Remember when our ideal of a populist champion was a political outsider self-effacing in demeanor, temperate in speech, a bit naïve (that is, uncorrupted) when it came to the byzantine complexity of the system but idealistically dedicated to improving it, as honest as the day is long, of modest financial means, courageous, and honorable?
Think, for example, of the eponymous hero of one of this country’s best-loved films, the 1939 “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Perfectly played by actor Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith embodied everything we used to admire. He had unshakeable integrity, and his default position when it came to governing was to trust in the essential goodness of people rather than write them off as malign and stupid adversaries.
In his memorable filibuster speech, Mr. Smith shouts to his fellow senators: “There’s no place for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties.” For the politician, just as for everyone else, there’s just “one simple rule: love thy neighbor.”
Times have changed in a head-spinningly, through-the-looking-glass way, haven’t they? Mr. Smith no longer exemplifies the populist champion of the little guy.
These days, Mr. Smith has been replaced by Mr. Thrasymachus. It’s Mr. Thrasymachus who goes to Washington.
Thrasymachus is a character in Plato’s dialogue “The Republic”—a work, by the way, devoted to exploring the nature of good government. Thrasymachus, or “rash fighter,” is appropriately named because that’s exactly what he is: a pugnacious, arrogant thug whose modus operandi in any situation is bullying and name-calling.
In the dialogue, he comes across as an essentially stupid man who swaggers his way through life with a feckless mixture of lies, contradictions, and faulty arguments. When confronted, his favorite ploy is feigned indignation and mockery.
Like all bullies, Thrasymachus thinks that the only thing that counts in the world is sheer force. When asked in the dialogue how he would define justice, he famously responds that “might makes right.” He doesn’t mean by this that justice is reducible to strength of arms. Shallow as this position would be, it’s still too sophisticated for the imbecilic Thrasymachus. Instead, he bypasses the entire question—a typical tactic of his—by asserting that the best way to live is to disregard inconvenient questions of fairness or equity and ruthlessly pursue personal interest.
For centuries, Thrasymachus has been viewed as a horrible person, an object lesson in how not to be a decent human being. Granted, he’s had a few admirers and emulators over the years; think Machiavelli, or just about any little tin general who fancies himself a demi-god. But the general consensus has been that he’s a jerk who no rational person would want to hang with, much less trust as a head of state.
Yet now Mr. Thrasymachus, with his notorious hair and over-long neck ties, has gone to Washington. He’s billed himself as the champion of the people, despite the fact that he’s a billionaire who lives in a world of bling that builds a gold-gilded wall between him and the common man and woman he pretends to care about. He hectors and bullies all who dare to oppose him, boasts endlessly about his alleged assets (ranging from penis-size to large vocabulary) and is so obsessed with his own image that he loses interest in documents or intelligence briefings that don’t constantly mention his name. He’s suspicious of everyone, largely because his inherent greediness and self-absorption makes him think that everyone is a potential adversary.
And why not? If you pummel your way through life, any person you meet is a potential punching bag.
And yet the admirers of Mr. Thrasymachus are rabid in their devotion to him. It’s not simply that they tolerate his distasteful qualities; they positively admire them. Mr. Smith is a weeny, a milquetoast, a snowflake. Mr. Thrasymachus is a man’s man, a guy who can get things done, someone who isn’t afraid to stick it to the elite, a natural born leader who, unconstrained by normal scruples or fidelity to truth, will stand up for the poor, the angry, the resentful, the envious, the bigots, the religious opportunists, and the downright crazies.
Hopefully we’ll come to our senses long enough to realize, as a character in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” says, that the Thrasymachuses of the world “throw big shadows, that’s all,” with nothing of substance behind them. Hopefully we’ll embrace once more sane and decent politicians who, like Mr. Smith, are genuinely worthy of our admiration and respect.
It’s a dream well worth pondering on this 4th of July, a day in which we honor the country’s founders, all of whom would’ve found it shockingly unimaginable that the leader of this grand national experiment could ever be a Mr. Thrasymachus.
Kerry Walters’ video essays may be found on his YouTube channel, Holy Spirit Moments, with Fr. Kerry Walters.