Political Nihilism: The Trolley to Hell
This morning I read this in Brian Beutler’s latest piece at the New Republic:
“As someone who’s run for office five times, if the devil called me and said he wanted to set up a meeting to give me opposition research on my opponent,” Judge Jeanine Pirro, the maniacal Fox News host, said on Sunday. “I’d be on the first trolley to hell to get it. And any politician who tells you otherwise is a bald-faced liar.” She added that “there is no law that says a campaign cannot accept information from a foreign government.”
Pirro is referring to the meeting that Donald Trump, Jr. took with Russian nationals claiming to have information that would help his father win. One of them was a former spy. Beutler is making a case that our elections and politics require candidates to act above reproach so that not even an appearance of wrongdoing or interference can be seen in order to maintain the full faith and confidence of the American people in our election process. But Pirro makes the case that politics is just about self-interest, everyone knows it, and everyone who supposes they would act otherwise is lying to themselves.
In March, I wrote here about similar problems in the ways that people were talking about healthcare in this country–as if the various penalties and difficulties don’t matter if you don’t think you will ever be subject to them. But Pirro takes this notion even further and says, it isn’t blameworthy, it’s what anyone would do because we all know the point is to win. There is no room here for other possible motivators–say the pursuit of justice or the good.
This is the claim at the center of Plato’s Republic. When Socrates describes justice in terms of doing good or benefitting those around him, Thrasymachus laughs in his face. Everyone knows, Thrasymachus says, that justice is just cover for getting one’s way and doing what is best for oneself. Socrates has a bunch of questions about whether we can be wrong about what is best for ourselves, but the question of whether justice is just cover for power or a concession of weakness hovers over the dialogue. On the first account, where justice is cover the apparatuses of justice are put to work to defend the power of those who rule. On the second account, justice restrains the desires of the powerful, but agreeing to it is foolhardy and innocent. Both accounts see political life as nihilistic. There is nothing other than selfish power grabs, and anyone who thinks otherwise is “a bald-faced liar.”
When Pirro uses the “trolley to hell” image, she might be accused of plagiarizing from Plato, who has Glaucon present the dilemma of Gyges’ ring. There’s been an earthquake, the earth opens up, and a lowly farmer sees a body inside the earth with a ring. He goes down and takes the ring and realizes the ring makes him invisible. So he contrives to find a way to get into the house of the king, to kill the king and to marry the queen. Glaucon says to Socrates, come on, we all know if given the choice of such a ring that could allow us to kill the king, we would all be on a “trolley to hell” to get it. If you could get away with wrongdoing you would. The only reason you do not do the wrong is that you fear the punishment.
Herodotus tells the story of Gyges in the opening pages of The Histories. The king of Lydia has a beautiful wife and he tried to convince his servant Gyges of her beauty. We don’t know if Gyges was particularly unconvinced, but the king of Lydia insisted that Gyges sneak into her dressing room at night to see her undress so that he might see how beautiful she is. Gyges does but the queen catches him. She tells him, either kill the king or you will be killed. So Gyges kills the king and marries the queen. Gyges was the first foreigner to dedicate offerings at Delphi.
Glaucon tells the story as if it is just about doing right and getting away with wrong, but we know from Herodotus that the mention of Gyges would remind the gathered party that the wrong we get away with is the wrong that topples the king and sets us up with power. Socrates has to defend the idea not just that he would do what is good and right even if he was not caught, but that he would not want to become king if he became king through unjust means.
Socrates’ goal in the conversation that follows is to argue against political nihilism. He makes the case that political life is something beyond a power grab and that such a life has to do with what it means to flourish as a human being, not because you have dominion over others, but because you have dominion over yourself. It remains a question whether Socrates successfully defends justice, but as this political moment reminds us, the stakes are high.
I’ve been watching the Showtime series Billions over the weekend. It’s a story about a “hedgefund king” and the US Attorney who is his nemesis. The currency of the show is winning, and there is little pressure to sympathize with the side of justice and the law. It is yet another rendition of I’m right because I got away with it. In this sense, it serves the long effort to normalize this nihilism. When nihilism is normalized, we are encouraged to accept political nihilism as if that just is the way things are, and because they are that way, to act as if that is the right way for things to be. Hop aboard the trolley to hell.
The photograph offers some beauty in the face of nihilism. Reclining Figure, Henry Moore 1951. Art Gallery of Ontario.