Reading Time: 3 minutes

Tyrants surround themselves with sycophants. The smaller the circle of suck-ups, the worse the danger. The tyrant’s isolation is part of the problem, which was a lesson to be learned from the first public hearing of the House committee investigating Trump and January 6. Secrecy and sycophancy are common problems in tyrannical regimes. So what’s the remedy?

Cheney says Trump was too dangerous to be left alone

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), Vice-Chair of the House committee suggested that a number of people in Trump’s orbit understood the peril posed by a tightening circle of sycophants, as Trump worked to subvert the 2020 election. Cheney explained that White House staff “knew that the president needed to be cut off from all of those who had encouraged him.” They knew, she continued, that President Donald Trump was “too dangerous to be left alone.

On December 18, 2020, a small group of Trump loyalists met, including Rudy Giuliani, Sydney Powell, and Michael Flynn. This team formed plans that included the possibility of using the military to seize voting machines. According to Cheney, when White House lawyers discovered that this meeting was taking place, they “rushed to intervene.”

After the meeting concluded President tweeted for his supporters to come to Washington on January 6. “Be there, will be wild!” Trump tweeted, in a message quoted by the House committee. As things got worse in the aftermath of January 6, there was talk of invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from power. A number of Trump’s team resigned, while others threatened to leave. Among the notable departures was Attorney General William Barr, who said, in a video played by the committee, that what was going on was “complete nonsense” and “crazy stuff.” In further video testimony of William Barr aired by the committee on June 13, Barr suggested that President Trump was becoming “detached from reality.”

The tyrant’s isolation

Most of this story was already known to those of us who are paying attention. And in the background is a cast of players familiar from ancient Greek literature and philosophy. A tyrant rants and rages, a group of sycophants schemes and plots, and the mob takes to the streets. 

I describe these three characters in my book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump. They came to life in Washington during the Trump years. The good news is that a would-be tyrant was prevented from consolidating power, but the bad news is that our democracy came close to failing.

An important part of this perennial story is the tyrant’s isolation. Oedipus, the tyrant of Thebes, was isolated and alone. Scholar Richard Seaford describes this as “the horribly isolated autonomy of the tyrant.” The more the tyrant asserts his will, the more isolated he becomes, and the more detached from reality.

Plato explained that the tyrant has no friends. Plato says, “The tyrant lives his whole life without friends. He is always either a master or a slave. He never enjoys true freedom or genuine friendship.” The tyrant’s sycophants are not real friends. Rather, they are playing a game of power that is not concerned with truth or justice.

Genuine friends encourage us to be better. They tell us when we are behaving foolishly or immoral. And they refuse to play along when do something stupid or immoral. 

The isolation of the tyrant is familiar from the history of tyranny. Nero ended up isolated and alone. So too did Hitler. And unfortunately, in Russia today, Putin appears to be increasingly isolated.

The remedy: Transparency and friendship

This points us toward one of the perennial solutions to the problem of tyranny. We need good friends who operate out in the open. Non-tyrannical people have no need for sycophants and secret meetings. Decent people do not make secret plots, whispered in the dark. Instead, decent leaders welcome scrutiny and critique. 

This is why there are steering committees and advisory boards in businesses and other organizations. To avoid ethical mistakes, you have to put your cards on the table for public inspection. This is the function of checks and balances in constitutional democracies. And it is why a free press and freedom of speech help prevent tyranny. 

We also need genuine friendship. Friends do not agree about everything. Sycophants conform themselves to the will of the tyrant. But true friends are oriented toward something more stable and objective—toward the good and the true. They keep us connected with reality.

Polarization means that we view each other as enemies. Instead of listening to each other, we isolate ourselves and only listen to what we want to hear. These are the conditions in which tyranny can fester and grow. Hopefully, by shedding light on the problem of Trump and January 6, Rep. Cheney and the House committee can be part of the solution.

Andrew Fiala is Professor of Philosophy and director of the Ethics Center at Cal State Fresno. His published work includes Tyranny from Plato to Trump (2022), Seeking Common Ground: An Atheist/Theist...