And so it has come to this: A man who is routinely and accurately described as a narcissist, misogynist and nativist, and who reflects an earlier “Know Nothing” discriminatory social moment in American politics, now unexpectedly leads in public opinion polls for the Republican Party presidential nomination. Real estate businessman Donald Trump has no experience in government and politics and has repeatedly shown that he has virtually no grasp of policy issues at any level. Indeed, most of his ugly rhetoric involves self-puffery and vanity of the “I am smarter, richer and more handsome” than those “other guys (and one woman)” stripe—or cruel diminutions of women, minorities and immigrants. As a person who has never served in the military and who grew up with wealth, he has also argued that Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who endured horrible torture in service to his nation, is not “really” a war hero, and that all who are poor or struggling are simply “stupid” and should be more like him. This last implies that he actually earned his original wealth and social standing, which ironically, he did not. I have read countless accounts concerning Trump in the last several weeks and how it could be that so vile and empty an individual could be doing so well with so many GOP voters at this early stage of our nation’s presidential campaign. What follows are several observations concerning the realities and ironies of the political phenomenon this turn represents.
- All of the reporters and analysts who have talked with Trump’s supporters have found that he is attracting members of far right nationalist groups who dread the coming demographic shift in the United States that will find whites a minority of the population. These individuals fear social heterogeneity and wish to reinstitute formal separation of the races and a roll back of civil rights laws and rights for minority group members. Many adherents of this group are racists.
- A still larger share of those presently supporting Trump in opinion polls fall into the demographic category of people who have suffered most from globalization and neo-liberal politics and whose life chances and real wages have fallen or stagnated in real terms in recent decades. Most of these are high school educated men and many are deeply anxious and fearful about their economic situations, a condition that has left many of them angry and looking for someone to blame and, just as importantly, someone who will tell them that simple and binary actions (e.g., loathe “those” individuals and blame them for your woes and vote for me) can “fix” their situations. These individuals seek, or more accurately perhaps, demand the balm of a world made simple. Trump routinely provides the bromide of scapegoating and vague, sweeping and empty claims that soothes their angst.
- Trump’s rhetoric is angry, cruel and superficial. For example, a common trope in his stump speeches that the Mexicans are “killing us” is a meaningless assertion. Nonetheless, this contention gives his followers a target and a population to blame for their personal situations and anxiousness. In short, Trump’s speeches are classic examples of demagoguery. They offer a vision of the world unrelated to reality, but which offers absolute and apparently straightforward answers to deeply complex challenges. Rather than ask his followers to cope with the knotty vagaries of what is actually occurring and together seek strategies to address those, Trump offers a fantasy vision of “us and them” and equally fantastical assertions about what he alone could achieve with just the application of his “supreme” intellect and perceptual ability. Only Trump, he often claims, could build the effective 2,000-mile wall “we need” along the U.S. border with Mexico and somehow convince that nation’s leaders to pay for the structure. How he would do this is, of course, never articulated. Nor, does Trump ever deign to explain why the expansion of the current wall, itself a deeply controversial artifact of “othering,” is necessary or appropriate. All that is required in this vision is that Trump says it is so and he alone mysteriously will make his offered solution happen.
- Unlike earlier moments in American history when demagogues have emerged, the Internet has provided Trump multiple unmediated opportunities to spread his diatribes of hate. While some members of his Party’s establishment and many media commentators have labeled him for what he is, voters supporting him can easily ignore those voices in favor of others contending that only Trump is “telling it like it is” and everyone else is simply weak. No matter that this rhetoric bears no relationship to reality. Those within the bubble of true believers can always point to messaging in outlets they follow that supports their point-of-view. Moreover, many television and radio firms, especially the Fox Network, are profiting handsomely by providing Trump ongoing opportunities to reach his base and by encouraging the anxiety and anger that animates those followers. Their collective angst has yielded dedicated viewers and listeners that result in advertising dollars and profits. To say this is irresponsible is simply to state the obvious, but it is surely not illegal to profit from manipulating ignorance and fear.
- Trump’s broad claims have pressed many of the other candidates also pursuing his party’s presidential nomination to offer equally nonsensical and sometimes chilling statements in an effort to keep pace. Thus, we have seen Scott Walker calling for a wall along America’s nearly 4,000-mile boundary (excluding that with Alaska) with Canada, despite the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever of any crisis along that border (laying aside the question of whether a wall would be an appropriate response if such a situation did exist). And Chris Christie has suggested, chillingly in light of the Nazi precedent, that this nation track all immigrants with assigned numbers, as if each was equivalent to a FedEx or Postal Service package. It would be easy to expand these examples, but they point to a political Party in deep existential crisis, and to a share of the nation’s citizenry too often willing to believe the nonsensical and hateful rhetoric of those seeking power in that Party.
Interestingly, none of this present demagogic moment can be said to be unprecedented. Like many dangerous opportunists before him, Donald Trump has sensed the anxiety and anger of a share of the nation’s population and worked to use it to gain power. That is what demagogues do. Still, it must also be said that the GOP has deliberately created these conditions in the policies it has pursued for more than fifty years. The conservative wing of the Republican Party long ago abandoned a responsibility to govern for attacks on self-governance itself. Likewise, GOP leaders have for just as long sided, sometimes subtly, and often not, with efforts that lament the growing heterogeneity of the country. These have included recent calls for rollbacks in civil and human rights for people who are not white, including steps to limit access to the franchise for those targeted populations in 19 states. In many respects, as many individuals have observed, the Republican Party now confronts in Trump the consequences of its own policies and stands adopted since 1964, when its standard bearer Barry Goldwater opposed the civil right legislation of that year. That stance was followed by Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and by Ronald Reagan’s attack on the welfare state as unfairly assisting too many supposedly nefarious minorities. That long-term orientation has convinced those now supporting Trump that simple steps will remove the supposed cancer of foreign invasion and minority lassitude from the country and restore his followers to a less anxious firmament. A very human desire for security is now fueling support for bigotry and hatred. And, sadly, any fair-minded analyst must note that the GOP has nurtured this result for decades.
Finally, it should be said that our current scenario has ever been the bane of democratic politics. In that sense, this surge of demagoguery is hardly new. While many in the media have focused on Trump as an individual, one needs also to ask how it is that even a minority of the Republican Party or citizenry could come to back so transparently vacuous a figure. Put differently, we are now confronting a politics in which restive and ill-informed citizens can be manipulated by simple, simple-minded and hate-filled shibboleths. Demagogues have always seized such opportunities, and too often they have resulted in the collapse of self-governance. The larger question this man’s candidacy represents is how our citizens, and not alone our elected leaders, allowed this disquieting scenario to emerge. There are lessons in this episode aplenty, and many of those ultimately suggest that thousands of voters look in the mirror and question the implications of many of their most fervent beliefs, for their own freedom as well as the future of their regime.