Donald Trump is no original in democratic politics. Crass, ignorant, but clever blowhards have done well throughout history. But I had no idea how far back until I took Thomas Cahill’s “Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter” on a recent vacation trip to Cyprus, just as the final presidential primaries were taking place in the US. Cahill’s marvelous book on ancient Greek culture and politics points up, among other things, the influence of the city state of Athens on US political institutions. In the sixth century B.C., he relates, Athens under the leadership of Solon experimented with a political system based on the consensus of its citizens (not counting slaves, of course.)
As Solon neared death, his cousin Pisistratus began his rise to power. Cahill describes Pisistratus as “a political grandstander of the vilest variety, a mine owner’s son who presented himself as a populist speaking on behalf of [the poorest class of citizens.]
“Pisistratus staged an attempt on his own life and in the ensuing chaos pushed the Assembly into voting him a bodyguard, which he then used—just after Solon’s death—to seize the Acropolis, the lofty citadel that loomed over the city. Declaring himself tyrant (which initially meant a nonhereditary king who attained his position by excellence and only later came to mean a dictator), Pisistratus was subsequently driven out by a temporary alliance of two of the four classes of citizens, an alliance that frayed soon enough, plunging Athens into tumult once more. Here was Pisistratus’s opportunity. He made a sensational return in a golden chariot accompanied by an extraordinarily tall and beautiful young woman dressed in full battle armor, who he announced was the goddess Athena come to restore order to her city. Simple people knelt along Pisistratus’s parade, raised their arms, and gave thanks in the street. Though only the most credulous members of the Assembly could be counted on to swallow such nonsense, there were, as there often are, quite enough of them to ensure initial political victory to an unscrupulous liar who piously invoked the powers of heaven. Only later, when the damage is done, do such dodos of democracy regret allowing themselves to be so easily taken in.
“Athens would be saddled with Pisistratus and his progeny for a generation and would reestablish its Solonian ideals only in the last decade of the sixth century after expelling the last Pisistratid.”
With his own gold-trimmed Boeing 757, Trump doesn’t need the chariot. But he’s found the “dodos of democracy” in majorities of the Republican primary voters and all but a handful of the party’s leaders.