Is Trump a Tyrant? Part II: Locke’s Tyrant
As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).
In the previous essay I laid out the basics of the argument by definition. In this essay, I make good on my promise to present John Locke’s account of tyranny. Since Locke’s political philosophy is part of the foundation of American political philosophy, it makes considerable sense to use his account.
Locke takes the view that people form government via a social contract and do so for the good of the people. That government exists for the people is a critical part of Locke’s theory and is essential to his account of tyranny. Those who believe that government exists to serve other purposes are likely to take issue with Locke. Now, to his account.
Locke takes tyranny to be the “exercise of power beyond right.” For him, the right use of power is for the good of the citizens and a leader’s use of power for “his own private separate advantage” is exercising that power “beyond right.” Locke also presents some other key point about tyranny, noting that it occurs when “the governor, however entitled:”
- Makes his will and not the law the rule
- Does not direct his commands and actions to the preservation of the properties of his people.
- Directs them to the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.
When an authority becomes a tyrant, they cease to be an authority and “may be opposed, like any using force to invade the right of another.” Locke condemns tyranny at all levels but is especially critical of tyranny at the highest level. Tyranny “is much worse in one who has more trust put in him and has already a much greater share, and is supposed from his education, employment, and counselors, to know more of right and wrong.” Now that Locke’s definition has been presented, the issue is whether Trump meets it or not.
While it has been argued that a sitting president cannot be indicted, the president can still break laws and Trump has done so. Examples include his efforts to obstruct justice and his ordering the Justice Department to investigate his rivals. Trump’s defenders counter such accusations with a rolling defense. The first step is to deny that anything was done. When it turns out that something was done, the second step is to argue that that what was done was not a crime. When it turns out it was a crime, the final defense is to argue that the president cannot commit a crime or at least not be investigated. While these defenses might have some legal merit, they do not defend against an accusation of tyranny: even if Trump cannot be indicted as president, he can and does make his will and not the law the rule. As such, he meets this part of the definition.
The obvious counter to my argument is to advance the technically correct argument that Trump has not been convicted of violating any laws. If the condition is that he must be convicted, then he has the perfect defense against a charge of tyranny on this count: the justice department has taken the view that a sitting president cannot be indicted, so unless he is impeached, then he cannot be convicted of breaking any laws. This defense is somewhat desperate, but it can also be argued that Trump has not broken any laws because either (as the rolling defense goes) he did not do it, or if he did it, it was not a crime. This seems to amount to a simple refusal and raises the question of what his defenders would ever accept as evidence that he has broken laws.
A tyrant can also easily work around this first standard—simply ensure that the laws match their will. As Aquinas argued, there can be tyrannical laws. Because of this loophole, it is fortunate that Locke has two other standards for assessing an authority for tyranny.
The second standard is that the authority does not act to “preserve the properties of his people.” Locke considered property to be among the trinity of core rights: life, liberty and property; this is no doubt why it figures so prominently in his account of tyranny.
A challenge with applying this standard is determining what it means, specifically what is meant by “people.” Unless a tyrant is ruining the entire country and everyone in it, then some of the people will enjoy the preservation of their property. Even the best authority will not preside over a perfect state, so some people will not have their property preserved. As such, the stock problem of determining how much good must be done and evil avoided arises. As a practical solution, it seems sensible to have a scale of preservation, with an emphasis on having the property of the numerical majority preserved with minimal damage to others. This can, of course, be endlessly debated.
Trump, as one would expect, has a mixed result here. Under his administration, the Obama era upswing has continued—the stock market is generally doing well and the rich are richer. On the other hand, the situation for the middle and lower economic classes has gotten worse under Trump relative to Obama (and it was bad under Obama; his policies were no great friend of the middle class). From the standpoint of those who see the people as the many, then Trump had not acted to preserve their property. For those who see property in terms of the top earners, stock market and corporations, his policies have done more than preserve their property—they have been, on the large, enriched. The masses wait, eternally, for this to trickle down.
Where Trump most obviously meets the definition of “tyrant” is on the third standard; the motto of the Trump administration could be “the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.” To be fair to Trump, most politicians would qualify as tyrants by this standard. To illustrate, many politicians set re-election as their primary goal at the expense of doing good for the people they represent. However, it would be an error to argue that because many politicians are Lockean tyrants it follows that there is no difference among them so that some are better or worse. Tyranny, like most evils, is a matter of degrees.
Listing all the ways Trump has acted to satisfy “his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion” would require an entire book; let it suffice to present some of the recent and major examples.
Trump might be on the path to impeachment for trying to pressure Ukraine into investigating a debunked conspiracy theory about Joe Biden and his son. Biden is Trump’s most likely adversary in 2020, so the goal of this is to get dirt to use on Biden. While his defenders have tried to argue that there was no explicit quid pro quo, Trump himself undercuts his defender’s efforts—the transcript the White House provided shows Trump asking for a favor (investigate Biden) in return for allowing aid to go through. Denying this was extortion requires pretending that one does not understand how language works. It has been revealed that Trump also pressed the leader of Australia to help Attorney General Barr investigate Biden and Trump publicly called on China to investigate Biden. His defenders have tried to claim that Trump was joking—which is a bit like saying Bonnie and Clyde were joking when they said they were going to rob a bank: not impossible, but more likely the statement of just another signature crime.
It could be objected that, contrary to the facts, Joe acted to protect his son from an investigation. Even if this were true, it would not change the fact that Trump’s push for an investigation is driven by his own ambition rather than aimed at the good of the country. Speaking of corruption, Trump is “corruption in the flesh.”
One impact of the Lockean influence on the United States is that people holding public positions generally operate under strict rules limiting how they can profit from their position. To illustrate, I am a professor at a public university and thus operate under strict rules about profiting—even though the greatest power of my position is my ability to assign grades. At the highest level, the President of the United States is supposed to be held in check by the emoluments clause: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” In Lockean terms, these rules and laws are aimed at preventing the authority from acting from covetousness and profiting from their office at the expense of the people. Profiting from his office has been Trump’s business plan.
While Trump and his defenders sometimes offer half-hearted denials that Trump is profiting from his office and following the emoluments clause, Trump cannot help but brag about how much money he is making from foreign powers and how he is profiting from his office. One of the many unusual thing about Trump and his lawyer Rudy is that they publicly admit to wrongdoing. One of the many unusual things about Trump defenders is that they persist in defending Trump even in the face of these public admissions, grasping at debunked conspiracy theories, pretending to not understand how language works, and jettisoning whatever principles they might have once professed to hold.
Trump clearly meets the Lockean definition of “tyrant” and does so to an extreme degree. Given Locke’s theory, this robs Trump of all legitimate authority, whether he is impeached or not.
In the next essay I will address the fallacious counters to the above arguments.
I’m not really sure why I was looking forward to this essay; it’s exactly as I thought it would be. It is nothing more than the parroting of the Democrat talking points, unencumbered by any sort of critical thought. Completely follows the rules – any accusation against Trump must be true by definition; any accusation or counter-argument against those who seek to derail him are “conspiracy theories”. And of course those who engage in those conspiracy theories are at best “Trump Supporters”, but more likely White Supremacists.
So let’s take a look, shall we? (Hang on a sec – let me put on my MAGA hat.)
“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)”.
I trust that you know the difference between talk and action, don’t you? Between tyrannical acts and mere bluster?
In today’s news, Trump has decided to pull American troops from Syria as Turkey prepares for an invasion, much to the chagrin of his fellow Republicans and many Democrats in Congress.
“Calling the decision “a major blunder,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), usually a staunch defender of Trump’s foreign policy, said in an interview that it was “an impulsive decision that has long-term ramifications” and “cuts against sound military and geopolitical advice.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged Trump to “exercise American leadership” and warned that “a precipitous withdrawal” would benefit Russia, Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and increase the risk that the Islamic State would “regroup.”
So taken out of context, the quote at the top of your essay certainly does seem tyrannical – with the implication being that Trump is unilaterally threatening to destroy an innocent sovereign nation if they, in his view, should “misbehave”. But within the given context, Trump is declaring that despite the hawkish stance of his party-line advisers, he does not believe that the military threats and machinations of the Turkish government against ISIS strongholds in Syria are worth sacrificing the blood of American troops.
It’s not too difficult to see that this statement about the destruction of the Turkish economy was a reassurance – “Don’t worry. I’m pulling out the military because the conflict is not worth American lives, but believe me, I have other tricks up my sleeve”.
Democrats, who are laser-focused on impeachment, are scrambling to find some heinous ulterior motive in this action. Not such an easy task, though, because under normal circumstances this would be the stock Liberal Democrat position. Avoid war at all costs. Bring our troops home. Do not meddle in the affairs of others, and especially do not risk American lives to do so. This position has been consistent for decades – yet when given the choice between holding to the position and supporting Trump, well, this is quite the dilemma.
So to the left, it is unthinkable and impossible that Trump would or could actually make a move that would keep American troops out of harm’s way for the sake of keeping American troops out of harm’s way – no, there has to be some kind of self-serving motive behind it.
Nancy Pelosi says that this is a “Christmas Gift to Vladmir Putin”. Sen. Tim Kaine says,
“This irresponsible move by the President poses a serious threat to servicemembers as they conduct a hasty withdrawal in an uncertain security environment.”
And Rachel Maddow says that Trump may be doing this to distract from the latest Mueller investigation. (Rachel, try to keep up, will you? Mueller is yesterday’s news).
The war in Iraq under GW Bush is not so long ago – many of the same Democrats are in Congress – but they have certainly changed their tune, haven’t they? Do we really believe now that removing troops from pointless wars must be some kind of corrupt Russian plot, unilaterally executed by an American Tyrant?
“The obvious counter to my argument is to advance the technically correct argument that Trump has not been convicted of violating any laws.”
Sorry – “technically correct”? The heart of our judicial system, which in concept and principle is a model for the rest of the world, is the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. The presumption of guilt, along with the dismissal of one of the most important tenets of our legal system as a mere “technicality” is a blatant perversion of a defining doctrine of our judicial system. If it were just a few passionate Trump haters who are unable to accept that anything the man does is not the result of some heinous conspiracy that would be one thing – but the fact that it is an organized, protracted policy of our elected officials on the Left is an indication that your accusation of “tyranny” is grossly misplaced.
“f the condition is that he must be convicted, then he has the perfect defense against a charge of tyranny on this count”
So if conviction, as the result of due judicial process, is regarded as some kind of loophole that stands in the way of censure, punishment, impeachment and worse, then those who hold that belief are the real tyrants.
I’m not a lawyer, but I’m fairly certain that “I hate him”, and “I just know he’s guilty, he has to be!”, and “I don’t care what evidence he produces to the contrary – I’m sure that’s just him and a bunch of his pals throwing up a smoke screen!” are not, technically, admissible or credible indications of guilt.
“A tyrant can also easily work around this first standard—simply ensure that the laws match their will.”
And how, exactly, is this accomplished? Last I checked, we had a tri-cameral system of government. Laws originate in the House or the Senate, they are debated and passed and then signed by the President. The president, by decree of Congress, has limited powers and cannot, without a coalition of accomplices, merely pass laws by fiat, without the approval of the other branches of government. Trump has pushed for policies regarding illegal immigration, for example, which have met with a substantial amount of opposition. Many of these have been overturned, many others are held up in lower courts. This is not “tyranny”, it is the way we go about things in this country.
Pelosi, Schumer, and a large faction of congressional Democrats have made it clear that they have no intention of even discussing Trump initiatives in their chambers; their opposition of him is de facto, and far, far more extreme than the declaration by Mitch McConnell that he wanted to make Obama a one-term president. Why do I say this? Because the “impeach Trump” movement was born on election night in 2016. There were no “high crimes and misdemeanors”, there was no “malfeasance”, there was no “betrayal of the public trust”, there was only anger, hatred, and incredulity that Hillary Clinton, the “heiress apparent”, did not win the election McConnell’s statement was made at the midpoint of Obama’s Presidency, after the passage of many of his initiatives. It is very clear that McConnell’s opinion was a political one – based on his objection to the policies that Obama had passed. But in true tyrannical fashion, McConnell (and any Republican who supported him), were dismissed as racists.
The issue with Ukraine is a developing story. It is no surprise to me that you would take the report of the first news outlet to say that the story has been “debunked” as the Gospel, but the fact is that there is no claim by any news agency or politician that goes beyond “there is no evidence”. This concept has not stopped the Democrat investigations into Trump’s activities, of course, nor has it interfered with the presumption of guilt described above. The lack of enough evidence to convict Trump is a technicality – you said so yourself – because his guilt is obvious and apparent. However, the lack of evidence against Biden (with far, far less of a taxpayer-funded investigation than that afforded Trump) is proof positive that there is no corruption, and that the entire accusation has been “debunked”.
Since then, of course, there has been mounting evidence that the accusation of collusion with foreign powers to influence the US election was levied against the wrong side; there is substantial evidence of collusion with Ukraine that dates back to 2013. There is evidence in the form of a series of memos that indicate that the DNC was actively engaged with Ukraine in digging up dirt (er, “oppo research”) against Trump, and in favor of Hillary Clinton. Despite the fact that this goes unreported in the mainstream media, it has been corroborated by both American and Ukranian officials.
Fortunately for the citizens of the United States, we hold evidence in high regard, and we demand that such evidence leads to absolute proof beyond the shadow of a doubt before we convict.
I don’t know where this all will go, but I do know that I am unwilling to follow the “four legs good, two legs bad” line of reasoning. There is much data to investigate, and at this point it looks as though most of the evidence is piling up on the other side. As American citizens, it is our duty to consider all of it regardless of our partisan political leanings or our blind hatred for Donald Trump.
If we allow ourselves to ignore the preponderance of evidence on one side in order to feed this hatred, we are giving in to a real tyranny- a government that has no respect for the American tenet of “presumption of innocence”. We are giving in to a tyrannical government that will wield whatever power is necessary to put down political enemies, one that presses for confiscatory tax law under the guise of “fairness” based on a narrative of envy, and one that does not hesitate to use the power of an agency such as the IRS to investigate, intimidate, and harass individuals by virtue of their association with organizations that are politically opposed to that of the administration in power. And of course, by ignoring this evidence we also risk accepting the hypocrisy of a blatant double standard – offering our approval of collusion with foreign entities to help bring down political enemies – as long as the collusion is perpetrated by one side and not the other.
In this country, we no longer respect the constitution as the seminal document that restricts the powers of the government. We are willing to give the government as much power as it takes if it means that they can bring down those we hate, or those we envy. The idea of a Representative Republic or a system of laws based on the principles of Democracy are quickly giving way to a “social credit” system of governance, defined by the publicity of accusations, whether valid or specious; a system that values “identity” over achievement, merit, or even equitable social treatment. Four legs good, two legs bad.
I’ve gone way off topic here, but in circling back for a moment – Donald Trump, as the POTUS, is subject to the limitations of presidential power defined in the constitution You may describe him as uncouth, boorish, or self-aggrandizing; you may envy his wealth or hate him for any successes he might accrue, and you may revel in glee with each and every one of his failures, but you cannot deny that for all of his bluster, he is no different than any other POTUS. His successes are at the behest of a Legislative Branch that voted to pass the laws he favors, and his failures are due to the opposition of a majority of legislators who succeed in blocking his initiatives. As I indicated above, many of the initiatives he has attempted to enact are being blocked by lower courts; it is only a matter of time before one is heard before the Supreme Court. No different from his predecessors, he clamors, he fights, he employs questionable strategies in order to increase his power – but tyrant?
The accusation is completely absurd.
Do you ever get the feeling after reading one of Mike’s essays that somewhere a dog is missing his breakfast?
Michael LaBossiere says
My hounds never miss their breakfast.
Nice Fisking, DH. And Mike is truly reaching Fiskian levels of moonbattery.
I too was looking forward to this, but it falls apart when I try to grab any piece of it. I’ve come back to it a few times, and I’m still left with nothing interesting to say.
Ignoring the obiter dicta, the essay boils down to
(Almost?) All politicians are tyrants (by Mike’s view of Locke’s view that a tyrant is any politician who does anything in his own interest instead of the people’s)
Trump is a politician
Therefore Trump is a tyrant. (Though as a matter of degree he’s much worse than usual because reasons.)
Which doesn’t feel satisfying, or even worth discussing.
Michael LaBossiere says
Neither I nor Locke claim that any politician who acts in their own interest is a tyrant. Tyranny arises when the politician puts their self-interest ahead of the good of the people. As per my example, many politicians set re-election as their primary goal at the expense of doing good for the people they represent. As such, they would be engaged in tyrannical behavior to the degree they are harming their constituents by putting their re-election first.
One thing worth noting is that most people think of tyranny in terms of the extremes rather than as a matter of degree. But it is rather like crime; there are petty acts of tyranny as their are petty acts of crime. If, for example, I used my position to force students to buy my books, I would be a tyrant-but a petty one. If I was President and used my office to enrich myself and my family at the expense of the people, then I would be a far more serious tyrant. If I was a dictator who tortured, enslaved and such, then I would be a major tyrant.
I think it is a bad thing that we just casually accept politicians exploiting their offices without calling them tyrants; by not doing so we then get the politicians we deserve.
If you think I misrepresented what you said, that could be due to my clumsy phrasing. I understand how you are interpreting Locke’s passage.
However, my reading of that passage doesn’t accord with yours, and I part company with you, and possibly with Locke, in that definition. It is in the essence of any tyrannical act that it encompasses some measure of cruelty that creates fear. Without that, the word “tyranny” becomes cheapened, overused, applied to every venial misdemeanour.
I will just note again that, by your definition, almost every senior political figure will be guilty of tyranny of some degree at some point. I can’t say I’m surprised you first noticed it when Trump was president.
It is in the essence of any tyrannical act that it encompasses some measure of cruelty that creates fear. Without that, the word “tyranny” becomes cheapened, overused, applied to every venial misdemeanour.
I warned you of this, did I not? A word means just what The Great Humpty chooses it to mean—neither more nor less. The “creates fear” is it’s own meaningless phrase. As I said before, if the “fear” we are talking about here is genuine in the sense as commonly applied to true tyrants, people from countries this supposed tyrant supposedly hates would not be climbing walls and risking their lives to get here. And those Americans who, according to the great journalistic investigative and news magazine Rolling Stone say they are supposedly “absolutely terrified” of Trump, would be leaving the country in droves.
I’m curious, what would it take for either you, DH, or TJ to call this stuff out, in no uncertain terms, for the complete bullshit that it is? I will say DH comes closest. But y’all still feel you can appeal to reason with someone who neglects much of what you have to say, is very dismissive of you (OK, not you directly but in the passive-aggressive manner of “people like” you) to the point of calling people with valid perspectives and opinions liars and exaggerators who are not even close to having a point. Seriously consider this:
In what way is any of that even remotely respectful of other points of view in a philosophical argument?
And again, were we engaged with a private citizen, well whatever. Everyone is entitled to being a jerk, including myself. However when one is entrusted with the education of the next generation, funded by not just those intellectually vulnerable youth themselves but also through the truly tyrannical funding mechanism of state enforced taxation, is there not a much higher level of responsibility to be respectful to the public especially in regard to their concerns with how their money is being spent?
As an example of what a bad, bad, bad man Trump is, that tweet at the top here vis-a-vis Turkey isn’t aging well.
Clearly, only a brutal tyrant would try to prevent Turkey from murdering Kurds with an angry tweet.
Michael LaBossiere says
A crazy tweet; even a mad king can have moments in which they rage against murder.
Sooo…. I take it no one is looking forward to the next essay regarding the fallacious counters to the presented arguments? No? Come now, let us not all be Debbie Downers. Please Mr. L I’m sure, as you indeed indicated, that there was no need to hear from the hoi-polloi, you wisely anticipated any and all counters and have the next essay already in the can, so to speak. Why all the drama?
There’s a segue here into Labor Value Theory, but…never mind.