Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: A modern, maniacal Leviathan

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - 3:34pm

In my Modern Political Thought class, we’re reading, among other things, Thomas Hobbes’s “Leviathan.” Themes in the book reminded me of thoughts and feelings I’ve experienced under Trump’s administration, so I decided to write this column. 

Hobbes suggests that the people will sacrifice their own “natural right” — that is, their right to preserve their own life — for the sake of the Sovereign, a figure who has absolute power to do as he wishes.

One thing to note: Hobbes uses the male pronoun to describe the Sovereign, illuminating a central fact of Hobbes’s philosophy, namely that the only people who were “free” were landowning white patriarchs. I often think about how normalized this kind of patent exclusion and prejudice was and how that fundamentally changes how legitimate any of these philosophies are in the first place. Essentially, these people were living in a fantasy that affirmed their own superiority as landowning white men themselves. More on this later.

According to Hobbes, the Sovereign literally cannot act unjustly, since the Sovereign creates the state and all its institutions, laws and customs. Hobbes defines an unjust act as one that breaks the law; since the Sovereign is creating the very environment in which the law is decreed and enforced, the Sovereign cannot break the law.

We give this power to the Sovereign in order to be protected from, as Hobbes puts it, the natural condition of war between people. As everyone tries to preserve their own life, conflicts inevitably arise, and icky human passions and desires take over. To avoid this, we succumb and submit to the Sovereign, who will protect its citizens.

Hobbes wrote within the context of the English Civil War, which happened between the years of 1642 and 1651. On one side, there were the Parliamentarians (also known as the “Roundheads”), led by Oliver Cromwell — a name I had always oddly revered but only now learned about. And on the other, the Royalists (or “Cavaliers”). Cromwell and his cronies had just taken over, which led to the execution of Charles I and the exile of his son — who, in a shocking turn of history, is named Charles II.

Hobbes’s text responds to the ongoing debate between these two factions. The Royalists, since being deposed, decried the new government as illegitimate. But for Hobbes, these calls were hapless and held no ground, since the Parliamentarians were the ones in legitimate control. They were the Sovereign.

We can use Hobbes’s work as a foundation for understanding Donald Trump’s emergence, and that of the far right in general.

Donald Trump, I think, understands himself in similar terms to those of Hobbes’s Sovereign. According to Trump, he can do whatever he wants to because of the power he holds. This has always been true. It’s what’s allowed him to sexually assault women, deny housing to Blacks, publicly shame every demographic that is not his own, run a campaign based on his persistent disobeying of customs in the electoral process and get away with it all.

And now he is our president. Every time he shatters another custom, defies what we expect of him with some gaffe that no longer can be described that way because of how frequently it occurs, I think Trump tries to fundamentally change how much power we give him, our collective understanding of our nation’s customs, what is normal, the boundaries of the American discourse and how much we sacrifice for the sake of his regime.

By aligning with the Ku Klux Klan, for example, Trump has brought white nationalists into the mainstream political discourse. Richard Spencer and Charles Murray are being invited to college campuses in the name of discourse, when, in fact, these are men promoting specifically racist, hateful agendas. The blurring of this line — between hate speech and free speech — has been one of the most sweeping consequences of Trump’s presidency thus far.

He is trying to reset the terms by which he can legitimately rule, the threats he can make to our very way of life — with respect to the environment, to North Korea and to his conspicuous respect for white nationalist hate groups — while still remaining in office. And this is how he ran his campaign; by the time of the actual election, he had thoroughly reduced the individual impact of each new headline detailing some new disgusting act.

We can see instances of Hobbes’s notion that the Sovereign is always legitimate in contemporary discourse as well. In Ann Arbor, for example, in the days after Trump’s election, I heard some of his supporters dismissing the outraged, crying students — mostly students of color — with the logic that these people should “get over it,” that Trump won fair and square and that there was nothing to do but “move on.”

But today, so many of those people who voted for him are discovering the hollowness and deception of Trump’s messages. They’ve been blindsided by the fact they themselves surrendered their own sovereignty — just as Hobbes describes — for the sake of this new leader, a leader who would reclaim the United States as they knew it, or as they wanted to know it.

Because unlike Hobbes’s Sovereign, Trump is not trying to protect his constituents, to preserve their lives and livelihoods. Instead, Trump uses his power for his own nefarious goals: to push an agenda of derision, violence and hatred. He is, in fact, openly combative when marginalized communities express dissent and anger. For example, he blamed Puerto Ricans themselves for the level of destruction they faced in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Like his supporters before him, this is Trump saying, “I have won. I am the legitimate power-holder. Get over it. Fend for yourself.”

Hobbes wrote in a time when dissenters were routinely hanged or drawn and quartered. A time when, as I mentioned earlier, everyone besides landowning patriarchs was, as custom, regarded as sub-human or subservient.

The possibility of this comparison, between Hobbes’s imagined leader, one who has absolute sovereign power, and our actual one, who we, as a nation, elected in 2016, ought to make us confront our contemporary social society in a new, skeptical light. 

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu.