Pick up any journal of mass political psychosis, cultural collapse or resurgent authoritarianism in once-vibrant Western democracies and you’re likely to encounter an ancient Athenian by the name of Cleon.
A villain of the late-fifth century B.C., this public irritant otherwise lost to history is getting a belated workout for one reason: He’s a lot like Trump.
He’s also a good baseline for a discussion of American demagogues, which is the subject of the freshman writing class that I teach at George Washington University.
Cleon Son of Cleanetus was a boor of the period immediately following the death of the literally pointy headed Pericles, the Obama of the era. He vaulted to power despite having had no government or military experience, which had been the typical route to leadership. Instead, he ran the family business, a successful leather tanning outfit.
Litigation didn’t work for Cleon, either.
Persuasive, too. The Assembly sided with Cleon over his more dispassionate interlocutor, Diodotus, and dispatched a galley to Mytilene to execute the orders. More than a thousand men were quickly put to the sword.
That’s the abridged version. It’s a dramatic tale with an unexpected twist. And it has a few pungent parallels to our own woe, which is why Cleon, like Trump, has been getting lots of press lately in some major outlets: The Scotsman, UWire, even The Herald-Tribune of Randolph County, Ill., although the reference there was to a Cleon Kempfer Sr. of Willisville, arrested for burglary of a farm shed along with a Cleon Kempfer Jr.
Senior and Junior caught up in alleged crime, eh? Ring any bells?
In my class, we use ancient Cleon as a model for America’s own Big Four demagogues: Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace ad, of course, Trump.
We also learn that Aristophanes mocked Cleon mercilessly in his comedies, provoking much litigation. It didn’t work for Cleon, either.
It’s de rigueur to observe that Trump, like Cleon, has flouted all the “norms” of democratic politics. It’s also true. But Trump is not only normal; he’s an archetype of democracy as old as the polis.
He’s also squarely in the American tradition. When my students read Margaret Chase Smith’s take-down of McCarthy, they know who’s Cleon and who’s Diodotus. Ditto debates over treatment of mothers with babies pleading for asylum.
In fact, as malignant as Trump is, he’s just the latest aspiring American tyrant. Even the way he sells out his country is typical. Nixon secretly derailed Vietnam War peace talks for advantage in the 1968 campaign. Reagan meddled in the Iran hostage negotiations in 1980. And of course, Trump is in bed with Russians oligarchs.
So much for the exceptional quality of our democracy.
As for what to do about Current Cleon, what counsel does history offer? Hm. Cleon died in battle, but Trump survived his combat: beating off STDs lurking among his sexual conquests.
That’s lovely, but the Athenian correction was only temporary since Cleon’s rise helped bring on Athens’s fall. By 404, spent from plague, war and bad government, the great democracy had surrendered to Sparta. It never fully recovered.
People love to quote Santayana on the peril of forgetting the past, but he was only repeating what Thucydides had said 2,400 years earlier:
“It will be enough for me … if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.”
That’s both a hope and a warning.
Points in Case
September 19, 2020
To: All Staff
Re: Time to Move Past the ApocalypseDear Team,
As you may know, last Tuesday’s apocalypse, collapse of civilization, and worldwide descent into disease, famine, rapine and blood sport has left us with Q3 challenges rivaling last year’s rollout of PeopleSoft.
Tragic for sure. Indeed, many of you have asked what impact the end of the world will have on your 401(k) match. Others would like to know what code to use for entering time in the system.
Stepping back, I see two options going forward: One, we can lament the immensity of death, suffering, and despair that enfolds us like an unremitting nightmare; weep the loss of pets and colleagues; abandon hope as a quaint futility; and curse the rutted landscape and the seething, fluorescent atmosphere that has made a simple walk to the place where the food trucks used to be not only fatal but also pointless given that they no longer exist.
Or two, we can assess our markets, canvass our suppliers, and redeem the fiscal year by wringing revenue from calamity. Counterintuitive? No question about it. But a contrarian play right now is Just Crazy Enough to Work.
It won’t be easy. As I’ve said before, change, chaos and environmental catastrophe are always a little scary (see Randy’s Monthly Update “Change, Chaos and Environmental Catastrophe Are Always a Little Scary”). And I’ll be the first to admit that our business continuity plan overlooked the possibility of the end of time. That was a failure of imagination.
But as I’ve said before, if you sit still in business, you’ll be slaughtered like a pig (see Randy’s Monthly Update “If You Sit Still in Business, You’ll Be Slaughtered Like a Pig”). Like Bobby Kennedy said in his famous eulogy, “Some men see things as they are and adapt.”
And that’s what we’ll do. Adapt. Because change is the only constant, which is something I’ve said before (see Randy’s Monthly Update “Change Is the Only Constant”).
We’ve done it before. I was never so proud as how we responded to COVIDs 19, 20A, 20B, and waves 2 through 5 of 20D (I think we can all agree that 20C was a heartbreak). We can make it through this thing, too.
Certainly, we’re facing some headwinds. The experts say that’s the fallout. And no doubt you and what’s left of your families are facing some challenges, too, especially on work/life balance.
We’re sensitive to those kinds of things. I’ve made that point before (see Randy’s Monthly Update “The Kinds of Things We’re Sensitive To”). That’s why I’ve tasked Dot Grissom in HR with developing a plan. I haven’t heard back from Dot yet, but I’m sure—certainly hopeful—that she’ll post something soon. Keep your eyes peeled, so to speak.
None of us is happy about what’s happened. And we’ll have plenty of time for scapegoating and recrimination (see Randy’s Monthly Update “Time for Scapegoating and Recrimination”).
But while we may be tempted to blame this or that authoritarian lunatic who proved only too willing to torch the planet to protect his egg-shell ego, remember that most of them are our clients. So leave it alone.
Our task right now is to dust ourselves off, reattach what’s left of our skin and get that skin back in the game!
I’ll be back with another update next month. Ideally. Until then, remember that united we stand, divided we resort to cannibalism in a ghastly, dehumanizing bid for survival in a ruined world, as I’ve said before (see Randy’s Monthly Update “United We Stand, Divided We Resort to Cannibalism in a Ghastly, Dehumanizing Bid for Survival in a Ruined World”).
Enjoy the long weekend!