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.