Americans like to think we invented freedom, but we really only extended it to an absurd conclusion in the person of Trump. The ancients had their version of freedom, and they were as fiercely protective of it as we are of ours. For Plato, people are free when they are fully in control of themselves, with their self-mastery uninhibited by passions or appetites. Much the same for Aristotle, who saw freedom in rational, intelligent self-direction. On that foundational principle, they and the other worthies of the ancient world formed the idea of democracy as a system balancing equality and responsibility, for, as Aristotle wrote, "where absolute freedom is allowed, there is nothing to restrain the evil which is inherent in every man." How right he was.
Plenty of history came between the ancient experiments with democracy and ours. Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Thomas Aquinas, though separated by centuries, took more or less the same view: People are naturally inclined to desire goodness and truth, and whatever gets in the way of that pursuit makes us less free. In the late Middle Ages, that thread began to unravel. By the modern era, it was thoroughly frayed. Freedom first became the simple capacity to choose spontaneously among different things, without respect to a final good. Then the idea of a final good was abandoned altogether. Freedom turned into the ability to do what one wants; what you want or how you get it is scarcely relevant. We can barely imagine a person inhibited by his own appetites or impulses; the inhibition, rather, comes when those appetites can't be fulfilled.
Trump can always get what he wants. Finished with one wife, he moves to the next; he pops champagne in Playboy videos and, if the reported accounts are correct, sleeps with a porn star. (Trump has denied this through his lawyer.) If he wants to see teen beauty queens in the nude, he just walks into their dressing room, like a high school sophomore in a corny dream sequence. There are many more allegations of force and coercion, and none of them seem to trouble Trump in the very least.
When it's time for dessert, Trump gets two scoops of ice cream and everyone else gets one, and if, after all that and a sack of McDonald's, he still decides he has the height and weight of an athlete, then he does. There's the greed, the hoarding of wealth and gold objects, with vanishingly little given to charity, even just to add a touch of decorum. Decorum doesn't exist in isolation; it's something you undertake with regard to other people, and Trump does not regard other people. Unseemliness is a kind of liberty, and Trump has perfected that, too.
Then there are the show trials, the humiliations and exhibitions of submission he periodically demands of inferiors. Chris Christie, the now-former New Jersey governor, was humiliated by Trump during the campaign but endorsed him; then Trump continued to debase him, evidently for sport. What was Christie going to do about it? Nothing. What about master strategist Stephen K. Bannon, once perceived as Trump's own regent? After Bannon got caught calling Don Jr. treasonous in Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House," the president instantly disavowed him, and Bannon groveled. Cruelty has no consequences for Trump: The other guy always folds first, and his will forges on. Ordinary morality does not constrain him; neither pity nor mercy binds him. He is free.
Trump is at his most furious when the exceptions arise — say, when complicated political maneuvering in Congress subverts his whims, or when the Constitution stops him from exercising autocratic caprice. "I'm not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I'm very frustrated by it," Trump said of meddling with the Justice Department and the FBI in November. In May, he mused about eliminating legislative procedure and the filibuster, dismissing it all as "an archaic system." Those checks on wild, wanton exercises of individual power must seem old-fashioned to Trump indeed, and they do echo ancient fears about the limitless exercise of the human will. James Madison had read his Aristotle, and Aristotle was right in the end about what the unbound will can do to a polity. But what did they know? When you're a star, you can do anything.
Read more on this issue: