepening relationship between people. From friendships one can develop the courage to believe that there are things worse than death. In Aristotle’s age people would die for their friends or kill to defend their friends. Would we do the same for our social media contacts? The extreme democracy demands radical transparency even as privacy evangelists talk of encryption as a barrier from the state. Encryption only provides the dangerous illusion of privacy which makes the person unable to develop a relationship for they believe it will substitute for trust. The approach to encryption assumes secure communication is possible and that this is sufficient to develop friendship.
When we look closely at Facebook we see that it demands and receives complete transparency about every users’ content. They cannot encrypt themselves to Facebook. Facebook knows everything about them from what they supply and can map their relationships for profit and power. In this method, they encourage people to believe that they have created and sustained friendship by removing their desire or ability to know people beyond the platform. They cannot know anyone for they “know” them already from what Facebook provides through its algorithms and account settings. By placing more information on the platform they have less desire to know themselves or to know other people. They become introverted as they become self-absorbed since their friendships are mediated by Facebook or the platform. However, social media, despite its ubiquity, does not define the physical world so the power to prevent people from meeting is limited.
The characteristic is not met.
- The eighth method of extreme tyranny: the prevention of leisure (schole) According to Heuss, to deprive the citizens of leisure (making them ascholoi) is the central element of Aristotle’s theory.
Leisure is a rarity within the social media age. The prevailing view is that people must be busy following the “life hacks” to get more from their time and their life. The leisure that enables a person to reflect, think and plan is removed. At any given moment, a person is prompted to check their emails, notifications, or instant messages. They are constantly connected and in that constant connectivity they have no leisure. They may have “free time” but that is not spent at leisure, it is busy achieving something to satisfy their “quantified life” rather than reflective. Without a place or time to be reflective, a person cannot consider alternatives to the tyranny or the extreme democracy. Even their attempt to find leisure makes them suspect in the tyrant’s eyes.
In a general sense, a society is kept busy through taxes, public works, and incessant warfare. If we follow these categories we see that taxes must be paid. To pay taxes, one has to work. Once taxes are paid, the citizen becomes focused on how they are managed. The public are then asked to concern themselves with how the tax dollars are spent in public works. If they are not involved in the projects themselves, they are being drawn into their oversight. Finally, at an extreme level, a society can be kept from leisure though warfare. The society is always on war footing so the tyrant can justify his power and encourage people to accept his power, expressed by constraints, because of the external threats as well as the possibility that the war might be lost. The seeds of this are present but they are not determinative. People can, and do, unplug from social media so they can find leisure.
The characteristic is not met.
- The ninth method of extreme tyranny: to know everything the subjects say or do
Under an extreme tyranny, what the people say and do is known. The issue is more than a technological surveillance system such as Facebook. It is that the people will not speak freely or openly for they fear spies. The spies are not their electronic devices, it is their friends and neighbours. The distrust erodes friendships and makes it difficult to form friendships. Without friendship, people cannot develop the courage or ability to resist or challenge a tyranny. Even if someone does not speak against the tyrant, they will be required to support the tyrant publicly. They cannot remain anonymous for their friends and neighbours will inform on them or simply require them to conform with a public behaviour that becomes a private conformity. Husband and wives will be turned against each other.
To attempt to speak the truth, not simply speak the truth, will be dangerous. To investigate “what is” as a way to be able to speak the truth will be dangerous for that means one is engaging in pre-crime. The tyrant’s subjects become slaves for they cannot exercise the public behaviour speaking truth publicly and freely. They become subservient and can only speak what they are told is acceptable. In a word, they become servile for they can only speak the orthodoxy. To deviate from that orthodoxy is to engage in behaviour that threatens the tyrant. If you speak against the government, you are breaking the law. As you break the law, you can be punished. In time, it becomes easier to conform, especially if the tyrant offers prosperity and stability, instead of seeking the truth or “what is”.
The tyrant’s subjects cannot begin to discover the truth or share such thoughts privately for they are monitored. Today such monitoring occurs on Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms that can track contacts, topics, content as well as intent. These systems provide a complete understanding of the person so that all that they do or think is known. Even encryption does not help for no one can isolate themselves to the point where they have no contact with anyone linked to the system. At best one can become a hermit but that means one surrenders the public domain and lives like a self-imposed exile. In a word, one lives a sub-human life for one cannot participate fully in the public domain or in any shared human activity. However, this extreme situation has not become the norm since it only extends so far as people voluntarily allow it to extend into their life.
This characteristic is not met.
- The tenth method of extreme tyranny: to cause distrust and humbleness of spirit among the subjects, for these prevent conspiracies
With extreme democracy, we see that envy and resentment become important for maintaining the political order. In phrases such as “check your privilege” people are kept humble. In arguments against “elites”, “1%”, “experts” we see the demand that any difference, even earned difference, is levelled. At the same time, people are to be encouraged, especially through digital entertainment or lifestyle devices, to be kept busy worrying about keeping up with the news, or each other. The people are reminded to quantified their experiences so that they can be ranked, analysed, and compared. What improves performance, and controlled behaviour, in the workplace is used to generate controlled behaviour in the public space. When their public behaviour is not controlled, then their private behaviour is controlled by encouraging them into the digital domain with social media activity and games. People who are occupied in the digital domain can be monitored should they attempt to meet. They are less inclined to meet in person for conversations which might allow them to assess their lives under the political regime. These are only the passive activities that are encouraged to be done voluntarily, such as updates to Facebook, there are more intrusive or coercive activities to encourage distrust and humbleness.
We know that smartphones can be turned on remotely to become listening devices. As more electronic devices obtain this ability, always with the associated benefits promoted such as efficiency and convenience for better user experience, the negative effects on the individual increase. As long as they carry their mobile phone or their lifestyle devices their behaviour and interactions can be tracked. The public invite this scrutiny and surveillance into their homes without realizing what it means for their ability to think or act in ways that might challenge the status quo. However, it is not the government, as an agent of the extreme democracy, that requires this for it is the demos which will encourage people to live this way. If you do not have a mobile phone or a Facebook account, you will be seen to be as someone who will not conform to the democratic ethos for you appear to set yourself apart. As you set yourself apart, in this logic, you show you are no longer humble and you cannot be trusted for your loyalty to democracy becomes suspect. When you fail to act, speak, live, and participate with the democratic orthodoxy, then you become suspect. In such a life, it becomes difficult to trust anyone, for you do not know when or how they might betray you, and you cannot aspire to any form of excellence lest you incur their envy, resentment, and suspicion for the attempt to appear or to be “better” than they are. However, greater “privacy” does not deter this for this does not remove the need for a public life where one can meet freely with other people of like interests. If anything, the demand for greater privacy encourages the extreme democracy for all private activity becomes mediated by the public democratic ethos.
This characteristic is not met
When we consider Mr Sullivan’s statement, that America is an extreme democracy awaiting a tyrant, against these characteristics, the comparison fails. America, despite its flaws and current turmoil, is not an extreme democracy. Although the social media reveals the symptoms, it has not converted America’s public domain into an extreme democracy. Social media has opened new questions and reawakened long dormant challenges to democratic institutions. In this role, it reveals that America, like any democracy, has seeds for an extreme democracy if not tyranny. However, to characterise a mature, healthy democracy with one teetering on the brink of tyranny for its extremism does a deep disserve to the American idea and the current challenges. In his post, Sullivan becomes what he claims he abhors. He sows doubt and fear. He may claim that he has acted in America’s best interests to alert her to the danger, we would have been better served had be provided an insight into the seeds of extreme democracy to understand the symptoms before they emerge. What we have been given is his prejudices about democracy, which reveal his affinity for tyranny for he would rather flatter than reform; reap the personal benefits of extreme democracy than sow the seeds of virtue. In his essay, he confuses America’s republican presidency, purposely created with an anti-tyrannical design, with the tyrannical democracy.
If we are to accept that America is an extreme democracy and Trump is a tyrant in waiting, what does it say about the incumbent?
(The ten characteristics are drawn from this work.
ARISTOTLE ON EXTREME TYRANNY AND EXTREME DEMOCRACY Ivan Jordović Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte Bd. 60, H. 1 (2011), pp. 36-64 Franz Steiner Verlag)http://www.jstor.org/stable/29777247)
 Politics Book 5 1312b 30 -1314b 18 http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0058%3Abook%3D5
10. Whilst there may be nothing more than suspicion, speculation or innuendo in some of the matters openly raised and recorded on the Internet condition public opinion as to what might have been going on through this period. Perhaps the starkest example is that raised by a politician about fellow politicians. Michael Cockrell’s ‘Westminster’s Secret Service’ featured an interview with Tim Fortescue who was a senior Whip, in the Heath administration1971-1973 –and so almost a decade before the period of greatest relevance to our review. He was prepared to say in an interview broadcast on national television:
“For anyone with any sense, who was in trouble, would come to the whips and tell them the truth, and say now, I’m in a jam, can you help? It might be debt, it might be… a scandal involving small boys, or any kind of scandal in which, erm er, a member seemed likely to be mixed up in, they’d come and ask if we could help and if we could, we did. And we would do everything we can because we would store up brownie points… and if I mean, that sounds a pretty, pretty nasty reason, but it’s one of the reasons because if we could get a chap out of trouble then, he will do as we ask forever more.” [Emphasis added]
 Social media news reporting has adverse health effects. http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/apr/12/news-is-bad-rolf-dobelli
 This includes temples, synagogues, and mosques or any place of organised religious gatherings.
 http://www.ditext.com/adler/wle.html see also http://www.ditext.com/strauss/liberal.html see also Newman’s idea of a university where people come to learn for learning sake. http://www.csun.edu/~hceng028/English/Sp15/newman.pdf or even Nietzsche’s understanding of education. http://www.thenietzschechannel.com/lectures/fed/fed-eng.htm
 “Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and so living link with a church community and with divine worship.” http://www.newjerusalem.com/pieper.htm
 The philosopher Joseph Pieper warned about this danger in his book Leisure the basis of Culture. https://www.amazon.com/Leisure-Basis-Culture-Josef-Pieper/dp/1586172565
 Already we can see that social media being designed to exploit our psychological weaknesses https://medium.com/swlh/how-technology-hijacks-peoples-minds-from-a-magician-and-google-s-design-ethicist-56d62ef5edf3#.7slg1s59d