A Descent into Brutish Crudity and Demagoguery

The contest for the Republican presidential nomination has taken several twists in recent days and nearly all of them have been ugly. I discuss three here and then highlight several issues linked to the turn these events represent. First, in the March 3 debate in Detroit among the four remaining candidates, the discussion descended to the coarsest, most vulgar and brutish in modern presidential electoral history. Spurred by Senator Marco Rubio’s decision to meet Donald Trump on his own playground terms (a step applauded by many GOP leaders and media commentators as “long overdue”), the to and fro became the equivalent of a school yard “Na-Na Boo-Boo” session, with, unbelievably, time expended on Trump’s sexual anatomy. The situation would be laughable, were it not so real. Trump leads his peers in the quest for the Party’s nomination, and Rubio apparently decided this tack was necessary to persuade the business executive’s partisans that their support was misplaced. Whatever the senator’s intentions, his choice seems ill-suited and ill-timed to do anything other than diminish his standing and degrade the presidential campaign process.

A second development occurred on that same evening, when Trump was forced to acknowledge that his embrace of torture (routinely his biggest applause line at his campaign rallies) would place American troops in the difficult spot of disobeying his orders, were he to be elected president, since torture is illegal under both United States and international law. While he fulminated about the fact that he is a leader and that the armed services would do what he told them to do for that reason—“I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. They’re going to do it”—it was plain that his stance was indefensible in principle and in practice.[1] Accordingly, Trump released a written statement the next day suggesting he would follow the law. Nonetheless, in his first public appearances thereafter, Trump began to tell his supporters that the laws related to treatment of prisoners should be “increased” or “broadened,” in rhetoric quite reminiscent of that offered by advocates of torture during the George W. Bush administration. Moreover, in terms very similar to a long list of past demagogues, he continued to contend in a Face the Nation broadcast on March 6, that our nation’s respect for law, human rights and human dignity was “weak:”

Trump: [W]e've become very weak and ineffective. I think that's why we're not beating ISIS. It's that mentality. ... We cannot beat ISIS. We should beat ISIS very quickly. General Patton would have had ISIS down in about three days. General Douglas McArthur. We are playing by a different set of rules. ... [T]he ISIS people chop off the heads, and they then go back to their homes and they talk. And they hear we're talking about waterboarding like it's the worst thing in the world, and they've just drowned 100 people and chopped off 50 heads. They must think we are a little bit on the weak side. ... [W]e are playing by rules, but they have no rules. It's very hard to win when that's the case.

[Host] John Dickerson: Isn't that what separates us from the savages?

Trump: No, I don't think so. ... We have to beat the savages.

Dickerson: By being savages?

Trump: No, well. We have to play the game the way they're playing the game. You're not going to win if we're soft and they have          no rules. Now, I want to stay within the laws. I want to do all of that, but I think we have to increase the laws because the laws are not working. Obviously, all you have to do is take a look at what's going on. And they're getting worse. They're chopping, chopping, chopping, and we're worried about waterboarding. I just think—I think our priorities are mixed up.[2]

Significantly, Trump differs imperceptibly from two of his principal rivals, Senators Rubio and Ted Cruz, in taking this stance. Journalists raised the issue of his promise to employ torture in Detroit, not his competitors.

Third, and equally Kafkaesque in its way, when pressed at the March 3 debate concerning whether they would support Trump should he obtain the GOP nomination, all of his remaining rivals indicated they would do so, irrespective of their scathing critiques and expressions of deep concern about him and his suggested (fantasy) policies. The same must be said of the Republican “establishment,” that has lately attacked him, including former presidential candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain. Indeed, all but a very few leaders in the Party have refused to say they would not embrace him were he to gain the GOP nomination. In short, the current Republican candidates, and thus far at least, nearly all other party elites, have agreed they would unite around a fascistic demagogue who has repeatedly lied to the American people, advocated brutish and bizarre policies that could not be implemented in the ways he suggests, and tarnished the office of the Presidency by so profoundly coarsening and diminishing the political dialogue in the contest to secure it.

Each of these incidents shares two characteristics: first, they directly and indirectly compromise self-governance and democracy. Second, even were the “policies” Trump advocates to work as posited (which will not occur, since they are unrelated to reality and designed only to play to fearful and angry people by scapegoating and simplistic shibboleths), they would spell the end of freedom as our nation has known it by formally and acutely undermining our commitment to individual human and civil rights. On the first point, Trump appears to be reading his voters well; they are angry and fearful and he is providing them apparently straightforward ways to address their concerns. Unfortunately, the world is hardly so simple as Trump’s rhetoric, and his supporter’s fears have not arisen from President Barack Obama’s alleged weakness, or as a result of “illegal immigrants stealing their jobs,” as the candidate contends. These are scapegoats for the very real challenges that have instead resulted from ongoing economic and social globalization and demographic change, and no amount of blame-casting, will change that fact.

Nor will undermining the legitimacy and capacities of governance, by dubbing them weak and hapless, do anything to address these voters’ genuine concerns. Instead, such steps are likely only to exacerbate Americans’ declining confidence in all of their nation’s institutions. Trump also seems to understand that those voting for him (roughly 34 percent, on average, of his Party’s primary electorate) fear the increasing demographic diversity occurring in this country and lament the fact that “people like them” (they are overwhelmingly white men with high school or less education, with his strongest support coming from the South, Appalachia and parts of the industrial north) will no longer be a majority within it in coming years.[3] In such a circumstance and confronting the economic realities unleashed by international competition and globalization, it becomes easy for those supporting Trump to blame immigrants and minorities in the country’s population for their situation. The candidate has surely played to this ugly propensity by routinely disparaging disparate groups as weak and undeserving, and therefore contemptible. He has lately gone further to demand at his campaign events that those who agree with his positions must “pledge allegiance” to him. This tack of demanding personal loyalty is virtually identical to previous infamous demagogues’ practices, and therefore quite unnerving.

In short, as one might expect of a demagogue, Trump is not addressing the actual challenges confronting those individuals now supporting him, nor does he appear much interested in proposing substantive policies, such as workforce development programs or rethinking tax subsidies for firms engaged in off-shoring employment (although he has offhandedly called for a trade war with (at least) China and Mexico that would likely result in an international financial crisis, were it to occur). Instead, he has encouraged voters to blame the President and various groups (including other nations, e.g., “Mexico is killing us”) for their discomfort with the direction and pace of economic, political and social change. All of this has already led to the degradation of our democratic politics and could, if Trump were to gain the Presidency and behave as he has promised, completely undermine the principles underpinning our regime and international law alike, by systematically depriving citizens of their civil and human rights. It seems obvious that this scenario, should it occur, could readily prove catastrophic for the freedom this nation’s citizens have long enjoyed.

Even assuming Trump does not obtain his Party’s nomination or win the presidential election thereafter; one must still confront the question of what has happened to the Republican Party in recent decades that would permit his ascent. Three of the four remaining GOP candidates have done little in their campaigns except denigrate in abstract terms the government they wish to lead, and all have worked assiduously in their rhetoric to undermine its legitimacy. What is more, the Party’s establishment has long tolerated its legislative leaders’ efforts to prevent the regime from working (governing) so as to blame the chief executive and Democrats for its “failings” in a bid for power that, so far, has been successful. The combination of a descent to crude ugliness in campaign discourse and continuing attacks on governmental legitimacy by members of a Party apparently united by nothing except its thirst for power, constitute an extraordinary challenge to our regime and to self-governance. Sadly, many GOP primary voters are supporting this turn as embodied in Donald Trump’s candidacy, a reminder that democracies are only as strong as the prudence of their electorates.

 

Notes

[1] Amy Davidson, “Donald Trump and an Even Cruder G.O.P. Debate,” The New Yorker, March 4, 2016. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson?mbid=nl_TNY Template - With Photo (15) remainder&CNDID=18686722&spMailingID=8623267&spUserID=MTA5MjM5OTcwMDQyS0&spJobID=880487707&spReportId=ODgwNDg3NzA3S0

[2] Mike Allen and Daniel Lippman, “Sunday Best,” POLITICO Playbook website, March 6, 2016. Available at: http://www.politico.com/playbook/2016/03/cruz-trump-squeeze-marco-super-saturday-rubio-invisible-campaign-snl-tapper-march-6-213049

[3] Derek Thompson, “Who are Donald Trump’s supporters, really?” The Atlantic, March 1, 2016. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/who-are-donald-trumps-supporters-really/471714/