One of the more difficult questions the current unprecedented presidential campaign has raised is how so many voters have come to support Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whom analysts of all political persuasions have frequently and rightly labeled a demagogue. It is a critical concern, and I have been examining it in recent commentaries, because Trump is manifestly temperamentally unqualified for the office and because he has demonstrated profound ignorance of salient policy issues and of democratic governance itself. The real estate mogul’s rise highlights the question of the current character of democratic deliberation in our polity. As evidence that Trump does not possess the personal character to serve as President, many critics have offered the rhetoric he has employed, which is aimed often at vilifying and “othering” various groups both within and beyond American society. He has, for example, attacked veterans, immigrants of virtually all stripes, women, Muslims, African Americans, those with disabilities, and those who weigh more than the average for their body size, notwithstanding his own obesity. There appear to be no limits to his hypocrisy, to his ignorance of policy concerns, foreign and domestic, to his vanity and to his willingness to appeal to the basest instincts of his audiences. He has also shown himself, for many years, to be the purveyor of conspiratorial claims, including his long-lived, and apparently continuing, embrace of the false view that President Obama is not a United States citizen. His recent round of now infamous tweets offering his criticisms of former beauty queen, Alicia Machado, exemplify a by now long-established pattern of behavior. He has demonstrated repeatedly that he knows no scruples in his public pronouncements if he perceives that he has been criticized or believes he can aggrandize himself in offering them.
Thus far, this behavior has been formally supported by the national leaders of the Republican Party, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Party Chairperson Reince Preibus. Whatever his affronts, these officials have not disavowed Trump or his self-evident demagoguery. I emphasize this point because one of the arguments the GOP standard bearer’s supporters raise is that if he is elected, the Republican Party and its lawmakers, if not other American leaders, will surely “control” his erratic and uninformed impulses. But to date, none of these leaders has done so, and given Trump’s self-absorption and hubris, it is by no means clear that they could do so, even if they were so inclined. Indeed, there is much evidence they could not. In any event, they have not demonstrated any pronounced proclivity to do so. The same must be said of many other GOP leaders, including many of the candidates who originally opposed Trump for the Party’s nomination, despite the fact that several of them rightly pointed to his erratic behavior, narcissism and tendency to embrace autocratic strategies during the primary campaign. It is especially noteworthy, then, that some Republican leaders, including former Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, have indicated they will not vote for Trump. This fact represents an indictment of a special sort of the Party’s current leadership.
Another common argument among the businessman’s supporters is to contend that they want “change” because American governance is not working, and although Trump is a risk, he will bring fresh thinking to the White House that will set matters on a more appropriate path. This contention, too, suffers under scrutiny. First, Trump has demonstrated he is not controllable, as already noted, so the posited risk is not simply present and manageable, but untenable. This is a man who has demonstrated that he possesses no knowledge of American nuclear policy and other vital topics, and who has embraced a dictator as a model leader, to be preferred to the current legitimately elected President of the United States. Second, this view falters when one asks just what needs to be changed in our nation’s governance, and Trump supporters point to the inability of Congress to do its job or to a range of conditions that simply do not exist. America’s unemployment rate is not 47% as Trump has claimed, but 3.9%. Hordes of immigrants are not invading the nation and stealing jobs and committing crimes as he has also argued. In fact, immigration rates have fallen in recent years, Nonetheless, Trump has embraced and popularized these fallacious claims, among many other dark and mythic contentions. Supporters desiring change because Washington “does not work” should examine the behavior of their parties’ elected legislators and pressure those individuals to shift course, rather than support the election of a demagogue.
A share of Trump’s supporters suggest they support him on the grounds that, should he be elected, he will nominate individuals of their ideological liking for the Supreme Court, and will advocate for issues they hold dear, such as abortion controls and “religious liberty.” However, since Trump has been on all sides of these issues, and he is, in any case, a mercurial personality consumed principally with personal power and not with institutional actions and legitimacy, it is by no means clear that their faith that he will act as they might hope will be vindicated.
Another group of Trump followers apparently support him on the grounds that he is their Party’s nominal standard bearer and his victory will result in increased political power for their preferred party, and that fact will result in policies they favor. But, unfortunately for this view, Trump has been both a Republican and a member of the opposing party as suits his pursuit of influence and power. Moreover, it is never clear with any demagogue, and surely with Trump, that that individual will hew to anyone’s partisan expectations, rather than to their own thirst for attention and power. In short, in this very unusual election, there is substantial reason to believe that this traditional sort of claim will not hold in November.
In any case, the real question should not be whether the Republican Party or its elites will gain a short-term electoral advantage by his possible election, but what the effects of electing a demagogue President of the United States are likely to be, and those could be more than consequential to say the least. Any discussion of this fact has thus far not entered the public lexicon of the Party’s present leaders, however, despite many others in the GOP publicly raising concerns about Trump for this reason.
These arguments point not to partisan differences between Democrats and Republicans, notwithstanding the false equivalence accorded the candidates by too many in the media throughout this campaign, but to the question of what grounds many Americans might be using as a touchstone to consider their vote. It is worth repeating, this is not a question of partisanship or whether one likes or dislikes Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton or her policies, but a question of the GOP nominee’s repeatedly demonstrated behavior and character. Indeed, what seems to be lacking among Trump’s supporters, irrespective of their arguments for him, is evidence of genuine deliberation.
Self-governance demands that citizens self-consciously and prudently consider their choices. This is so whether one understands it as deliberative democracy, which requires a modicum of civic virtue in the citizenry write large, or as democratic deliberation via small cadres or groups of citizens reasoning together to preserve their freedom and to seek policies in their collective interest via those they elect to positions of public trust. On the evidence of the current level of support for Trump, in lieu of either of these, many citizens have instead succumbed to his demagoguery. whether motivated to do so by his race baiting, national chauvinism, misogyny, conspiratorial claims, supposed partisanship, perceived material success or other grounds.
Sadly, it has always been so with demagogues and self-governance. The Founders vigorously debated whether American institutions should be grounded in classical Republicanism, which tended to require that political leaders and citizens love the common good for its own sake and act accordingly, even against their own self-interests to protect against tyranny. They also considered the alternative of rooting the new nation in a hope that officials and voters could press for their self-interests, while nevertheless recognizing the need to legitimize the capacity of others to do the same if freedom was to be maintained. Scholars continue to debate which of these conceptions, or their blending, best capture our Framers’ thinking.
Contrary to the Founders’ hopes, however one may wish to interpret them, and for a variety of reasons, we appear to be witnessing a heightened cynicism today among GOP Party elites particularly, concerning the citizens they serve. To this factor, one must add a restive population unwilling or perhaps unable to deliberate prudently about its choices, and a media environment conducive to demagoguery. The result of these strands has been the toxic rise of a vainglorious bombastic self-promoter who neither understands nor wishes to grasp why freedom is important and what it means to the people he has mobilized to the polls. The demagogue and the formal leaders of his Party appear united today in their quest for power, irrespective of its potential costs for freedom and self-governance in the United States and beyond. To say this situation is tragic is to understate its gravity.