How did it happen? A lot of people are still gobsmacked that we actually elected Donald Trump to be our President, a man with no political experience, little knowledge of government, and well-known moral and ethical shortcomings. His campaign concentrated on escalating all the existing divisive issues in our society. That is the mark of a demagogue. There have been many demagogues in human history. Joseph McCarthy comes immediately to mind, but before him there were many others. Here is a link to a description of ten lesser-known demagogues of the past.
The central issue of Trump’s campaign in 2016, and his subsequent strategy, right up to his present attacks on Black Lives Matter, is race. Black people, immigrants, and their supporters, are thugs and criminals, but white supremacists are “fine people.” Republicans have been playing the race card in political campaigns for a long time. In the beginning, it was called the Southern Strategy, appealing to white voters by focusing on racial issues, and it has worked very well for them. It has helped them persuade many frustrated white working-class voters that the Democratic Party doesn’t care about them. Taken by itself, this might not identify the GOP as a party of racist demagogues, but the rise of Donald Trump, the quintessential racist demagogue, could almost have been foretold. Let’s look at why that is true, and how it happened.
Nixon was the first presidential candidate in recent times to resort to racism in his Presidential campaign. He invented the Southern Strategy, and was successful in splitting the Democratic party. Southern Democrats, often referred to as Dixiecrats, were a reactionary flank of the liberal/progressive party of FDR that was responsible for the New Deal, Social Security and other government programs to help poor people. Dixiecrats were a holdover from the antebellum South that favored slavery and considered blacks to be subhuman. It was an uncomfortable alliance, and when Nixon courted them, it caused a realignment of the two major political parties, changing the fundamental philosophy of both parties. Before Nixon, the GOP was fiscally conservative, espousing low taxes and minimal governmental intervention in society, particularly business. They opposed anything that would limit the ability of corporations to maximize profits. But the addition of the southern states added a new dimension to the party’s stance: Social conservatism. Opposition to church/state separation, support for religious teaching in schools, adamant opposition to women’s choice, etc. It was a potent combination, and has fueled the growing influence of the GOP since then.
Other politicians saw the power of Nixon’s deal with the southerners, and followed his example. Ronald Reagan praised “states’ rights” in a tiny Mississippi county known for a Ku Klux Klan triple murder, and he infamously claimed that “welfare queens” were defrauding the government. The actual level of fraud in welfare systems was small, estimated at less than 2% at the time. George H.W. Bush ran the notorious Willie Horton advertisement. All of them attacked black people as lazy, dishonest and, criminal.
It has been said that you can’t have a democracy without demagogues. People want simple and easy solutions to what are often difficult and complex problems. Demagogues offer those solutions, usually by blaming the problems on the current government, and assuring voters that only they can solve the problems. That is exactly what Trump did in 2016. He promised to “drain the swamp” of corruption in Washington. By any measure, he did exactly the opposite, appointing apparatchiks of Wall Street and corporations to his cabinet. He passed tax cuts that favored the rich and corporations. In short, he bamboozled his supporters and screwed them.
But politics is a funny business. A demagogue can lie to people and it doesn’t matter. Once they are members of his tribe, they will follow him blindly, no matter what he does. His continuing support despite all the evidence that he is unfit for office and destructive to our nation is clear evidence of this.
It seems to be a fatal flaw in human nature that makes government by the people ultimately unlikely to succeed. Even If he is defeated in November, his followers will continue to oppose progressive government. They have been enabled by him, and it will take a long time for them to go back under their rocks.