Donald Trump is not the first demagogue to rise in American politics, but, in achieving the Oval Office, he is the most powerful of the species. What can we learn by looking at his predecessors, about the rise and fall of this strange and threatening breed? And what role can we play to bring Trump down?
Demagogue (noun) \ de-mə-ˌgäg \
1: a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power (from Merriam-Webster)
Donald Trump is the prototypical demagogue, as any student of political history can attest. Trump has preyed on those who feel threatened by “the Other” since his first foray into the political arena, as the champion of the Obama birther movement. His presidential run and first-term have been littered with such demagoguery, from the “Mexican rapist” charges that launched the campaign, through the “both sides” Charlottesville refrain, and on to the recent vile attacks on “The Squad” and Elijah Cummings, with countless other thunderous, baseless, fearmongering claims along the way.
His message is that minorities, in particular immigrants, are dangerous and threatening: at worst, criminals, and at least, job-seeking freeloaders who are crowding out opportunities for White America. It is hardly surprising, though shocking, that Trump’s relentless messaging has inspired the white-supremacist based domestic terrorism that has grown dramatically in the last several years, reaching its apotheosis (we can only hope) in El Paso. Trump has provided the motive; the NRA and GOP have provided the means by enabling our gun-saturated culture; all the perpetrator has to solve for is opportunity; the mighty troika of criminal acts now neatly and tragically packaged with a tidy bow.
Demagogues are not new in American politics. They emerge in times of great stress and enrapture a percentage of the electorate craving attention, by presenting a stark, threatening worldview in a blunt, crude and charismatic style. They have little regard for facts and deliver a wildly inflated, apocalyptic message designed to incite fear -- and establish the demagogue as the savior from the threat of the Other.
Broadly speaking, a raft of demagogues emerged in the titanic 40-year era that encompassed the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the civil rights and counterculture movements of the 1960’s. They arose in response to these events, and each time they re-emerged, they did so in increasingly powerful forms, using ever more far-reaching platforms, and capturing ever larger swaths of the country.
The first to emerge, in the early days of the Depression, was Huey “Kingfish” Long of Louisiana, who controlled Louisiana as Governor by ruthlessly accumulating near dictatorial powers (which he retained through cronies when he became Senator). Long preached a message of economic inequality that spoke directly to the needs of a nation in the throes of a national emergency, a progressive message (“Share Our Wealth”) delivered in outrageous terms, while bluntly using the race card by claiming that his opponents were of African-American descent. At his peak, Long won 150,000 votes in Louisiana in his last gubernatorial race in 1932, and he carried his message well beyond Louisiana’s border; his “Share Our Wealth” clubs had over seven million members nationwide. Long clearly had his eyes set on challenging first-term incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936. But he was killed by an assassin in 1935, resulting in one of the great “what might have been” political questions of all time: what would the world look like today if Long had defeated FDR in 1936?
Roughly five years after Long, Charles Lindbergh was next, borne of the next great threat, the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe. In the 1930’s, as Hitler and Mussolini secured power and built up their armies, aerial hero Lindbergh sounded the bell for nativism and isolationism, leading the charge to keep America out of Europe’s “squabbles.” Widely viewed as a Nazi sympathizer, Lindbergh’s message, laced with anti-Semitism, was simple and clear: "the British and the Jews" were leading America into the war to protect their interests. His “America First” organization had, at its peak, 900,000 members, and he, too, carried his message to millions beyond this group. He, along with his mini-demagogue accomplice, Father Charles Coughlin, were the greatest thorns in FDR’s subtle and methodical campaign to ready Americans for the sacrifices that would be required in a war he saw as inevitable. Lindbergh’s influence burst like a balloon when the bombs hit Pearl Harbor. Little was heard from him again and he died in Kipahulu, Hawaii in 1974, just 125 miles from where a young Barack Obama was living with his mother and half-sister in Honolulu.
More than a decade after Lindbergh, Senator Joe McCarthy exploited the angst surrounding the new and frightening Cold War with a “Red Scare” that alleged massive communist presence, first in the State Department and then throughout the federal government. Long in fomenting hysteria and short on facts, McCarthy essentially seized control of the national agenda, his popularity cowering his Republican colleagues into silence, including President Eisenhower, who, claimed, disingenuously, that his best strategy was to ignore McCarthy rather than confront him. At his peak, McCarthy won nearly a million votes in his last re-election in Wisconsin in 1952, and influenced tens of millions more. McCarthy was brought down in 1954 by, essentially, two individuals: the legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow, in a revealing “See It Now” documentary, and Army Counsel Joseph Welch who had the moxie to finally confront McCarthy during the Army hearings a few months later with his legendary retort: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” The Senate finally censured McCarthy at the end of the year, the final nail, and he was dead from alcoholism just three years later in 1957.
Nearly fifteen years passed before Governor George Wallace fanned the flames that came with the social revolution of the 1960’s, standing up for a southern white America that was outraged by the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965. Wallace screeched a searing white supremacist message that minced no words: “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Wallace was an unlikely candidate for this role; he had long been viewed as a moderate (by southern standards) on race, and won the endorsement of the NAACP in his 1958 run for the Alabama state house, losing to a Klan-backed candidate. But he swore after that defeat that he would never be “out-niggah’d” again, and turned race-baiting politics into a fine art. Termed out of office in 1966, he set out for the White House in 1968 as an Independent, winning 10 million vote, a full 14% of the electorate. He won the electoral votes of five southern states, a vital step in the transition of the south from the Democrats to the GOP. He sought to extend this performance in 1972, but was gunned down while campaigning that year, paralyzed until his death in 1998.
America survived the rest of the century without the rise of another demagogue, but with 9/11 and the new era of global unrest and uncertainty it launched, the 2008 Great Recession, and the minority-empowering years of Barack Obama, the seeds were sewn. And finally, almost 50 years after Wallace, Donald Trump emerged, ushered in with his “Obama as the Other” birther charge, symbolic of his dark view of the sinister threats facing America from within.
Trump has borrowed a bit from all of his predecessors: the swagger, crudity and spellbinding appeal of Long, McCarthy and Wallace; the race-baiting, white supremacist strains of Lindbergh and Wallace; Long’s populism and anti-elitism; the nativism of Lindbergh; and the relentless fear-mongering and media mastery exhibited by them all. He is the most developed of the breed, having won 63 million votes and the White House, and he casts enormous influence across the globe.
Trump touched on themes that resonated with a segment of America that felt deeply threatened by the early 21st century shocks of 9/11 and the 2008. The economic recovery engineered by Barack Obama was disproportionately tilted to the elites, and while unemployment came down sharply in his eight years, it was still over 7% at the time of the 2016 election, and real incomes had yet to recover. And Trump relentlessly pounded at the theme of American weakness beyond its borders, be it dealing with undocumented immigrants at the southern border, or geopolitical “deals” in which America had been "had," from NAFTA to the Paris Accords to the Iran nuclear deal, including the mightiest alliance of them all, NATO. Trump’s essential message (paraphrased) was: “You or your neighbor lost your job either to China or to an illegal alien, and the trade, immigration and regulatory policies set by the elites who control Obama and Hillary Clinton are ignoring their effect on you.”
Trump rode trade and immigration to the White House. He broke every rule of electioneering, refusing to “tack to the middle” in the general election and maintaining his “authenticity” as a right wing conservative (a remarkable feat by a man who was a registered Democrat as recently as 2013). He also got a break with his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, who was a pillar in the Obama administration, a woman and a Wall Street darling all in one, and one who had made many enemies in the course of a long career in the public eye.
Trump’s opponents should not wonder at his popularity. The vulgarity that we assume will bring him down is his strongest weapon, the same weapon used by his predecessor demagogues. They say things right out loud that normal politicians dare not speak, but a subset – a growing subset -- of the electorate believe. His crudity is viewed, and applauded, as the weapon of choice against the elites. Trump’s base is not about to abandon him, the first politician to speak their language and woo them directly. Trump has never truly wavered from the base, never attempted to broaden his appeal, and the few times he has entertained more moderate policies – such as universal background checks – he has been quickly heeled by the NRA or Fox News, who remind him from whence he came. And even those who claim to be pained by his rhetoric, his style or his immorality are too enamored with his policies to be wooed.
How did the demagogues ultimately fall?
History tells us: abruptly. Two assassinations and an epic historical event felled three of the four in a single day. Only McCarthy took some time, and it was the media, the public forum of Congressional testimony and a bi-partisan revolt that brought him down
Given these lessons of history, how can Trump be taken down?
Of course we condemn assassination. Apart from the moral repugnancy, which in itself suffices, Trump’s martyrdom would not help our nation heal. Given the magnitude of Trump’s appeal, it might only harden the lines, and the consequences could be devastating.
A devastating world event that undercuts the Trump worldview could change minds quickly – say, a major act of war from Iran or North Korea, or a Russia move on the Baltics. Perhaps if the China trade war brings on a recession. But those events are unlikely, regardless of how much Trump seems to invite them through his own reckless form of diplomacy.
History tells us that impeachment might not be the answer either. Long was impeached by the Louisiana House of Representatives on 19 charges, ranging from bribing lawmakers to pass his legislation to a charge of attending a drunken party that featured a stripper. The Louisiana Senate failed to convict him, and Long came back stronger than ever – and nastier. The acquitted Huey barked, “I used to get things done by saying please. Now I dynamite them out of my path.” And dynamite he did, indeed. If the current House of Representatives goes the route of impeachment, they better not lose in the Senate.
We cannot count on a Joseph Welch, who emerged in public hearings, in an unscripted moment not possible today, given the fact that Trump is not allowing his lackeys to testify. Nor can we count on the media – there is no Murrow or Cronkite that has the trust of most Americans. And Trump has inoculated himself against whatever the “mainstream media” hits him with, and The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN have already lobbed their own considerable arsenals without effect. Least of all can we expect bi-partisan movement from the cowards in the GOP who are in thrall to that 90% approval rating.
No, this time it is going to up to us, the American people, to do the deed, and we have to take Trump down at the ballot box. We are going to have to evict him the old-fashioned way, the way America has dumped one-term wonders like Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. It will not be easy, since Trump has 40% to 45% of the nation with him. But the odds are on our side, since roughly 55% of the nation is against him and have been since the outset of his presidency. Some of his voters abandoned him quickly and have stayed opposed. That fact, combined with an energized Democratic Party that flexed its muscles in the 2018 mid-terms, will make the Democratic nominee the odds on favorite.
We need to pick the best candidate and fight like hell to elect her or him. We need to fight voter suppression and enable all those eligible to vote. We need to pressure our elected officials to minimize the influence of Vladimir Putin in our elections. And to the extent we fall short in limiting suppression and the Russians, we have to work all that much harder to overcome their deleterious effects. This time, it is truly up to us to flush this demagogue down the drain, and consign him to the junk pile of history, once and for all.
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