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8 February 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 7:10am

Why Donald Trump was the ultimate anarchist

The former president is being tried for his role in inciting anarchy but anarchia, in the Greek sense of “vacant office”, characterised his entire term.

By Melissa Lane

On 13 January, the US House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump for a second time in just over a year, making Trump the first American president to be impeached twice. The House resolution focused upon Trump’s “incitement of insurrection” during a speech delivered to a crowd of his supporters on 6 January, some of whom later stormed the Capitol where Congress was meeting to certify the election results. The resolution argued that by such conduct Trump “betrayed his trust as president”.

“Democracy suddenly gave way to political anarchy”, the Washington Post wrote on the evening of 6 January. The theme was echoed in the British press, which converged on the headlines “Anarchy in the US” (Metro) and “Anarchy in the USA” (the i and the Daily Express).

Most of this coverage associated “anarchy” with the violence and lawlessness that characterised the Capitol riots, as a direct result of which five people died, including one Capitol Police officer. Yet there is a sense in which Trump not only incited anarchy during this violent finale to his presidency, but acted as an anarchist par excellence during his entire tenure in office, embodying what an ancient Greek observer would have called “anarchia”.

The Greek word anarchia literally means a vacant office: the absence of an officeholder. It was also used to describe an officeholder who undermines the constitutional order on which their own office, and the rule of law, depends. In fact, anarchia was often used to describe an officeholder – usually retrospectively – as having been no proper officeholder at all.

While violence might be unleashed by a vacant office or a vacuum of accountable power, it’s striking that a number of Greek authors, from Aeschylus to Isocrates, contrasted anarchia with tyrannis, or “tyranny”. This means anarchy is not just another word for the tyrannical or authoritarian abuse of power, or “lawless” conduct.  It is a condition in which the very basis of political office has been undermined.

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Explaining how a democracy might degenerate in the Republic, Plato tied the idea of anarchia (using the related adjective anarchos) to the actions and attitudes of both citizens and officeholders. Like those who stormed the Capitol, the citizens of a degenerating democratic constitution in Plato’s narrative come to believe that “there is no necessity…to be governed, unless you like [to be]”. Plato’s Socrates  claims that these members of a failing democracy are influenced by distorted civic values which redescribe “anarchy” as “freedom”; he sums up the democratic constitution as being anarchos.

Plato cannot literally mean here that no one has been installed in office: democracies in ancient Greece chose many officials, both by lot and by election, and the same is true of the democracy described in the Republic. Rather, the point of linking democracy to anarchia is to suggest that democracy involves no meaningful and enforceable requirement either for citizens to obey officeholders, or for officeholders to use their powers as intended.

On this view, it is possible for the duties and legal entitlements of a democratic office to be hollowed out in spirit, even if formally followed in practice. Here democracy risks becoming a kind of shadow play in which people are chosen for office and nominally claim to hold it, but in so doing violate the most basic expectations of that office and thereby undermine its effectiveness and power.

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The latest article of impeachment charges Trump with having acted “in a manner grossly incompatible with self-governance and the rule of law”. Following the ancient Greeks, the underlying idea can be taken further. By “betray[ing] his trust as president” as flagrantly as he did, Trump should be counted as an anarchist: ie, as having been no real officeholder at all.

Trump’s effective abdication of office can be seen in many of his acts before the November election and his efforts to reject and undo its results. It is most egregious in cases in which his conduct undermined the very conditions of political office, just as Greeks fearing anarchia would have expected.

Consider Trump’s pardoning of former sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona. Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt of court for continuing to detain people based solely on suspicion of their being unauthorised immigrants, in defiance of an order of a federal district judge. By pardoning not just someone guilty of criminal conduct, but specifically an official who had been held in contempt of court, Trump undermined the fundamental democratic and constitutional principle that, as John McCain put it in the wake of Arpaio’s pardon, “No one is above the law.”

Worse still was Trump’s refusal to abide by a court order that the acting head of the Bureau of Land Management, William Perry Pendley, “should be removed from his position because he was performing his duties illegally”, having been appointed in violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. The judge in the case ruled that because Pendley “had served unlawfully for 424 days as acting director of the bureau”, it followed that his acts in that role “would have no force and effect and must be set aside as arbitrary and capricious”. By refusing to remove Pendley, Trump again shirked the duties of his office. But this refusal went further insofar as it undermined the legitimacy of the acts of the bureau as well. 

In the end, Trump’s “incitement of insurrection”, combined with his consistent failure to live up to the obligations of the presidency, show that he was no proper office holder at all. Despite his claim to be “the only thing standing between the American Dream and total anarchy”, it is clear that Trump was the real anarchist all along. 

Melissa Lane is the Class of 1943 professor of politics and the Director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. She is the author of Greek and Roman Political Ideas.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, senior research fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets at @aj_wendland