Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I was just reading the Wikipedia page about demagogues. I was doing it not for research, but to inspire ideas for this post. Boy did it ever. I was struck how many of the listed techniques of demagogues Donald Trump uses. The page claimed that no demagogue uses as all of them, but Trump comes pretty damn close to it. Seriously, check out the page and then contemplate how Trump employs these tricks of the trade.
I guess it shouldn’t be surprising from someone whose mentor was the right-hand man to one the most infamous American demagogues, Joseph McCarthy. I’m talking about the red-baiter and hypocritical persecutor of his fellow closeted gays, Roy Cohn.
So far, The Donald’s Trumpagoguery has been hurting him among the general electorate, as his plummeting poll numbers attest. Each successive outrage only serving to convince voters that they should indeed be fearful…of Donald Trump. Yet his continent-size ego–puffed up even further by the, um, yuge crowds he’s drawing–has been convincing him that he’s winning over the electorate, one inflammatory comment at a time.
Yet Trump is clearly striking a nerve among economically dispossessed whites without a college degree. As he said, “I love the poorly educated!” And that’s the real concern. I could fill a year’s worth of posts with all the reasons Trump is unsuited to the presidency. But what if a more experienced, outwardly sane demagogue takes over the podium in near future?
People love to cite the fact that Hitler was elected. Indeed, demagoguery goes with democracy like salt on a Bavarian pretzel. There’s a finer line than we would care to admit between stirring supporters and inciting mob passions. In fact, most successful politicians use some degree of demagoguery. But what distinguishes the true demagogue from a run of the mill politician is their skill at manipulating the emotions of the crowd, whipping them into a high fervor. Watch this New York Times video of voices from Donald Trump rallies if you have a strong stomach.
Still, I’m not really writing about Donald Trump, but expressing fear that sometime in the near future a candidate who isn’t as fatally flawed as Trump might stir up the same violent emotions and actually succeed. Many economists are predicting a recession in the next few years. Given that so many people haven’t recovered from the Great Recession, could a Trumpish demagogue rise up and form a winning coalition of the angry?
Is it possible that America might descend into dictatorship? Not likely, at least any time soon. Look at how many prominent Republicans are opposing Donald Trump. But could an authoritarian president chip away at our cherished rights? Absolutely.
Conservatives love to tar Obama with the label of dictator for his executive actions. But George W. Bush issued 56 more than he has, even though Obama still has five months left on his term. Still, though the opprobrium shifts based on whose hands are on the rains, it’s important to reflect on what could happen if a more deft demagogue grabbed the reins.
The Watergate scandal, which forced Richard Nixon’s unprecedented resignation, showed that abuse of power is a very real threat to our democracy. And it’s been long enough since that constitutional crisis that the memories are starting to fade.
But might that future arrive as soon as November 8? Not likely, but unfortunately not impossible, either. I think it would require some sort of major October surprise, which isn’t implausible considering that both Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin seem bound and determined to give an assist to Donald Trump. And if there is a major terrorist attack, the American people might not be immune to the lure of the autocrat’s strong fist.
I will leave you with one more scary thought. Donald Trump will not go away after November. He is not one to accept personal responsibility, after all. Trump is already laying dark hints that the election will be stolen. After the election, his claims will begin to chip away at faith in our democratic system, paving the way for a demagogic successor. And if that day should come, Trump booming voice will inevitably be heard above the rabble.