S. Douglas Olson offers some personal reflections on democracies ancient and modern.

Over the course of the last generation, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States saw the development of what might be described as a broad-based form of democratic triumphalism. Described in simple terms, this is a system of belief based on an almost mystical faith in the fundamental effectiveness and durability of democratic government — in particular American democratic government. Above all else, the claim has been that democracy is inherently robust, and that because it is rooted simultaneously in the popular will and in a competitive marketplace of ideas, it tends to produce good decisions and thus the greatest possible happiness and prosperity for average people. When effectively institutionalized, it is difficult to eradicate and maintains a sort of self-correcting stability; as a consequence, it has a significant “end of history” quality, even if we remain aware that the world continues to evolve in unexpected directions. Individuals with an interest in political history — including but not limited to professional classicists — have accordingly tended to display a deep, ideologically motivated affection for the 5th-century Athenian democracy, as arguably the original example of the phenomenon and thus legible as a template or test-case for the functioning of this style of government generally: in a certain sense, we are all Athenians, because we understand and explain ourselves through Athenian society and Athenian politics. But here Cleon and the so-called “radical democracy” of the mid-420s to 410s BCE pose a serious problem.

Our two most direct and substantial sources for late 5th-century Athenian politics, Thucydides and Aristophanes, agree that Pericles’ successor Cleon was an appalling and extraordinary figure. Above all else, he was deeply disruptive of social and political norms: he used violent and destructive rhetoric, including lies and distortions of every sort, to attack his opponents; his politics were brutal and took no account of traditional morality or standards of behavior; he was venal and corrupt, and surrounded himself with equally venal and corrupt “yes-men”; and he had an almost magical ability to manipulate the people. In short, Cleon was both dangerous and a fundamentally new phenomenon, the inventor and leading practitioner of a style of “demagogic” politics that shocked “decent people”, but that appealed on some profound level to average individuals on the street, who voted enthusiastically again and again over the years to support a man our literary sources present as an obviously crude, ignorant grifter who did nothing but ruin and steal from the fools who backed him. Thucydides is also explicit about the fact that Cleon's new “radically democratic” style poisoned Athenian politics, producing the intense polarization that culminated in the oligarchic coup of 411 BCE.

Athens was under attack from without throughout these years. At least as Thucydides and Aristophanes would have it, however, the state was simultaneously subverted from within via cynical pandering by a series of popular leaders, of whom Cleon was only the first and most influential, and by the consequent despair of political and social traditionalists, who eventually came to look for dangerous “new solutions”. None of this matches the modern triumphalist democratic narrative, and the general response has been to ignore or excuse these problems in one way or another, by normalizing or ignoring Cleon, on the one hand, and by discounting the views of Thucydides and Aristophanes, on the other. On this reading of the evidence, Cleon (if mentioned at all) was simply a democrat — one who shouted more than Pericles had and came from a less distinguished family, and who made his own terrible mistakes, but also and above all else a politician who advocated aggressively for average Athenians and was slandered by his enemies on that account. Thucydides, meanwhile, was driven by class- and clan-prejudice, and his view of Cleon was colored by an awareness of how the war had ended and a determination to pin the blame on someone, while Aristophanes had personal reasons for hating Cleon and likewise saw him through a distorted lens. And of course the democracy was eventually restored and endured in one form or another for close to another century.

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A Greek vase depicting a scene resembling one in Aristophanes’ Knights

What we think we know of Cleon can thus be understood as derived from poisonous sources, which represent the point of view of individuals prepared to accept and defend Periclean democracy because it kept the common people under control, but who were shocked by and hostile to post-Periclean democracy, in which the demos itself was finally allowed to determine what it wanted. Underlying all of this is the assumption that what has sometimes been disparagingly referred to by its critics as “radical democracy” is in many ways an ideal form of the phenomenon, since what democracy requires is by definition the expression of the will of the people, and closely associated with that the notion that a democratically chosen leader is almost by definition a positive figure, since he speaks “for us”. What events of the last four years or so have shown, is that this view of late 5th-century Athenian history reflects inter alia a lack of experience of effective demagogues. This is particularly the case for Americans, who had never known a Hitler or a Mussolini at first-hand, and who tended to regard such figures as aberrations resulting from combinations of unexpected and unlikely events in societies in which democratic norms and institutions lacked deep roots. More directly put, until recently Cleon made no sense from an American perspective; we were unable to understand how he functioned politically and how he built a following, and as a consequence we did our best to interpret him in light of what we knew, as a somewhat unconventional populist presented to us in a hostile fashion by ultimately unreliable sources. All of this, I suggest, has been changed by the rise to power of Donald Trump: Trump allows us to rethink Cleon, and Cleon and the problematic history of the late 5th-century Athenian democracy in turn shed suggestive and disturbing light on Trumpism and related political phenomena, and on what Trumpism represents and its possible consequences.

The historical Cleon’s abusive, threatening rhetorical and political style, combined with his aggressive and innovative use of Athens’ legal system for often personal ends, must have had a chilling effect on open debate in the city during the period of his ascendancy. The general echoes of Trump in the descriptions offered by Thucydides and Aristophanes are striking: Cleon was a shameless liar and slanderer, and a corrupt and filthy thief, who stole as much as he could for himself, while insisting on his devotion to the welfare of average citizens; he surrounded himself with a circle of sycophants, and abused the legal system in an obviously self-serving fashion; he displayed no regard for democratic norms, and engaged in endless braying, self-serving rhetoric, yet somehow exercised an unbreakable hold over large portions of the populace, who were mesmerized by a man others regarded as obviously among the greatest con-men and criminals of all time; and lurking behind this was the sense that enormous damage was being done to the commonwealth as a whole, and in particular to fundamental principles of democratic government, along with a conviction that all this was accomplished by means of a form of dark political genius. Put another way, Cleon was an extraordinarily effective politician of a now quite recognizable sort. To bring the matter back to a more contemporary issue: was Cleon also a fascist? The question assumes a trans-historical category “fascism”—a check-list that allows one to determine whether a particular social and political movement falls within it—and the easy answer would seem to be “No”. So far as we can tell, Cleon did not identify and demonize an ethnic, religious or social “other”, although some of his rhetoric in Thucydides regarding the allies tends in this direction. He did not institute a cult of personality, although the chorus’ devotion to him in Aristophanes’ Wasps is extraordinary and clearly irrational. He does not appear to have relied on political violence of the Brown Shirt variety, although Knights refers to supposed access to a gang of tough leather-workers capable of dealing in an aggressive, extra-legal fashion with perceived political and social opponents. Nor was he obviously a “nationalist”, except in the sense that almost all Athenian political rhetoric in this period had something of that character. But Cleon certainly represents a distinct political style that is easier to identify and understand today than it was only a few years ago, a style that is in some ways strikingly reminiscent of mid-20th-century European authoritarian regimes of various sort, and that in any case apparently works well in democracies in particular periods and is simultaneously deeply disruptive of them. It is accordingly worth turning the question around again and asking first whether Trump’s rise tells us anything about why Cleon’s appeals were so effective in Athens in the mid- to late-420s BCE, and then what all this says about democracy generally.

Whatever else one makes of Trump, his appeal seems to be connected inter alia with a deep sense of dislocation among many poorly educated working-class Americans, who have been hurt by the consequences of globalized trade, by rising income inequality, by seemingly endless overseas wars fought by individuals largely from their own economic and cultural class, by diminishing access to affordable health-care and educational opportunities, and by a pervasive sense that they have been abandoned by a distant political and social elite. The early Peloponnesian War years for their part must have been extremely difficult ones for ordinary Athenians, whose lives were disrupted by repeated Spartan invasions of the Attic countryside; by the deaths and injuries that accompanied military service, including in the fleet; by the plague; and by what must have been a serious reduction in international trade, with spill-over effects in other sectors of the economy. That Cleon’s political rise can be read as a symptom of such stress, and that it mirrors important aspects of Trump’s, is accordingly a hypothesis worth considering. 

Is Trump a fascist? My own answer would be “Yes”, again with the caveat that there is no single, standard, “ideal” form of the phenomenon. More specifically put, it is sometimes noted that Trump has not consistently relied on organized para-military forces to attack his opponents, thus distinguishing him from Hitler, for example, although the abrupt appearance of White nationalist “Proud Boys” on American streets in the last few months tends to undermine this objection. But fascism need not in any case be precisely the same in every period to qualify as “fascism”, and Trump’s behavior and rhetoric would seem to qualify as fascist on almost every other standard count. The more interesting question is whether Trump is a democrat, and here the example of Cleon would seem to suggest that the answer is once again “Yes”. My purpose here is not to excuse what many people (including myself) see as Trump’s bigotry, crudity, and cruelty; his appeal to all that is worst about the American national character and the American national experience; or his effect on the national and international political fabric. But Trump is beyond any doubt the product of a democratic political system, and the results of the November 2020 presidential election, in which he received over 74 million votes, leave no doubt that he continues to enjoy overwhelming support from the white working class, rural voters, and so-called “evangelical Christians” (three partially overlapping categories) in particular. This may be political and social depravity, but it is a distinctly democratic form of depravity, which was at work in classical Athens as well — with, it should be noted, very bad results a few years later on. Despite what many of us have been encouraged to believe, in other words, “democracy” too is a term that does not allow for easy, “check-the-box” style definitions and more or less inevitably positive outcomes. Indeed, democracy appears by its nature to have distinct faults and weaknesses only partially concealable by a class of professional academic cheerleaders actively working to instrumentalize the past in its defense. An anonymous comment on a political article in the Washington Post in late 2018 observed: “Many people are like sheep. They need good shepherds. Bad shepherds, on the other hand, can lead them over the cliff and straight to their doom”. The same image appears in the opening scene of Wasps, although I doubt that it was drawn from there. Aristophanes’ play presents no obvious, easy solution to this problem, beyond the ancient equivalent of referring to Cleon’s followers as “deplorables”; insisting that they are misguided; and suggesting that they take advice from someone who actually cares for them. The real and pressing question, is whether we today can do much better.

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Professor S. Douglas Olson is Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota and author of over twenty books, including major critical editions and commentaries on Aristophanes’ Acharnians, Wasps, Peace and Thesmophoriazusae, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and the fragments of the gastronomic parodists Archestratos of Gela and Matro of Pitane, as well as an eight-volume Loeb edition of Athenaeus of Naucratis’ Learned Banqueters.