The world’s oldest surviving text is about how to deal with a problem like Donald Trump. In the “Epic Gilgamesh,” which dates to 2100 B.C., the people of the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia lift their voices to the gods in complaint about their king, Gilgamesh. In David Ferry’s marvelous translation, the people of Uruk lament: “Neither the father’s son nor the wife of the noble is safe in Uruk; neither the mother’s daughter nor the warrior’s bride is safe.”
The people first try to protect themselves by seeking a double for Gilgamesh, someone who is in some important sense like him, who can contend with him and who can keep him in check. Think Mike Pence. He doubles Trump in telegenic power. This is at least one reason Trump picked him after all. As Trump said, “He’s straight out of central casting.” In the epic, the double’s name is Enkidu, and it is Enkidu who finally blocks Gilgamesh from entering a bridal chamber ahead of the bridegroom.
By the time we reach ancient Greece, philosophers like Plato start to offer formal definitions of the tyrannical soul, and the picture is one of the person who defrauds freely, takes violently, lies consistently, robs and kills. Think of Trump saying last year about terrorism suspects, “You have to take out their families.” Think of his remark, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” But the final detail in the ancient picture is always that the tyrant pursues an unbridled project of sexual possession. Think of Trump saying, “Grab them by the p—y.”
For many years, I’ve taught Plato’s “Gorgias” and “Republic,” where the tyrannical soul is described. Never did I think we would have a walking, talking example from American politics in front of us 24-7. But here we are. I don’t invoke Trump when we discuss passages about the tyrant in those texts. But the comparisons are so obvious that after class my students tend to make small, quiet remarks to me about it.
For me, this election has driven home powerfully the need for us to recover the conviction that in politics, as in all life, character matters. Our cynicism goes so deep that we can no longer see how and why that is true.
In the epic “Gilgamesh,” the tyrant becomes a good king only when he comes to recognize that in his own mortality he is no greater than the lowliest peasant. Reflecting on death, he says, “And then I saw a worm fall out of his nose. Must I die too?” Assimilating this lesson, Gilgamesh is at last able to rein in his passions, develop virtues and become a beneficent king.
In his video apologizing for having crowed about sexual aggression, Trump says that this election campaign has changed him and that he will be a better man tomorrow.
I doubt it.
While the institutions of constitutional democracy were invented to make it easier to rein people in, those who did the work of drafting the Constitution never thought that institutions alone could solve the job. On the cusp of the Constitution’s ratification, founder James Wilson paused to ponder what it would take for the reorganized representative democracy to succeed. All would be well, he said, so long as the people made sure always to elect political leaders who were “wise and good.” The president and other elected officials, he pointed out, would populate the bureaucracies of the new nation. If they themselves were wise and good, they would also populate all the offices of the country with the wise and good. If they were not, then corruption would spread through the entire system.
Indeed, who has Trump chosen ultimately for his closest advisers? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Imagine a repetition of that sort of selection template throughout the administrative apparatus of government.
This election has moved past questions of ideology and partisan position to fundamental elements of the human condition, elements so fundamental that we can find them recorded in the earliest human texts. From the beginning of human history, when tyrannical souls have acquired power, the people have found themselves groaning and crying out with laments under the burden of it. They have found themselves stuck on bridges in stalled traffic that prevents ambulances from getting to the hospital.
Character matters because it is how we restrain the inner would-be tyrant in each one of us. It matters because it is how we limit the placement of great power in the hands of those with tyrannical instincts and appetites. If we’ve given up a commitment to character, we’ve already given up the game or, to speak more precisely, the work of protecting freedom, equality and human flourishing.