Character and the Republic
More than one week later than it was predicted in the media, an unprecedented legal action was announced:
Donald Trump has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury, a historic reckoning after years of investigations into his personal, political and business dealings and an abrupt jolt to his bid to retake the White House.
The exact nature of the charges was unclear Friday because the indictment remained under seal, but they stem from payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to silence claims of an extramarital sexual encounter. Prosecutors said they were working to coordinate Trump’s surrender, which could happen early next week. They did not say whether they intended to seek prison time in the event of a conviction, a development that wouldn’t prevent Trump from seeking and assuming the presidency (Michael R. Sisak, Eric Tucker, and Colleen Long, Associated Press, March 31, 2003).
Earlier in the week, Trump opened his political campaign for the 2024 presidential election by holding a rally in Waco, Texas. Historian Heather Cox Richardson provided this background account of why that location is significant.
[Waco is] “where a 1993 government siege to extricate the leader of a religious cult who witnesses said was stockpiling weapons led to a gun battle and a fire that left seventy-six people dead. Although a Republican investigation cited “overwhelming evidence” that exonerated the government of wrongdoing, right-wing talk radio hosts jumped on the events at Waco to attack the administration of Democratic president Bill Clinton. Rush Limbaugh stoked his listeners’ anger with talk of the government’s “murder” of citizens, and Alex Jones dropped out of community college to start a talk show on which he warned that the government had “murdered” the people at Waco and was about to impose martial law. After the Waco siege the modern militia movement took off, and Trump is clearly using the anniversary to tap into domestic violence against the government to defend him in advance of possible indictments” (Letters from an American, Substack, March 24, 2023).
In recent days, Trump has been using rhetoric that resembles what he said in preparation for the events of January 6, 2021, which resulted in death, injury, and destruction. The possible indictment related to the Stormy Daniels case is only one of a series of legal actions that Trump is facing, and it is not the most serious one. Whatever turns out to be the importance of these legal matters, my focus is on the philosophical issues that are implicit in these events. To that end, I wish to introduce the concept of “character” in a moral and political sense. The first definition of that term in The New Oxford American Dictionary is “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.” This relates directly to the question of the nature and value of democracy because the moral aspect of democracy is essential. There is no doubt that, as a political reality, the government in a democracy must acquire and hold power; without such power the rule of law cannot be implemented. However, power alone is not sufficient. Unlike other forms of government, such as tyranny and oligarchy, without its moral force democracy, as I use the term, it is impossible. Are the moral qualities of an individual, even one who one who aspires to be President of the United States, really all that important? According to the reporting in a recent edition of The Atlantic, some Republican leaders, including former Vice President Mike Pence, do not seem to think so.
Senior Editor Isabel Fattal interviewed her colleague McKay Coppins, who wrote a profile of Pence for The Atlantic in 2018 and has been following his career closely since then. Recently, Coppins sat in on a series of focus groups concerning Pence’s political career and formulated this assessment:
McKay: Pence made the calculation at the very beginning that he would vouch for Trump with conservative Christian voters. He would assure them that Trump was a good man, and that they didn’t need to worry about the various mistresses and affairs and exploits in his personal life. Pence was a key figure in creating a permission structure for evangelical voters to support Donald Trump, all of his personal foibles notwithstanding.
In doing so, Pence unwittingly wrote himself out of conservative politics. He convinced what should have been his base—conservative religious voters—that personal character and morality don’t really matter in a presidential candidate. I heard that over and over in these focus groups. Voters would praise Mike Pence as an apparently decent, honest, wholesome guy who seems like a good Christian. And then, in the next breath, they would say, But I don’t really want to see him as president. And in many cases, they cited those qualities as evidence that he doesn’t have what it takes to be president.
Pence accidentally conditioned the conservative Christian base to see as their ideal champion a brash, loud, charismatic, and morally dubious figure. Now that’s what they expect in a president. And the fact that Mike Pence doesn’t embody that persona now works against him (The Atlantic Daily, March 22, 2023).
It seems unlikely that Mike Pence personally believes “that personal character and morality don’t really matter in a presidential candidate,” but it is credible that Pence has convinced “his base” that “personal character and morality are irrelevant to choosing a president. Those voters continue to be of great significance, especially considering the legal and moral issues that pervade the candidacy of Donald Trump. The inconsistency in Pence’s role and their response to it should be of special interest to this so-called “Christian base.” How is it possible for someone who embraces the basic values of Christianity to ignore the moral qualities of a person’s character in choosing a political candidate?
The philosophical question I wish to pursue is: Do personal character and morality matter in making political choices such as who should rule in a republic? Earlier in this series (Episode #2), I linked democracy and morality. As usual, this issue is an ancient one, and the central arguments are still relevant. Plato, in Book 8 of The Republic, used his characters to analyze the relationship between personal character and various forms of government. Socrates and Glaucon identify four different forms of government: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny.
I must pause here to point out that democracy, as it is described in Book 8, is not the form of democracy that I favor or the form that is being explored in this series. Socrates, in that part of the dialogue, presents democracy as only concerned with unrestrained freedom of individuals rather than with autonomy, which promotes the rule of law as it applies to individuals and to governments. The unrestrained version of democracy described in Book 8 easily leads to “the tyranny of the majority,” which is clearly unjust. Plato identifies a fifth form of government—aristocracy: “the rule of the best [aristos],” which emerges as the form of government guided by wisdom both in individuals and in republics. By “the best,” Plato means wisdom, which is both a personal quality and one that can be shared with others.
This leads naturally to the link between personal character and government. Each of the five forms of government corresponds to a specific kind of person with a particular character. Thus, the courageous military leaders that rule in a timocracy differ from the wealthy people who rule in an oligarchy as well as those who seek only individual freedom, as is the case in this form of democracy.
Socrates: What kind of life do they lead? What sort of government is it? Once again, we will assume that the individual corresponds to the republic.
Adeimantus: Once again I agree.
Socrates: First, they would seem to be free. This kind of republic is free and open, one in which you can say and do whatever you please. Adeimantus: That’s what they say.
Socrates: With this kind of freedom, people can create the life they choose for themselves (Plato’s Republic, Greek page, 557).
As Socrates and Adeimantus proceed, this kind of freedom increasingly becomes a questionable form of life:
Socrates: Yes, they go through the day indulging the appetite of the hour, sometimes getting drunk and listening to sensuous music, and then drinking only water and dieting. Then they take up sports. Next, they forget about everything and do nothing. Then they embrace the life of philosophy, which is quickly replaced with politics, where they can say and do anything that comes into their head. If they become interested in the martial arts, they imitate the warrior. If making money strikes their fancy, they start a business. Their lives have neither law nor order; they consider the life of pleasure and freedom to be all there is to happiness.
Adeimantus: Socrates, I think you have done an excellent job of describing the person who thinks that equality is the highest value.
Socrates: Yes, this kind of person is many-sided, uniting pluralistic customs and predispositions, just like the democratic republic .
Finally, Socrates explains the natural transition from unrestrained freedom to tyranny in both individuals and in governments.
Socrates: Can we say that tyranny springs from democracy in much the same way that democracy emerges from oligarchy?
Adeimantus: I’m not quite sure what you have in mind.
Socrates: Did we not say that oligarchy grows from the idea that goodness is the same as great wealth?
Adeimantus: Yes, that is what we said.
Socrates: And did we not also say that the desire for wealth and the neglect of everything else is what leads to the destruction of oligarchy?
Socrates: And democracy is also built on an idea of goodness, but the desire for that good also leads to its downfall.
Adeimantus: What notion of goodness do you mean?
Socrates: Freedom. Have you not heard people claim that freedom is the highest value and that a democracy is the only place to dwell for anyone who is free by nature?
Adeimantus: Yes, Socrates, I have often heard such claims.
Socrates: Well, it seems that the insatiable desire for freedom and the neglect of other values brings about the transformation from democracy to tyranny .
This parallel between the character of an individual and the nature of a government might be useful as we think about the current political climate in the United States. Some people are asking whether democracy has already been replaced by tyranny. Rather than only considering the form of government, we might also examine the character of the people who are seeking public office. Is their character appropriate for the kind of government and the policies they promise to implement? The final books Plato’s Republic serve as a helpful guide as we move through that process. Socrates continues:
Socrates: We see the same pattern in the destruction of democracy as in the destruction of oligarchy. The same disorder takes over democracy, intensified by the excess of liberty. Excessiveness of anything generally causes a reaction in the opposite direction—a principle that applies to the seasons, to plants and animals, and above all to governments. 
Adeimantus: That makes sense to me.
Socrates: Too much liberty, whether in individuals or in republics, turns into oppression.
Adeimantus: That is the natural order of things.
Socrates: So, tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggressive form of tyranny and oppression arise from the most extreme forms of license.
Adeimantus: That is a reasonable account of the matter [563-564].
What sort of character can we expect to find in a tyrant? We do not need a great philosopher like Plato to answer that question; all we need to do is follow the daily news because not much has changed in the past 24 centuries.
Socrates: Should we assume that such people already reveal their character in their private lives before they rule in the republic? First, they only associate with people who flatter them, and if they desire something from somebody else, they grovel before them, willing to do anything. But as soon as they get what they want, they treat them like strangers.
Adeimantus: That’s a familiar pattern.
Socrates: They are either masters or slaves, never friends of anyone. A tyrant never tastes true freedom or true friendship.
Socrates: Should we call them deceitful?
Adeimantus: That’s a good word for them.
Socrates: Adeimantus, if our previous view of justice is correct, we could also call them unjust.
Adeimantus: Yes, I’m sure we were right about that.
Socrates: Then we can sum up the worst people by saying that they behave as badly while awake as they do in their dreams.
Adeimantus: That’s true.
Socrates: Such a person is the product of a tyrannical nature that acquires total authority. The longer they live, the worse they get [ 575-576].
This discussion concludes with a comparison between the tyrant and tyranny, on one hand, and the best form of republic that is ruled by the people, who are wise.
Socrates: Then if we compare a republic ruled by the true sovereign that we described a while ago with a republic under the rule of a tyrant, how do they compare from the standpoint of goodness?
Glaucon: They are at opposite extremes; one is the best and the other is the worst.
Socrates: Then it is obvious which is which, and I can ask whether you would come to the same conclusion about their relative happiness and misery? We should not allow ourselves to be blinded by the impression tyrants and the few people around them make; but we should consider that kind of republic and examine every part of it and only then make a judgment.
Glaucon: That’s a good proposal, and I think it will become clear to everyone that tyranny is the most miserable form of government, and the happiest republic is ruled by a true sovereign .