Having just returned from Greece, I settled in to watch the second U.S. presidential debate over the tsipouro and kefalogravera I smuggled in my luggage from Chania. I thought it would comfort me as I watched the most corrosive presidential debate in U.S. history.
Sunday’s debate and the Greece I visited last week were a stark reminder of the fact that democratic societies are supposed to operate amidst a fundamental faith in strangers. On laws. Science. Facts. Instead, the U.S., Greece and indeed much of the world has sacrificed that principle and along with it a sense of civitas and informed body politic. We’ve entered an era where the dissolution of our current world order, the transformation of ideals that supported the longest peacetime period in modern history is devolving into the death of demos and the birth of demagoguery not seen since the 1930s.
Greeks are fighting a war without guns against an enemy now clearly in focus: themselves. Alexis Tsipras swept into power feeding Greeks a diet of lies, and yet there he remains, in place and in power. The maddening capitulation to further austerity promising to resurrect Greece’s economy laid the 2015 referendum to waste – and democracy along with it – reducing the country to a failed state. A well operating failed state, but a failed state nonetheless.
As an American Greek, I am profoundly self-conscious of my criticism of Greece because the U.S. election has left me even more chastened and dejected. The debate introduced a new low. No, it wasn’t Trump’s political stunt of holding a press conference 90 minutes before a 90-minute debate with four women accusing Bill Clinton of sexual assault. Or even his scorched-earth personal attacks designed to humiliate Hillary Clinton in the only manner Trump understands: degrading her sexually. No. The lowest moment came when he promised that if elected, he would put Clinton in jail.
Clinton skillfully and coherently answered questions that did no real damage to her candidacy but very little beyond bridging to her platform positions. In all fairness it couldn’t have been easy for her to walk onto that stage. Her discomfort was palpable. Trump, on the other hand, reveled in it. His shallowness of intellectual capacity delivered a series of incoherent, robotically parroted talking points, regardless of context. He loomed behind her. Called her the devil. Accused her of having “hate in her heart.” It was impossibly hard to watch. Because this isn’t Salem. U.S. presidential campaigns aren’t supposed to be witch-hunts. Trump’s strongman narcissism and contempt for judicial process is far scarier than all the creepy clowns creeping into our collective consciousness. Trump’s campaign has become a monstrous TV sideshow we tune into because it seems impossible for us to turn away. At any moment, he quite possibly may morph into Zerxes and have Clinton’s name stricken from the histories entirely.
One of the hallmarks of U.S. democracy is the peaceful transition of power. No tanks have ever rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue after elections to jail opponents. Apparently Donald Trump thinks that’s a shame. His threat of jailing Clinton and his capacity for transforming economic frustrations into ethnic, racial and misogynistic hatred injects a frightening new contempt for democratic process.
American’s founding fathers venerated the political ideals of Ancient Greece precisely because they understood the threat power-hungry demagogues, bloodthirsty dictators and shadowy conspirators presented to the fledgling Republic. When Benjamin Franklin was asked at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention by one Mrs. Powell if he had crafted a republic or monarchy, he quickly replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin, like Madison, Jefferson and Adams, deeply respected Solon of Athens, who reformed the Athenian constitution by including the right of trial by jury and division of society into bodies that would balance and check each other in governing Athens. A cornerstone of America’s founding. And a principle of pride for both Americans and Greeks now held in contempt.
Which makes losers of us all.