Thursday, July 6, 2017

Lessons of Past Populist Eras

At a time when it seems like the country is hopelessly divided and that too many people are excluded from the American dream, it's helpful to look to US history for perspective and insight.  We have faced divisions within the US that were worse than the ones we face today.


Past Examples of Division and Populism 

Past examples of division and populism reveal some patterns that may be relevant to what we face today.  We have gone through several past cycles of (i) tremendous wealth creation resulting from the development of new technologies, (ii) concentration of wealth by the winners in the new economy, (iii) violence, populism, anti-immigration and anti-globalization by those left behind or left out of the new economy, (iv) financial and banking excesses, market booms and subsequent depressions, (v) racial strife, and (vi) wars.  Eventually, in each of these periods, after bitter and long-lasting disputes, America's leaders and the government had some success promoting the middle class, fair treatment, and competition, resulting in sustained periods of prosperity and peace.


Below is a discussion of three divisive and populist periods in US history.  This is not a complete discussion of the history; it is a sampling of events and trends, and how past challenges were addressed. 

1840s -1870s - the Civil War Period 
Critical events in this period related to slavery, the defeat of the South, railroads, steam power, and economic strife over industrialization.
  • New technologies:  railroads and steam power
  • Winners: railroad owners, merchants, the North generally
  • Left Out:  people of color, the South generally, farmers 
  • Racism:  slavery, and Jim Crow laws that institutionalized racist policies after the abolition of slavery
  • Leadership:  Lincoln
The dominant issue of this period was the bitter division over slavery.

If we think our politicians today treat each other badly, consider what happened in 1856 to the US Senator from Massachusetts and Republican, Charles Sumner.  During an impassioned anti-slavery speech, Sumner insulted Senator Butler from South Carolina.  A few days later, a relative of Butler's, Representative Preston Brooks, confronted Sumner on the floor of the Senate, and beat Sumner almost to death with his cane.  Republicans sought to expel Brooks from Congress, but they couldn't get enough votes to do so.  When Brooks returned to South Carolina, he was treated like a hero.  See Canning of Sumner

Six years later, in 1861, the Civil War began, and in the next four years, over 600,000 Americans died.  Lincoln's leadership - and his words - were critical to preserving the United States, and defeating slavery.  In the Gettysburg Address, a one page speech, given to honor the dead soldiers at a newly dedicated graveyard, Lincoln summed up why a united American democracy free of slavery was worth fighting for: 

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.... we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."  The Gettysburg Address  


1880s - 1918 - the"Gilded Age" and the "Progressive Era" 
In this period, there were dizzying technology advances, monopolies, industrialization, and inequality leading to populism, violent riots and labor unrest.  Teddy Roosevelt pursued "trust busting" and "Square Deal" policies, seeking to balance the interests of big business and common people.
  • New technologies:  steel and electricity
    • "Bessemer" manufacturing - mass production of steel; first steel plant in Pittsburgh (Carnegie)
    • adoption of electricity - electrification (Edison)
    • telephone is patented (Bell)...
  • Winners:  "Robber Barons" - Andrew Carnegie (steel); E. H. Harriman (railroads); Charles Schwab (oil); John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil); JP Morgan (finance); Cornelius Vanderbilt (railroads)... 
  • Left Out:  industrial workers and miners (terrible labor conditions, low pay, long hours, child labor, poor health and safety); and farmers (low prices, and high rents to railroads and financiers)
  • Violence/labor unrest:  
  • Populism:  1880s and 1890s - rise of Populist political party
  • "Yellow" Journalism:  the publisher, William Randolph Hearst (who was Harvard educated), uses exaggeration, scandal, crime, sex, and attacks on outsiders to sell newspapers 
  • Government: business regulation
    • Sherman Antitrust Act (regulates monopolies and unfair trade)
    • Interstate Commerce Act (regulates rates charged by railroads)
  • Leadership: Teddy Roosevelt 
While a small number of people who controlled the new technologies amassed huge wealth, industrial workers who moved from the country to growing cities lived and worked in squalid conditions, and many farmers saw their prospects deteriorate.  In 1870, approximately 50% of the US population worked in agriculture.  Over time, the vast majority of farm jobs were eliminated by automation. Today, only 2% of the population works in agriculture.   See Agriculture in the US

In the 1880s and 1890s, the Populist political party was established and gained support, largely from farmers who were being left out of the new economy.  The Populists claimed to love America and to be patriotic; they also opposed "East Coast elites", called for some socialist policies, including government seizure of the railroads, and they were anti-immigrants and anti-foreigners.  The Populist party never gained a majority in the US; some of their policies were tempered and eventually incorporated into the Democratic Party platform.


In the early 1900s, Teddy Roosevelt, whose domestic agenda was know as the Square Deal, sought to balance the interests of big business and average Americans, while still promoting capitalism and not crossing into socialism. He actively enforced the Sherman Antitrust Act, dissolving dozens of monopolies, focusing on companies that engaged in corrupt and anti-competitive practices (rather than merely focusing on those companies that became "too big").  Roosevelt's legacy included the progressive use of the federal government to promote the overall public interest and the interests of the middle class.  


1920s - 1965 - age of the automobile and oil 
During this period, automobiles and other consumer goods began to be mass produced and sold to the growing middle class; tremendous wealth creation; financial speculation, the Great Depression, and Franklin D Roosevelt's "New Deal".   
  • New technologies:  mass production of the automobile (Henry Ford); oil refinement
  • Winners:  eventually, the middle class
  • Left Out:  pervasive misery during the Depression
  • Violence/labor unrest: widespread labor organization and strikes including in the automative industry 
  • Populists: Huey Long (Senator from Louisiana), and Father Charles Coughlin (Detroit priest with a national radio talk show)
  • Racism:  Japanese interment camps 
  • Government:  significant New Deal legislation:
    • CCC, WPA and TVA - (millions of people employed by the government on road and bridge construction and other infrastructure projects)
    • Social Security Act (old age insurance)
    • Fair Labor Standards Act (minimum wage and 40 hour work week)
    • Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 (federal insurance of bank deposits and a separation of consumer and investment banking)
    • National Labor Relations Act (workers' right to collectively bargain)
    • Securities and Exchange Acts of 1933 and 1934 (financial disclosure, prohibition of fraudulent securities practices)  
  • Leadership:  FDR
During the course of the "roaring 20s", the nation's wealth nearly doubled, but after rampant market speculation, fraud and international economic shocks, the stock market crashed in 1929 and many banks failed, leading to the Great Depression - the worst economic downturn in history.  In 1933, the unemployment rate hit nearly 25%; people in America were starving to death.  

The Depression was a world-wide phenomena.  For example, Germany, with Hitler as its leader, reacted to the Depression with a policy of national socialism and genocide - choices that eventually resulted in defeat and humiliation.  See Man in the High Castle (TV show) and The Plot Against America (book) for fictional but chilling explorations of how America, with different leadership, might have abandoned democracy for national socialism during this timeframe.    

Widespread misery contributed to the support of populists in the US.  Huey Long, a Democratic Senator who supported socialist redistribution of wealth, was popular enough to have presidential aspirations, but he was assassinated in 1935.  Another populist, Father Coughlin, used his popular radio show to espouse economic redistribution, as well as bigoted, anti-semitic conspiracy theories about international banking.  The Church leadership eventually forced him to cease doing the talk show.  

FDR was President from 1933 to 1945.  During his time, he was bitterly opposed including by business leaders, who viewed him as a "traitor to his class" because of his pro-middle-class policies.  Today, some also view FDR's legacy as the establishment of the welfare state and oversized government.  Others view him as one of the greatest presidents in history.  Many of the laws passed by his administration are seen today almost universally as necessary and beneficial.  Viewed in the context of the challenges he faced, there can be little question that with his leadership, the US bounced back from the Depression, rebuilt the country's infrastructure, got people back to work, preserved democracy at home and abroad  and won the Second World War - after which, America was a preeminent superpower, and it's middle class the strongest in its history.  FDR was also politically astute - using his "fireside chat" radio shows to deliver his message directly to the American people.  


The Present

Today, America is the wealthiest country with the most powerful military in history.  We also have historic wealth inequality, and cultural, political and racial division that is growing worse over time - with some people on each side of the current "culture wars" challenging not the ideas of the other side, but the legitimacy of the other side to exist.  There has also been a return to an earlier era of "yellow journalism" and partisan - rather than objective - media coverage.   

The speed of technological change is also increasing, creating both wealth and disruption.  In the early 1970s, Intel produced the first microchips, and the age of information began.  Since then, we have had the personal computer revolution (which automated paper based office processes), the widespread adoption of the internet (making communications and social media ubiquitous, and human knowledge searchable), the iPhone (putting a supercomputer in everyone's pocket), and cloud computing (driving down the price of computing and storage, leading to an age where "software is eating the world"). See  WSJ Article Quoting Marc Andreessen  

Just as in prior eras, these new technologies have lead to dramatic improvements, wealth creation (such as in financial services and high tech), as well as wealth inequality.  For example, the top 400 families in America have more wealth than the bottom 61% of the population combined (194 million people).  See Forbes 400 Study  

We also have a massive federal government bureaucracy and large deficits that are directing wealth to the current older generation and away from the future younger generations.  According to a recent study, a child born today, has only a 50/50 chance of having more material success than her parents, as compared to a 90% chance for those who were born in the 1940s.  See NPR Article on Inequality  Traditionally, an American differentiator has been equality of opportunity, including for immigrants, which allows America to harness the best and brightest, here and around the world, no matter what their background, gender or physical characteristics.  


"Great Man" Theory of History

Historians sometimes debate whether it is great men and women who shape history or whether history is dictated by uncontrollable forces that can't be impacted by individuals.  Tolstoy wrote about this in "War and Peace" where he characterized Napoleon not as a great general and shaper of history, but as someone merely swept up in uncontrollable events.  

This "great man" debate is academic since it is not one or the other - it is both historic forces and great leaders that impact events.  For example, the direction of Russia has been impacted by Stalin and Putin, China by Mao and Deng, India by Gandhi, the United Kingdom by Churchill, and so on.  Sometimes leaders direct events for the better and sometimes for the worse.  

Similarly, it may be that Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR are some of our greatest leaders because they were the most capable, or it may be that they faced great challenges which created the opportunities for greatness.  Either way, they had success using their leadership skills to redirect widespread distress to try to unite the country.  


Lessons of Past Populist Eras 

In my view, these past populist periods carry key lessons for the present.  First, individual leaders matter.  Second, technology advances are inevitable, they create great good for a great many people and they are part of what differentiates America.  Such advances can also contribute to inequality that can tear at the fabric of the nation because many can be left out and their jobs commoditized or eliminated by automation.  Yet, it is also true that, in the past, those whose jobs were eliminated - such as the vast majority of people who worked in agriculture - found new ones in the newly created industries.  Third, in times of great technological change and inequality, the federal government has a role to play in promoting democracy, capitalism, and a level playing field and in helping transition those who are displaced through no fault of their own.  

Each generation of Americans must contend in new ways with: 
(i) inequality; 
(ii) harnessing the benefits and addressing the disruption of new technologies and trade; 
(iii) racial and cultural divisions; and
(iv) the role of government, including to build new networks and infrastructures.  

To solve any hard problem, you need facts and data, diversity, empathy, hard work, experience, creativity, passion, simplification and brilliance.  In the past, we were able to do so - we sometimes resorted to violence, but ultimately, we solved hard problems led by people who could build broad consensus, and convince disparate groups to put the common interests of the nation ahead of individual groups or factions, to sacrifice and to compromise.  Such leaders today seem hard to find, but if we're going to solve generational problems, we'll need to find them, elect them, or become them.  











Tuesday, April 11, 2017

US Foreign Policy in Syria: America First v America's First Principles

A few months ago, I wrote an article, discussing that US foreign policy must be based on American interests, but American interests can be defined so as to take into account our Constitutional values.  

Last week's missile strike against Syria was a decisive action by President Trump, but one that seemed inconsistent with his America First policy.  Rather than assessing the effectiveness of the strike itself, this article further explores how democratic principles and human rights are consistent with American foreign policy interests. 

Trump's America First Foreign Policy


On April 4, 2017, President Trump said the following to a group of union workers:


"We enriched foreign countries at the expense of our own country, the great United States of America.  But those days are over.  (Applause.)  I'm not -- and I don't want to be -- the President of the world.  I'm the President of the United States. And from now on, it’s going to be America First.  (Applause.)"  Transcript of President Trump's Statement- White House Blog 


Prior to April 6, Trump's consistent position has been that the US's interactions in the world are a zero sum game, America is (he contends) getting screwed by other countries, and the primary, if not exclusive, goal of American foreign policy should be to get more wealth for America.  As a result, he's advocated that America reduce its role in the world, pull back from multilateral trade and human rights arrangements, negotiate "better" unilateral trade deals, and have other countries take a greater responsibility for their own security.  In short - "America First". 


The Syrian Missile Strike


Yet, on April 6, President Trump initiated a missile strike on a Syrian airfield in response to the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad on his own people for rebelling against his rule.  It is unclear whether this action signals a change in President Trump's foreign policy.  However, whatever his motives, President Trump's missile strike took into account the human rights of non-US citizens, and in that sense, his policy was not consistent with America First.  


Human Rights, The US Declaration of Independence and US Constitution


What are human rights?  


The following few lines of the Declaration of Independence are worth reading, as they are one of the best articulations of human rights in history and they remain relevant today:

... We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...  Declaration of Independence


The above quoted section of the Declaration sets forth the following ideals: 

(i) that all humans are created equal, 
(ii) that they have unalienable rights by virtue of being human, 
(iii) that such rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and 
(iv) that legitimate governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

See also the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

(Note: the language of the Declaration excludes women, and there were profound contradictions between the words of the Declaration and slavery.  Nonetheless, the Declaration sets forth the ideal that all humans have human rights.)

Are All Humans Created Equal?

Humans are of course not equal with respect to intellect, physical capabilities, appearance and so on.   However, what the Founders had in mind is somewhat circular, but definitively true - that all humans are created equal in the sense that all humans are equally human.  Put differently, every human, by virtue of being human, is entitled to dignity and certain basic rights.  


What are Unalienable Rights?

Unalienable rights are rights that each human has been granted by God or nature by virtue of being a human.  Such rights are often abridged, threatened, or denied but because such rights are not granted by mankind or any government, they cannot - legitimately - be abridged, threatened or denied by mankind or any government.  See John Locke, Two Treatises of Government


Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness 


The Declaration states that "among" these human rights (i.e. there are others) are "life", "liberty" and "the pursuit of happiness."  


Life:  every human has a right to live, and to be free from unwarranted violence, including torture.  In fact, this is one of the justifications for legitimate government; namely, that every citizen agrees to abide by just laws, and in return, receives some measure of security.  

Liberty:  every human is inherently political, and has some basic need for political and personal freedom.  Locke's view was that humans could maximize their freedom by consenting to a constitutional government and just laws.  

Pursuit of Happiness:  in contemporary America, the plain meaning of "pursuit of happiness" is the attempt to do what "feels good" in a psychological or emotional sense.  Trump in many ways embodies the notion that extreme materialism will lead to happiness.  Understood in this psychological way, happiness is not necessarily moral or immoral - a criminal could experience happiness by successfully stealing, a drug addict by taking drugs, etc.  In contrast, the Founders had a very different understanding of  the "pursuit of happiness".  They understood it as the human journey to live a good, virtuous, and therefore, fulfilling life.  The pursuit of happiness - in the sense of "a life that was worth living" - is in some ways the most important human right because happiness is an end unto itself, and all other actions in life are a means to that end.  See We Hold These Truths, Adler; see also Aristotle - Happiness as an End Unto Itself


The Bill of Rights - which is made up of the first 10 Amendments to the US Constitution - further protects these rights (for example, the 1st Amendment protects freedom of religion, conscious, speech, press, and assembly; the 4th Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures; the 5th Amendment provides the protection of due process of law; the 6th Amendment provides the right to trial by jury; and the 8th Amendment contains a guaranty against cruel and unusual punishment).  

The Role of Government

At the time of the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1775), European governments were often ruled by men with absolute power, it was asserted that this power came from God, and that their subjects had no choice but to obey them.  That was King George's view.  


The Founders, relying on philosophers including Locke and Rousseau, believed that governments were only legitimate if the people (who possessed unalienable human rights) consented to such rule, and such consent was contained in a constitution.  Thus, legitimate governments were based on the rule of law, not the rule of men exerting violence and force.  


Consider Assad, and his long time ally, Vladimir Putin.  Both have demonstrated a willingness to use force, in contravention of human rights, against their own populations, in ways that are much more brutal than anything that King George did.  


Justice

A core role of legitimate governments is to protect the human rights of their citizens, and to enforce just laws that maximize individual fairness - in the sense that individuals are treated equally where they are equal, and unequally in ways that are proportional to their inequality.   This is one reason that the law is often concerned with precedent; understanding how a current situation relates to or differs from a prior situation is an important way to determine a fair outcome.  See Plato's The Republic (Plato explores justice, both as a personal virtue and as a societal virtue).  

In A Theory of Justice, the philosopher John Rawls (in simplified terms) set forth two principles of justice: (i) the liberty principle and (ii) the equality principle.  Under the liberty principle, everyone in society has claims to liberty and basic human rights.  Under the equality principle, Rawls proposed that it was in society's interest to treat the most vulnerable in society fairly.  

Rawls proposed the following thought experiment:  that humans put on a "veil of ignorance" and pretend that they cannot know what economic circumstances that they would be born into - they might be very rich or they might be abjectly poor.  In such a case, it would be rational for humans to fairly allocate of resources, support the weakest members of society, and thereby reduce the risk of being born abjectly poor.  Rawls similarly applied his equality principle internationally - concluding that it was rational and fair to protect the most vulnerable people in other countries.   Rawls' theory is far from universally supported, but it provides insight into the role of justice and fairness in government policy.  

The Application of American Constitutional Values to Foreign Policy

American foreign policy cannot be exclusively based on promoting human rights, but the core principles of America include respect for the human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The US State Department web site states that supporting human rights promotes US interests, and should take into account the following principles:  

(i) learn the truth and state the facts in all human rights investigations; 
(ii) take consistent positions with respect to human rights abuses; and 
(iii) maintain multilateral partnerships with governments and organizations around the world that promote human rights.  

US State Department - Human Rights Statement   

These principles underscore some of the concerns about Trump's Presidency.  To date, President Trump has shown a disregard for the truth.  Yet, the truth matters deeply, in both domestic policy (so that citizens can trust their government) and in foreign policy (for example, so that someone like Assad can't get away with killing his own people with poison gas, and then merely declaring that it didn't happen). Also, when things really go wrong in the world, there's a need for trust that comes with a track record of consistent truthfulness, and multilateral action among countries with similar values.  

Putin and Assad, like other authoritarian dictators, reject the truth and justify actions based on power alone.  Indeed, this rejection of US values is one of the reasons that Trump's prior glowing support for Putin has been, at least to some, so disturbing.  

Reasonable people can differ about whether or not "America First" is a good policy that will increase the US's share of international wealth and improve the lives of people who are being left behind by fast changing technologies, or a bad policy that will decrease US wealth overall and make the world less stable.  But either way, a lesson of the Syrian missile attack - and one reason that Trump has received so much support for it - is that America First is flawed to the extent that it assumes the only goal of US foreign policy should be to take wealth from other countries. American support of international human rights in Syria may not increase American wealth in the short run, but policies that respect human rights may contribute to making America greater and stronger in the world over time.

Over the coming weeks and months, we'll see which Trump administration shows up - the one that ordered the missile strike in support of Syrian children and human rights, or the one that disregards the truth, attacks the press, supports dictators, and turns away refugees - including suffering children from Syria...

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

An Ironic Lesson of History

The historian J. Rufus Fears has said that one - ironic - lesson of history is that most people do not learn from history.  

To the Founders of the US Constitution, history was not just a collection of past facts to be memorized - history was a blueprint to learn how to live and how government should work.  The Founder’s application of lessons from history led to the world’s most successful democracy and most brilliant Constitution. 

If we choose to pay attention to them, these same lessons – some over 2000 years old – remain just as relevant to us today as they were to the Founders - because human nature does not change.

Tangible Lessons from History

As discussed further below, the following are some lessons from ancient Greek and Roman history that the Founders took into account when creating the Constitution:

1.  People are sometimes willing to trade away individual and political freedom for food, jobs, entertainment, and/or physical security.

2.  Freedom is NOT the dominant value of people throughout history; the dominant value of people throughout history is power

3.  As a result of 1 and 2 above, republican forms of government (those that are run "by the people and for the people") are rare and they may eventually degrade into tyranny (governments that are run by a "strong man” emperor for himself).

4.  A "strong man" leader may: 

(a) pit the masses of people who are poor and less educated against the political and economic elites (elected officials, and the wealthy and more educated); 

(b) use nationalism and/or war to focus the masses on external enemies;

(c) align with foreign powers against the traditional interests of the republic; and

(d) use propaganda, claim to have a monopoly on the truth, and claim to speak for "the people".

5.  Great leaders in history have both: (a) the ability to rally people around their vision/world view and (b) they have character, virtue and a moral compass (they follow The Golden Rule - do unto others as you would have others do unto you). 

6.  Tyrants in history have been able to rally people around their world view, but they lack character, they lack virtue and they lack a moral compass.  

Ancient Philosophers and Historians

Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington, Adams, Madison and other Founders studied the philosophers and historians of ancient Greece and Rome, including Plato, Socrates, Plutarch, Cicero, and others.

What they learned is that the Greek and Roman republics (from approximately 700 BC to 300 AD), rose and then fell when the freedoms of citizens were usurped by power hungry strong men, seeking to become tyrants.  The heros of the Founders were men of virtue who valued freedom and the interests of the whole republic above their own power and interests – such as Cata, Cassius, Brutus, and Cicero.  Their villains were power-hungry and immoral demagogues, such as Caesar, Nero, Caligula and Commodus. 

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates are perhaps the world’s greatest philosophers - meaning that they have unique - and still relevant - insight and wisdom about human nature.   

Plato was born in 428 BC in Athens, and he writes both in his own voice, and in dialogues with his mentor, Socrates.  In The Republic, Plato discusses the importance of morality ("virtue") and how republican forms of government will eventually degrade into tyranny because of a lack of virtue.  

Virtue - critical to the success of individual leaders and of republican forms of government - required 4 things: (i) wisdom, (ii) courage, (iii) moderation, and (iv) justice.  Virtuous leaders, and human beings generally, could find true happiness from truth, order and putting the interests of others before one's own, but most people in fact live in a haze of darkness and shadows created by selfish excessive desire for money, pleasure, and honor/praise.  

In a successful society, virtuous leaders have expertise (wisdom); patriots risk their lives to defend the republic (courage); the political system has specialization and balance (moderation); and there is adherence to the law (justice) - all of which delivers the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.

Plato observed that elites rule for a time with virtue and put the interests of the whole republic before their own, but eventually they begin to use political power to create advantages and increase their own wealth.  The poor and those who “work with their hands and take little part in politics” will increasingly lose faith in the elites, and the elites will increasingly be concerned that the poor are going to revolt.  

A strong man then emerges from the elite class (oligarchy), but he claims to speak for the poor.  Because the poor are desperate for change, they are willing to give up their freedom for food and security, and the strong man is able to play the masses off against the elites, eventually seizing absolute power, and eliminating his enemies. “He also needs to constantly make war to distract people from what he is doing.  He must pander to the worst segments of society…”  The Republic by Plato

Ancient Emperors and Politicians 

In Plutarch's history - Parallel Lives - he wrote about dozens of Greek and Roman leaders, with a focus on their personal relationships and the morality of their decision making.   Lives was like a bible to the Founders because the threats to liberty that Plutarch described were directly relevant to their own experiences.  

Cato was a Roman lawmaker born about 95 B.C. He was a hard working, honest, thoughtful Senator, with a strong sense of justice.  He was hated by Caesar for his integrity and for his refusal to help Caesar to usurp power.  At one point, Caesar had Cato imprisoned, but was forced to release him when the public opposed. 

Cato recognized Caesar for what he was, a great general who had an expansionist vision for the Roman Empire, but also an immoral person - a drunk, a womanizer, and a power-hungry politician who sought to take away freedom from the people so that he could seize absolute power for himself.  In 48 BC, there was a civil war in Rome involving Caesar and Pompey – Cato sided with Pompey.  After Caesar’s army defeated Pompey’s army, Caesar became emperor.  The people of Rome had a choice - they could have sided with Cato, but they chose to side with Caesar, walking away from 100s of years of freedom and self rule, largely because they wanted the food and protection.  Caesar offered Cato, Brutus and Cassius roles in his government.  Cato refused and was eventually put to death.  Brutus and Cassius joined Caesar, but later murdered him. 

To the Founders, Cato was a principled martyr who stood up to a tyrant, and lost.  Cato was George Washington’s greatest hero and he patterned his own behaviors after those of Cato.   

Brutus and Cassius were also admired because, despite joining Caesar's government, they eventually overthrew Caesar, and they were seen to have done so in an effort to restore the freedoms of the people of Rome and not for person gain.  

Cicero was a brilliant philosopher, orator, and an ethical politician.  He, like Cato, stood up to the emperor in an effort to protect the freedom of the people of Rome.  For doing so, he was eventually put to death by Mark Antony - who had Cicero's hands cut off and his tongue cut out.  Plutarch's Parallel Lives

Other failed Roman Emperors from the first and second centuries AD, included Caligula, Commodus and Nero.  All 3 were generally uninterested in the details of the day-to-day operation of government which they left to others.  They were ruthless (executing many around them - for example, Nero put his own mother to death) and they were immoral (putting their own interests, sexual perversions, and pleasures before all other concerns).  They used entertainment, including gladiator events, to distract the people from their loss of freedom.  They also had unrealistic views of their own abilities.  Commodus for example would publicly appear as a gladiator, but he lacked talent and surrounded himself with people who would nonetheless complement him and tell him how good he was.   Ancient Emperors

Application of the Lessons of History by the Founders 

From their careful study of history, the Founders concluded that immoral wealthy powerful elites are a threat to liberty, and that the people can be misled into giving up on freedom.  They had the examples of tyrants in history in mind as they constructed the checks and balances contained in the Constitution.   

Founders wrote about the ancient philosophers and emperors as if they knew them.  As an example, Jefferson wrote to Adams the following:  "... [with Rome] steeped in corruption, vice and venality, ... what could even Cicero, Cato, Brutus have done, had it been referred to them to establish a good government for their country?... No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and their people were so demoralized and depraved as to be incapable of exercising a wholesome control. ... Their minds [needed] to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments proportioned, indeed, but irremissible; in all cases, to follow truth as the only safe guide..."    In another letter to Adams, Jefferson wrote that democracy in America encourages “the hope that the human mind will some day get back to the freedom it enjoyed two thousand years ago."  Jefferson Quotes on Politics and Government

In Federalist 1, Hamilton began his justification for ratification of the Constitution, starting that "...of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants."   Federalist 1

Application of the Lessons of History to the Present Day

People Want Jobs and Security and They Distrust the Political Elites

The US is the richest and most powerful country in the world, but the distribution of wealth has become more unfair over time.  The country is more politically, racially and economically divided than perhaps it has been since the Civil War, and the federal government in Washington has been gridlocked and ineffective for almost 2 decades.  

Some of the people who are core supporters of Trump have felt so left out, and so desperate that they just want change.  They also view the political elite class as incompetent, conflicted by international interests  or just corrupt.  

What Plato and others teach us about this is that people are willing to abandon their freedoms for improved economic opportunity and security.   Moreover, the friction between elites and people who are less well off can be exploited.  That does not mean that is what will happen in America today, but the lessons of history are relevant to the risk of what can happen. 

Trump's World View Does Not Appear Tyrannical 

Great leaders in history have the ability to rally people around their own world view.

Trump's world view is essentially to put "America First" by applying the "art of the deal".  By this he means that he can negotiate more financial value to America at the expense of other countries and non-citizens.  This message - together with promises of tax cuts and fewer regulations - has gotten Trump support of the majority of Republicans, and a little less than half the overall population.  

History suggests nothing especially or inherently tyrannical about this world view.  Indeed, tyrants like Hitler or Stalin had world views that were inherently evil and involved the adherence to doctrine requiring the death or domination of millions of people.  Trump has signaled intolerance of people from other cultures (see discussion below), but he has not articulated or done anything close to these tyrants.  

Trump seems far less motivated by his world view and far more motivated by wanting to be politically popular and to be praised and complemented.  For example, Trump doesn't seem to oppose NATO because of a desire to advance a plan to dominate Europe - rather, he just seems to think that the US pays too much to NATO and that he could get a better deal.  

In addition, many of his policy positions are not firmly held - he changes his mind a lot.  Trump seems more reckless and unprepared than motivated by a firmly held doctrine and world view.  (In contrast, Steve Bannon seems to have a more zealous and deeply held world view, in part based on his admiration for the Russian leader, Vladimir Lenin.)  

Trump does have the ability to rally people around himself.  He's a good marketer - "TRUMP"is literally his brand - and he's an expert at reality tv, tweeting and simple - non-elite - communications.  He can be interesting and funny - he is (as he might say) good for ratings.  When it comes to his world view, he seems to be more of a Nero than a Caesar.

Trump's Tactics Do Appear Tyrannical and He Lacks a Moral Compass

Great leaders have both a vision that people rally behind and a moral compass.  President Trump puts his own interests first and he lacks a moral compass.  History teaches us that this creates the risk that his current leadership could devolve into something worse.  

He has engaged in acts that mirror the behaviors of tyrants in history, including his:

(i) mischaracterizations, lies and outright attacks on the truth (such as claiming that millions of people committed voter fraud), 
(ii) failure to disclose his tax form and address potential conflicts of interest, 
(iii) suggestion that certain ethnic or religious groups are inherently dangerous, and promotion of immigration policies that appear more focused on fear of outsiders than legitimate security concerns, 
(iv) lack of regard for discrimination and hate crimes that can be promoted by his rhetoric, 
(v) support of Putin - a corrupt murder and hater of freedom - such as by inviting Russia to hack the US elections, and suggesting that Putin's Russia is American's moral equivalent, and 
(vi) lack of respect for US democratic institutions, and attacks on the independent judiciary ("so called judges") and content based attacks on independent media outlets when they don't agree with him (including false and cynical claims of "fake news").

At his recent Press Conference, Trump stated that the people should listen to him as the source of the truth rather than assessing the truth for themselves.  "You know what it is? Here’s the thing. The public isn’t — you know, they read newspapers, they see television, they watch. They don’t know if it’s true or false because they’re not involved. I’m involved. I’ve been involved with this stuff all my life. But I’m involved. So I know when you’re telling the truth or when you’re not. I just see many, many untruthful things."  Press Conference Transcript  Those statements are profoundly at odds with the underpinnings of the US system of government.  In Putin's system, what Putin says is taken as the truth.  In America, to maintain a government by the people and for the people, it is up to every citizen to seek the truth, and be knowledgable and engaged with government policy.  

Perhaps Trump has no plan to be a tyrant, but when he warms up to a tyrant like Putin, when he pits poor people against the elites (despite being a billionaire himself), when he claims to speak for "the people" and to be the sole source of the truth, when he attacks the independent media as the "enemy of the people", when he suggests that people should be feared or treated badly for being different, we know from history that he is acting like one of the oligarchs straight out of Plutarch's Parallel Lives or Plato's The Republic - and that those stories don't end well for the people.  

The Founders believed that self interest, pride, greed and excessive overconfidence (what the Greeks called "hubris") cannot be the core characteristics of our leaders, or we will devolve into tyranny.  To avoid tyranny, our leaders and our system of government must strive for virtue.  Trump may not be a tyrant, but he does lack wisdom, courage, justice and moderation.

Supporters and opponents tend to view President Trump as either uniquely good or uniquely bad, but in certain respects, history has seen leaders like Trump  before and we can learn from that history - if we choose to pay attention to its lessons.