By Jill Frank
Stasis, the Ancient Greek word for “standstill,” refers to a condition in which opposing forces cancel each other out. We have seen a lot of that in the last eight years. But in stark contrast to the standstill engineered by the “Party of No,” the avowed Republican stonewall of the Obama Administration, there is little doubt that in the weeks, months, and years ahead, the 115th Congress will set off a wave of reactive legislation, undoing Wall Street reforms, altering or repealing healthcare, immigration, tax, and environmental legislation, and approving controversial federal appointments.
Such activity seems the opposite of stasis. But what if President-elect Trump exemplifies stasis of another kind?
For the Greeks, city and soul, politics and ethics, were analogs of one another. Stasis characterized not only factional politics but also factional souls, which is to say, souls at variance with themselves. Such souls, Socrates explains in Plato’s dialog, Gorgias, “speak against” or contradict themselves, taking multiple and opposing stands. While appearing frenetic, a soul in stasis, like a city in stasis, is at a standstill. With its forces canceling each other out, a soul in stasis has trouble taking any consistent stand at all.
At his early January press conference, the first he held as President-elect, Trump declared that his election gave him a “megaphone” to “speak back” at his critics. It might be more accurate to characterize his performance as speaking back and forth. According to FactCheck.org, President-elect Trump made false and misleading claims about jobs, health care, and his tax returns.
This is not news. All three bi-partisan fact-checking organizations — FactCheck.org, the Tampa Bay Times’ Politifact, and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker — have tracked Trump’s words since he announced his run for the White House in 2015. His record of inconsistent lies and contradictory statements earned him the title “King of Whoppers.”
In Plato’s dialog, the Republic, Socrates refers to the necessity to lie sometimes, in the name of justice and the common good. But it’s one thing to lie occasionally, when public necessity seems to demand it, and another to do as Trump does. To contradict or speak against himself at nearly every turn, to say and do things — mock a disabled reporter, encourage Russian cyber warfare, incite violence at rallies, claim that NATO is “obsolete”– and then deny them. To promise no new taxes and then to propose a 20% levy on imports from Mexico to pay for “the wall.” To create a post-truth reality of “alternative facts.” These are the very manifestations of a soul in stasis.
If there is anything to the Ancient Greek analogy between soul and city, then President-elect Trump’s soul stasis should have political effects.
Some of those effects are already apparent in Trump’s picks for top governmental agencies. Presented as a “team of disrupters,” these nominees are, in many instances, at variance with and often opposed to the agencies they have been selected to oversee. For example, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Department of Education, has spent her career dismantling public education in Michigan. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has sued the EPA more than ten times. What pathways forward are possible if these agencies’ leaders speak against their office? Will Trump’s agencies in stasis, like Trump’s soul in stasis, be at a frenetic standstill, similarly hard pressed to stand for anything at all?
And what of the body politic as a whole? Disagreement is the hallmark of healthy politics, to be sure. But disagreement is different from hate, and the 6% rise in reported hate crimes in the weeks following the election reveals a body politic at variance with itself in ways that threaten to foreclose going forward together.
In his November acceptance speech, President-elect Trump appeared to recognize the perils of oppositonal politics when he declared that it was “time for America to bind the wounds of division … to come together as one united people…. It’s time.”
It is time.
But it is worth asking: unable to produce even its own unity, how can a soul at variance with itself unify others?