NB: This articles a rough draft. I’m still working on it but I wanted to put it out there on my blog anyway. 😉
This is an article about Greek philosophy and contemporary US politics. Recently, I’ve started looking more closely at the views expressed by certain political figures and comparing them with the ethical teachings of ancient philosophy. They don’t necessarily have to be people whose politics I agree with. My own views are basically centre-left (democratic socialist) but I prefer to look at what people who are politically conservative have written. I don’t hold opinions about politics strongly wherever there’s room for uncertainty and debate, although I do hold some moral values that have political implications. Stoicism has taught me to remain emotionally detached from questions about which external states-of-affairs are preferable to which. For instance, I believe that a broadly state-run NHS is preferable to the privatization of British healthcare services. Nevertheless, if a health economist showed me solid evidence and a rational argument to persuade me otherwise I’d happily change my mind.
Once, it’s said, Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school heard a pretentious young man exclaim that he disagreed with everything the (long-deceased) philosopher Antisthenes had written. It’s easy to make yourself seem clever by dismissing something out of hand or doing a hatchet-job on the author. However, Zeno asked him what there was of value to be learned from reading Antisthenes. The young man, caught off guard, said “I don’t know.” Zeno asked him why he wasn’t ashamed to be picking holes in a philosopher’s writings without having first taken care to identify what might be good in his works and worth knowing. That’s not unlike what philosophers call the Principle of Charity today. We arguably gain more benefit from reading a book if we look for the good bits first. Otherwise, if we indulge in criticism straight away, we risk missing what’s most important entirely. So it was with that in mind that I decided to read Stone’s Rules, the latest book from political strategist, and Trump-loyalist, Roger Stone.
Get me Roger Stone!
Stone’s story is now permanently entwined with that of President Trump. Stone claims he started calling on Trump to put himself forward as a presidential candidate back in 1988, although Donald wasn’t interested at first. “I launched the idea of Donald J. Trump for President”, he says. However, he later qualifies this by saying,
Those who claim I elected Trump are wrong. Trump elected Trump—he’s persistent, driven to succeed, clever, stubborn, and deeply patriotic. I am, however, among a handful who saw his potential for national leadership and the presidency.
Stone is a specialist in negative campaigning. His political career began way back in 1972 when, aged twenty, he joined Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign team. Nixon became his lifelong hero. Indeed, Stone collects Nixon memorabilia and actually has a large tattoo of the former president’s face on his back. However, after the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, Stone was left with a reputation as a professional “dirty trickster”. He successfully turned this into a selling-point, though, and survived to have a long, albeit controversial, career in politics. In the 1980s he worked on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign and formed the political consulting firm Black, Manafort and Stone, along with Charlie Black and Paul Manafort.
Black, Manafort and Stone’s first client was, in fact, Donald Trump. Later, in the 1990s, Stone began working with Trump in a variety of other capacities. In 2000, he was appointed campaign manager for Trump’s first, albeit abortive, presidential campaign. Trump sought the nomination for the Reform Party but quit during the presidential primaries. It wasn’t surprising then that Stone later served as an advisor to Trump during the initial stages of his 2016 presidential campaign. He resigned in August 2015, although Trump said that he had been fired. However, Stone continued to support Trump and according to some reports to serve in an informal capacity as one of his political advisors. Stone and several of his associates have now come under the scrutiny of the Mueller investigation, mainly due to Stone’s communications with Julian Assange of Wikileaks and a team of hackers using the online identity Guccifer 2.0, who were revealed to be acting as agents of Russian military intelligence (GRU).
Stone’s a difficult man to describe. He revels in controversy. For example, he posed for a photo shoot dressed as the Joker from Batman. I find that, paradoxically, people who aren’t very familiar with him often assume that others are “attacking” him when in fact they’re just repeating his own claims. He became more widely-known outside of political circles in the summer of 2017 when the Netflix documentary Get me Roger Stone was released. The film is structured around ten of Stone’s “rules” for success in life and politics.
This idea was then expanded into his new book Stone’s Rules: How to Win at Politics, Business, and Style (2018). The blurb compares Stone to a combination of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. However, the book actually consists of 140 rules, described in a few paragraphs each, written in a fairly casual and often humorous style. There are many short anecdotes about Nixon and other US politicians. As the title suggests, some of the rules are more about succeeding in life, some are more specific to politics. A considerable number of them are about sartorial advice, such as Rule #18: “White shirt + tan face = confidence” or Rule #36, which claims “Brown is the color of shit”. He also includes his mother’s recipe for pasta sauce (or rather “Sunday Gravy”). There are instructions on how to prepare martinis just like Nixon did – who, according to Stone, used to say of them, “More than one of these and you want to beat your wife.”
In the book’s foreword, political commentator Tucker Carlson of Fox News acclaims Stone “the premier troublemaker of our time” and “the Michael Jordan of electoral mischief”. However, Carlson also describes his friend as “wise” and “on the level”. Stone is happy to celebrate his notoriety as the “high priest of political mischief”, “slash-and-burn Republican black bag election tamperer” with “a long history of bare-knuckle politics” and the title “Jedi Master of the negative campaign”.
Stone himself believes that “To understand the future, you must study the past” (Rule #4: “Past is fucking prologue”) and that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. So I want to approach his rules for life from the perspective of ancient Greek philosophy, which began addressing similar ideas almost two and a half thousand years ago, in the time of Socrates. Some of the underlying assumptions about the best way to live, or to govern, haven’t changed much. Stone’s Rule #69 likewise acknowledges that “everything is recycled” in the political arena:
All the ideas today’s politicians present to the voters are simply recycled versions of the same basic formulae that have been employed by political hucksters and power-accumulating government careerists for nearly a century.
Indeed, the arguments Socrates and the Stoics deployed against ancient Sophists address difference of value so fundamental that they’re still just as relevant today. Stone’s rules contain several echoes themselves of perennial philosophical debates about the best way to approach life. Sometimes he says things that resemble Socrates or the Stoics and sometimes he sounds more like their opponents the Sophists. So let’s have a look at a few key examples…
Make Your Own Luck
Stone’s Rule #5 quite simply advises “make your own luck”. This is a sound piece of age-old wisdom. Socrates likewise argues, in the Euthydemus, that wisdom is man’s greatest gift because it allows him to turn bad fortune into good. In Plato’s Republic, Book Ten, Socrates also says that unlike the majority of people the true philosopher isn’t perturbed by apparent setbacks. He realizes that we can never be certain whether the events that befall us will turn out to be good or bad in the long-run – there are many reversals of fortune in life. If we stop to complain about every apparent setback, we do ourselves more harm than good. In these passages, Socrates sounds very much like a forerunner of the Stoics. For example, Epictetus, the most famous Roman Stoic teacher would later say that wisdom, like the magic wand of Hermes, has the power to turn everything it touches into gold – he means that the wise man knows how to turn apparent misfortune to his advantage.
Stone’s Rule #60 is his version of the wand of Hermes: “Sometimes you’ve got to turn chicken shit into chicken salad.”
In politics and in life, you play the cards you are dealt. Sometimes you have to take your greatest disadvantage and turn it into a plus. Lyndon Johnson called it “changing chicken shit into chicken salad.”
According to Stone, Donald Trump particularly exemplifies this philosophy of life. Likewise, Rule #13 “Never quit” cites Donald Trump, Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon as exemplars of psychological resilience and persistence in the face of setbacks. Stone quotes Nixon as saying “A man is not finished when he is defeated, he is only finished when he quits.”
Stone also admires G. Gordon Liddy who lived by Nietzsche’s maxim “That which does not kill me can only make me stronger.” Liddy might appear a surprising choice of role model. He was the man who, under orders from Nixon, led the Watergate burglary of the DNC headquarters, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison for doing so. Stone’s right to say, though, that in many cases “Today’s defeat can plant the seeds of tomorrow’s victory.” For example, as a psychotherapist and counsellor, I often heard clients tell me that, paradoxically, losing their job turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. Psychological endurance isn’t a virtue in itself, though, as Socrates points out in the Laches and elsewhere. It really only deserves praise when it’s in the service of something good rather than evil. Crooks can be very resilient. Toughness in the service of vice is arguably just another form of weakness.
Hate Trumps Love
Rule #54 “Hate is a stronger motivator than love” appears to be one of the fundamental premises of Stone’s entire political philosophy. It’s the basis of his favourite strategy: negative campaigning. Hatred is, he thinks, the most powerful motive incentivizing voters in US elections:
Only a candy-ass would think otherwise. People feel satisfied when there is something they can vote FOR. They feel exhilarated when there is something—or someone—they can vote AGAINST. Just ask President Hillary Clinton about all of the people who rushed out to vote FOR her.
Stone argues that Trump’s central campaign theme was extremely positive “Make America Great Again” but that he was nevertheless “the beneficiary, and an extraordinarily deft amplifier, of a deep, and frankly much-deserved, loathing” for Hillary Clinton.
Do-gooders and disingenuous leftists who decry the politics of fear and negativism are simply denying the reality of human nature, and only fooling themselves. Emotions cannot simply be erased or ignored, and to believe they can is a suicidally-naive approach to political competition.
There’s undoubtedly some truth in this but is it the whole truth? Stone’s Rule #52 “Don’t get mad; get even” arguably hints at a contradictory observation about human nature:
Be aggressive but don’t get angry. Nixon would get angry and issue illegal orders then reverse them when he calmed down.
So why isn’t the same true of voters? Hatred and anger are certainly powerful motivators but so are fear and regret. When people act out of hatred they’re not usually thinking rationally about the wider implications or long-term consequences of their actions: it’s more of a knee-jerk response. That often leads to a pendulum swing when the negative consequences of decisions motivated by anger become apparent. Perhaps, just like Nixon, voters might act out of anger (as a result of negative campaigning) but then come to regret their decision once they’ve calmed down again.
The danger of negative campaigning is that in voting against someone they have been encouraged to hate voters end up electing someone else, not on the basis of merit or competence, but just because they symbolize opposition to the hate figure. That can backfire dramatically, though, if it turns out the winning candidate’s shortcomings have been overlooked. Indeed, as we’re about to see, Stone is quite candid about employing his trademark negative campaigning strategy to create a smokescreen and divert attention away from potentially damaging criticism of his allies.
The Big Lie
Stone’s Rule #47 “The Big Lie Technique”.
Erroneously attributed to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, the “big lie” manipulation technique was actually first described in detail by Adolf Hitler himself. […] Nonetheless, the tactic of creating a lie so bold, massive, and even so monstrous that it takes on a life of its own, is alive and well all through American politics and news media. Make it big, keep it simple, repeat it enough times, and people will believe it.
Arguably, a classic example of this would be the “birtherist” conspiracy theory, which falsely claimed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya in order to cast doubt on his eligibility to serve as US president. Stone previously stated in an interview that although he didn’t plant the idea of birtherism in Donald Trump’s mind he did encourage him to keep spreading it. However, although Stone proudly advocates this technique it obviously doesn’t serve his interests to place examples of his own handiwork under the spotlight so he doesn’t actually mention birtherism anywhere in his book.
Instead, he focuses on the claim that the Democrats propounded a “Big Lie” by claiming that the Russian state helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election and that Stone himself had played a role by colluding with Wikileaks. So despite writing about his mastery of this art in this book he’s also claiming that his enemies are the ones really perpetrating it. Of course, you can’t credibly admit that you’re telling Big Lies and then, in the next breath, go on to accuse your opponents of doing so unless you back that up with some pretty compelling evidence. Stone’s assumption, though, is that enough people won’t notice or don’t care about that. In some respects, he may be right.
One of the main reasons Stone gives for using the Big Lie is to create a smokescreen to defend yourself against criticism. Stone’s Rule #41 “Attack, attack, attack – never defend” and #42 “Let no attack go unanswered” hammer home the point that the best form of defence is attack. Stone’s argument is that, in life generally but especially in politics, if you try to defend yourself against criticisms rationally you simply risk educating more people about the accusations against you. Mud sticks. So instead launch a “devastating” counter-attack to divert attention away from the charges against you, and ignore them or at least say as little as possible in rebuttal of them. It doesn’t matter, of course, whether the criticisms you face are actually valid or not. Hence, Stone’s Rule #81 “Never Admit Mistakes”. He mentions briefly in passing that people will probably say that’s what he’s doing in response to the allegations that he colluded with Russia during the 2016 election campaign but he denies this and focuses instead on claiming that it’s all part of a Democrat / Deep State conspiracy against him.
In a nutshell, Stone believes that if someone attacks you in politics you should focus on attacking their character even more aggressively than they’ve attacked yours, and avoid having to defend yourself rationally. This is what philosophers call the ad hominem fallacy, being deployed as a deliberate rhetorical strategy. It’s also similar to the fallacy of “Whataboutism” or changing the subject – Never mind Russian collusion what about Hillary’s email server?! The hope is that everyone will forget about the criticisms made against you and focus on the allegations, true or false, that you’re making against your opponents. If it works, you’ve thrown them off your trail completely and instead sent them down an endless rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. Of course, that doesn’t prove you’re innocent, it just diverts attention away from the problem by changing the subject. Try that one in court: “Never mind that I robbed a bank what about the judge – everyone knows he’s a Communist and I heard he’s also the head of a weird sex cult!”
However, as Jon Meacham says “Lies are good starters but they’re not good finishers.” The truth usually comes out eventually. Stone is probably right that, rhetorically, it’s a very powerful strategy to attack the character of your critics instead of answering their criticism. However, that won’t keep working forever. Sooner or later your credibility will begin to wane as a result and people will stop taking you seriously, just like the proverbial boy who cried wolf. It might take months, or it might take years, even decades, but the more “Big Lies” you tell the more people will eventually begin to question your credibility.
Worse, although the Big Lie strategy may work quite well in the political arena, at least in the short-term, it has the potential to come back to haunt you in the law courts. For instance, some reports suggest that Stone is likely facing indictment as part of the Russia investigation. What would happen if the prosecution chose to read certain passages from this book aloud before a judge and jury? Once you admit to using deceit on a massive scale to deflect criticism, and never admitting to wrongdoing as a matter of principle, how can anyone ever again trust anything you try to say in your own defense? What goes around comes around.
Book One of Plato’s Republic features a Sophist called Thrasymachus (literally “fierce fighter”). Stone sometimes sounds a bit like him. Thrasymachus adopts the cynical position that justice is for losers and that true wisdom is possessed by those courageous enough to become unjust, by lying, cheating, and getting away with it. He particularly admires tyrants, who hold absolute political power and can do what they want. He looks down on the sheep who bleat about morality as naive simpletons. Might is right, in other words. The honest and just man, he thinks, is bound to be exploited by the dishonest and unjust. Socrates claims that the unjust seek power because they want to gain from it. However, truly good men do not seek political power for its own sake but are more often motivated by the desire not to allow tyrants to rule.
Socrates doesn’t say this explicitly but he strongly implies the view that the motivation of good and honest people to become involved in politics will wax and wane, reaching its peak in response to the threat of tyrants seizing power. History, in other words, may consist of a pendulum swinging between periods of political complacency, when corrupt leaders are allowed to take power, and periods of moral outrage when the people realize they’ve been duped and become motivated to set things right.
Thrasymachus is convinced that the unjust are always stronger than the just. However, Socrates argues that injustice breeds division and hostility, creating enemies within and without the state over time. Justice, by contrast, breeds harmony and friendship, and creates stronger alliances, although we might add that justice often moves more slowly than injustice. So although the unjust may prevail in the short term, over time their power is bound to crumble as they increasingly find their associates turning against them. Their problem is that they can’t really trust anyone.
Hypocrisy is Bad
Stone’s Rule #84 says “Hypocrisy is what gets you”, so he actually does recognize the danger of losing credibility. However, throughout the book he refers countless times to the deliberate use of hypocrisy, insincerity and deceit. For example, Stone’s Rule #55 “Praise ‘em before you hit ‘em”:
This technique was one of Dick Nixon’s best. The veteran political pugilist would praise his opponent’s sincerity and commend the opponent’s genuine belief in what are, nonetheless, terrible ideas and repugnant ideologies. […] “Praise ‘em before you hit ‘em—makes the hit seem more reasonable and even-handed, and thus more effective,” said the Trickster.
Likewise, Stone’s Rule #39 “Wear your cockade inside your hat” by which he means that it can be advantageous to conceal your true affiliations from everyone except your allies. He writes “sometimes it is best to cloak your real political intentions, so you are able to accomplish more without being under suspicion.” But once you’ve told everyone that, in a book, you’ve kind of let the cat out of the bag haven’t you?
There’s undoubtedly some truth to the idea that deceit can be expedient in politics and Big Lies can have powerful effects. However, these aren’t qualities we normally praise or admire in other people, which makes it hypocritical to adopt them ourselves. That might work in the short-term but, once again, in the longer-term more and more people are likely to figure out what’s going on and you risk losing credibility as a result. If your philosophy is based on deceit you also run the risk of surrounding yourself with fair-weather friends who share similarly ruthless values. So you better hope that when a crisis looms they don’t just decide it’s expedient to throw you under the bus to save their own skin. For instance, that’s typically what happens when defendants agree to plea bargains and turn state’s evidence against their erstwhile “friends” during criminal investigations.
Stone prefaces his rules by explaining:
To me, it all comes down to WINNING. It comes down to using any and every legal means available to achieve victory for my friends and allies, and to inflict crushing, ignominious defeat on my opponents and, yes, enemies.
I can’t read this without thinking of Conan the Barbarian who, when asked what is best in life, replies: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!” I doubt Stone would object to the comparison. He describes his book as a “compendium of rules for war” and “the style manual for a ‘master of the universe’”.
So from the outset winning is everything. Although, a couple of pages later in Rule #1 he also says “There is no shame in losing. There is only shame in failing to strive, in never trying at all.” That attitude interests me because it’s more consistent with the values espoused by Socrates and the Stoics. If we invest too much value in outward success then we inevitably place our happiness, to some extent, in the hands of fate. The philosophers thought wisdom and resilience came from avoiding that and learning to place more importance on our own character and less on the outcome of our actions. It’s one thing to aim at a particular outcome, such as winning an election. It’s another thing to make it so all-important that we’re willing to sacrifice our own integrity in pursuit of it. That’s a recipe for neurosis because it makes our emotions depend upon events that are never entirely up to us. Stone’s good off to a good start with Rule #1 and it should make us wonder what would have happened if he’d developed that thought further and incorporated it into a more rounded philosophy of life.
That’s how the book begins. It concludes with Stone’s Rule #140 “He who laughs last laughs heartiest”:
I will often wait years to take my revenge, hiding in the tall grass, my stiletto at the ready, waiting patiently until you think I have forgotten or forgiven a past slight and then, when you least expect it, I will spring from the underbrush and plunge a dagger up under your ribcage. So if you have fucked me, even if it was years ago, don’t think yourself safe.
That brought to my mind something his hero Richard Nixon once said:
“I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch, that he will do what he’s told, that every income tax return I want to see I see, that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.”
Those are the words of Nixon giving instructions to his aides about the appointment of a new commissioner of internal revenue, caught on tape in the Oval Office on May 13, 1971. As part of this attempt to persecute his opponents, Nixon later handed his notorious “Enemies List”, containing 576 names in its revised version, to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). He assumed political power was a weapon to be wielded, a way of harming his enemies and helping his friends.
Nixon’s words happen to echo an ancient Greek definition of justice as “helping your friends and harming your enemies”, which Socrates vigorously attempted to refute nearly two and a half thousand years ago. In Book One of Plato’s Republic, Socrates basically points out that to genuinely harm your enemies, by definition, is to make them worse than they are already. Just making them weaker by removing certain external advantages such as wealth, friends, or status doesn’t necessarily harm them deep down. As Stone himself conceded: the wise man can “make chicken shit into chicken soup” and turn setbacks into opportunities. We can only really harm others, according to Socrates, by corrupting their character and turning them into foolish and vicious people, if that’s even possible. He concluded that, paradoxically, the wise man will actually help both his friends and his enemies. That doesn’t mean giving his enemies external advantages, which would be foolish because they’d probably use them against us other others. Rather it means educating them and helping them to become wiser and better individuals, perhaps one day becoming our friends instead of our enemies as a result. Of course that’s idealistic, but it’s arguably a much healthier goal than simple revenge.
I’ll cut to the chase and say that I think the future of American politics should perhaps involve greater bipartisanship. People would do better to try to understand their political enemies, in my view, rather than simply attack them. The law of retaliation (lex talionis) is “an eye for an eye” but as Gandhi reputedly said, that leaves the whole world blind. Socrates argues that revenge harms us more than it does our enemies because it degrades our character and tricks us into investing far too much importance in external things. I’ll therefore leave the last word to him:
“Then we ought to neither return wrong for wrong nor do evil to anyone, no matter what he may have done to us. Be careful though, Crito, that by agreeing with this you do not agree to something you do not believe. For I know that there are few who believe this or ever will. Now those who believe it, and those who do not, have no common ground of discussion, but they must necessarily disdain one another because of their opinions. You should therefore consider very carefully whether you agree and share in this opinion. Let us take as the starting point of our discussion the assumption that it is never right to do wrong or to repay wrong with wrong, or when we suffer evil to defend ourselves by doing evil in return.” (Crito, 49c)