Aristotle on Trump

Aristotle on Trump April 11, 2016

Trump and Aristotle may not seem to have a lot in common, Carson Holloway argues that Aristotle’s Politics illuminates the deep source of Trumpism.

In Book 5, Aristotle describes the origins of political factions: “In general, he teaches, human beings become factious over equality and inequality. That is, political conflict arises when some think that they are made unjustly unequal or unjustly equal. If they think they deserve to be equal but are held in an inferior position, they engage in factional conflict. And if they think they deserve to be superior but are held to an equal position, they engage in factional conflict.”

More specifically, “The question of just or unjust equality can only be understood in relation to some goods in which human beings expect to share equally or unequally. Aristotle identifies the goods (and evils) over which people usually engage in factional conflict: ‘profit and honor and their opposites.’ They fight for gain or glory, or in order to avoid loss and disgrace. Put another way, human beings engage in factional conflict for the sake of self-interest and self-respect.

Trump’s attacks on US immigration policy fit under the heading of “self-interest.” Trump believes that US wages have been kept low because of immigration and US international trade policy, which allows China and Mexico and other countries to take advantage. As Holloway says, the argument that current immigration and trade policies are “beneficial to the whole society in the long run, because they drive down the prices of the goods produced by human labor” are “probably not sufficient to convince people like Trump’s supporters. After all, working people desire—and are obligated—to support themselves and their families not in the long run, but in the short and middle run.”

That has been a commonplace of commentary on Trump, but Holloway highlights the “self-respect” part of Trump’s appeal. According to Aristotle, “In every city there are, on the one hand, the few—the wealthy and the refined—who think they deserve to be superior to the many and, on the other hand, the many who merely strive to secure for themselves a certain equality. This distinction is especially relevant with regard to the striving for honor: The few seek distinction and glory, while the many seek more modestly not to be dishonored or humiliated.”

Trump’s supporters believe they have been ignored and wrong by the political establishment because their interests haven’t been defended. But Holloway believes that Trump’s gleeful assault on political correctness effectively expresses a demand for respect: “Many Americans experience the reign of political correctness as a form of dishonor or humiliation. It is not necessary to go into detail here, because almost everyone knows how this works. Suffice it to say that the purpose of political correctness is to inform, or rather to warn, certain Americans that their opinions are not respectable. They had better keep them to themselves, and if they should venture to express them, they had better be very careful about how they do so.”

Browse Our Archives