In Book 2 of Plato's The Republic, the philosopher Socrates is presented with an important problem: Is a citizen intrinsically moral, or are they moral because they fear being seen breaking the laws and doing bad things? Meaning, does morality have content or not? Is it imposed or is it naturally felt and expressed by an individual among other individuals. This is how the issue is problematized by the philosopher Glaucon, who confronts Socrates. In the myth of the Ring of Gyges, an earthquake happens, opens up the ground, and reveals a cave to a shepherd. He enters it, and finds a grim tomb that contains a corpse that has a golden ring on one of its fingers. The shepherd takes the ring and later discovers that it can make him invisible.
The question is, then, what is to prevent this shepherd from becoming totally immoral? While invisible, he can kill who he wants, fuck who he wants, rob who he wants, all without fear of being caught. And it would be surprising, indeed odd, if he didn't take full advantage of the ring's incredible power. Socrates spends a good part of the book explaining that a well regulated and moral city would not be run be people who are as weak as the shepherd with the invisible ring.
Enough philosophy, let's talk about Trump with this ring in mind.
It is fair to say that no president or politician in modern history would have survived Trump's scandals, which involve (but aren't limited to) bragging about pussy grabbing, fucking a porn star and other sex workers, calling black men "sons of bitches," defending murderous white supremacists, throwing children into cages, and running a corrupt charity. None of these and much more have removed Trump from power. It's as if he had the Ring of Gyges, but instead of being invisible, the public is watching him rob, fuck, and (with the deaths of brown children on the border) even kill people. What is the nature of his ring? What gives it its fantastic powers?
Some people blame a steady rise of executive power that even Obama failed to check. But if Pence were president, it's hard to believe that he could survive the scandal of fucking a porn a star, and also paying that porn star to keep his business on the down low. Pence and his cock's eyes, his wife, would be out with the door slamming behind them. No, something else is at work here that's exceptional.
And I think it has to do with the part of the Ring of Gyges story that I most love: the earthquake, the opening of the earth, and the journey into the underground. It is this movement that gives the story its narrative power. Not the ring; but the ruptured earth and the shepherd walking into the ground. I can picture it so clearly. I see him next to a toppled tree, I see sheep freaking the fuck out all over the place, and I see the shepherd looking into the opening and entering it in the exact same way that Luke Skywalker entered the cave (the "dark-side cave") on the swamp planet of Dagobah. This I think is what Trump's presidency has really been about.
Because he is basically incompetent and could never be presidential even if he gave it everything he's got, he had no choice but, upon the rupturing catastrophe of the 2016 election, to leave all that was above ground in American politics (the presidential) and enter its underground. It has always been there: the cave, the tomb, the death, the dark-side, the power of invisibility. It is the chthonic side of American empire. It is transhistorical, and has puzzled philosophers for centuries. It haunts The Republic. How is the good possible with the khthon (the tomb) of power below. Can reason overcome its pull? Most do not access it directly; Trump does out of necessity.
It is interesting that, according to Vox ("There never were any 'adults in the room'"), the outgoing secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, a Platonic "warrior-scholar" who is certainly familiar with the story of King Gyges, as it appears in a work the general admires (Herodotus' Histories), resigned because of a policy difference, and not Trump's "imprisoning asylum-seeking children, abusing his pardon power for Joe Arpaio, abusing declassification power, undertaking a partisan purge of the FBI, cheering the French far right, or issuing apologias for neo-Nazis." And so it was not the underground of American governance that finally snapped Mattis. The visible chthonic was as good as invisible, and so acceptable, to him. Not so with something above ground: "...He finally decided to take his stand over Trump making the perfectly defensible decision to withdraw US forces from a hazily defined open-ended mission in Syria that lacked any legal authorization."