Why you should care

Because Trump’s clash with the FBI could change the character of American democracy.

Alexis Papazoglou is a lecturer in philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London.

A ruler defying traditional norms, with the unshakable conviction that he is right, claiming his decision is in the interest of national security and preempting any criticism as a plot to overthrow him.

No, it’s not who you think. I’m actually referring to the Greek tragic character Creon. In Sophocles’ ancient tragedy Antigone, Creon is the ruler of the Greek city Thebes and victor of a civil war that finds Polynices, the defeated, dead. Creon orders that Polynices is to be left unburied, and that anyone who attempts otherwise will be punished by death. Although the two may seem worlds apart, Creon’s decision has important parallels with President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, and his subsequent actions, including reportedly contemplating the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller. Creon has been credited with highlighting why Greek political culture was doomed to failure. Trump’s bold actions, likewise, raise important questions about the nature and future of American democracy.

A state that finds itself in a position of internal contradiction cannot survive.

Creon’s decision to leave Polynices unburied is within his purview, but it is a violation of the Greek custom that the dead bodies of enemies are to be returned to their families for proper burial. What is more, Antigone, Polynices’ sister, claims that she is bound by “divine law” as a woman to bury dead family members. Creon dismisses Antigone’s stance as self-righteous indignation and, despite warnings from the prophet Tiresias that this will not end well, arrests and imprisons her. Eventually the Chorus, representing public sentiment, finds the courage to speak out against Creon’s decision, but by the time he realizes his mistake, it is too late.

Antigone makes for more than just a compelling drama. The 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel thought this ancient play displayed an important lesson: A state that finds itself in a position of internal contradiction cannot survive.

According to Hegel, Antigone portrays an internal contradiction of Greek life, a clash of the two sets of rules that defined it: on the one hand, the rules of the public sphere set by the ruler of the city-state, and on the other, the rules of the private sphere, set by the gods. Creon refused to recognize Antigone’s actions as legitimate, failing to see that they were in accordance with the imperatives of Greek culture. What the play shows is that when the two domains of Greek life came into conflict, there could be no resolution other than the eventual replacement of the Greek city-state by the Roman world, a world in which the private sphere was legally protected from interference, including by the state, thus removing the possibility of the private vs. public sphere clash we see in Antigone.

Trump’s clash with Comey and those investigating his potential obstruction of justice can be seen as an instance of a similar contradiction between two sets of rules that currently bind the American state: on one side, the will of the democratically elected president, and on the other, the rule of law, guaranteed by nonpolitical institutions such as the FBI and the judiciary. Like a modern Creon, Trump refuses to recognize that the actions of Comey and other investigators were not motivated by personal caprice, but in fact were dictated by norms that define the American state and its institutions. This clash is nothing new, and there has always been a tension between the president’s executive power and a system of “checks and balances.” Still, the president using his power to prevent a legal investigation of potential wrongdoing by himself and his campaign may be the most blatant conflict we have seen between the two sets of rules, one that completely undermines the very principle of the president’s accountability to the institutions that make up American democracy.

Hegel saw contradictions like this as the motor of history. The question, then, is in what direction will this contradiction be resolved? Will it reinforce the non-party-political institutions that check the president’s exercise of power, or will Trump manage to shift American democracy into an even more executive-centric form of rule? If Sophocles’ play is anything to go by, we can count on Trump continuing to ignore critics who expose his actions as in conflict with American democratic norms, and proceeding as though he is the only legitimate source of power. Judging by the determination the judiciary and the FBI have shown so far, Trump will face many “Antigones” willing to sacrifice themselves in the process. Either way, American democracy as we know it might not survive such an explicit contradiction at its heart.

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