In his masterful study of the populist demagogues that plagued Franklin Roosevelt near the end of his first term in the 1930’s, Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley made an observation that seems eerily appropriate to the crazy politics of the United States in the early 21st Century.
Brinkley argued that political characters like Louisiana Senator Huey Long and the Roman Catholic hate preacher Father Charles Coughlin, both of whom developed mass followings during the economic and social upheaval of the Great Depression, were part of a long American tradition of populist figures not wholly of the political left or right. Long and Coughlin and others of their ilk were motivated by a few deeply felt beliefs, including fear of concentrated power and resistance to being dominated by either private interests or public institutions.
Leading to the Left…and Right…
“It is an impulse that can, under different circumstances lead either to the left or the right,” Brinkley wrote in his seminal work Voices of Protest. “Or it can – as it did in the case of Huey Long and Father Coughlin – lead to both simultaneously.”
As Roosevelt contemplated a second term in the election of 1936 he also had to confront the enormously popular ideas of an elderly California physician by the name of Francis Townsend. Townsend was advocating an old age pension scheme – The Townsend Plan – that sounded to millions of elderly and often destitute Americans as simply too good to be true. It was and FDR responded by creating Social Security.
Long, a skillful political communicator with a flair for the outrageous, was described by the great reporter A.J. Liebling as “a chubby man, he had ginger hair and tight skin that was the color of a sunburn coming on. It was an uneasy combination, like an orange tie on a pink shirt.” Long authored a book that he modestly entitled My First Days in the White House. Sound like anyone you know?
Huey Long was both a serious political threat to Roosevelt and a populist demagogue. FDR’s advisors believed that Long might either split the Democratic Party in 1936 or run an independent presidential campaign that might deny Roosevelt a second term. History changed in ways we will never know when Long died in a hail of bullets in a hallway of the Louisiana State Capitol in September 1935.
A Coughlin supporter years later said that “when he spoke it was a thrill like Hitler. And the magnetism was uncanny. It was so intoxicating, there’s no use saying what he talked about…”
Roosevelt complained shortly before Long’s death that that he was “fighting Communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism, Townsendism…to save the capitalist system” from “crackpot ideas.”
Like the poor, our demagogues have always been with us. And now comes The Age of Trump.
But…Trump Now Dominates One Major Party…
The big difference between the 1930’s and today is that one dangerous and divisive man, a demagogue in the American tradition, has largely taken over one major political party, something that a Long or a Coughlin never accomplished. Ironically, the man Donald J. Trump may have to crush to win the GOP nomination, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, has approached his campaign as a Trump-lite in cowboy boots. Cruz has an uncanny resemblance to a one-time Republican demagogue from Wisconsin and his sweeping assertions and scathing attacks channel another of the last century’s great manipulators, Joe McCarthy.
However it is Donald J. Trump, the stout billionaire with the ginger hair and skin the color of a sunburn coming on, who is the manifestation of the fact-free, racially divisive, often cynical and opportunistic party he now dominates. The 21st Century Republican Party created the environment that allowed the Age of Trump. They own him now and increasingly Trump owns the Republican Party.
Trump has the GOP over the barrel of his own design. His appeal is to the core Republican voter – overwhelmingly white, middle aged, less educated and angry – angry at Obama, angry about the nation’s changing demographics and increasingly angry at those who once might have channeled their frustrations in a more constructive direction. If Trump does not win the party’s nomination he almost certainly will mount a third-party effort, which could doom GOP chances for not only winning the White House, but controlling Congress.
Opportunity and Circumstance…
A demagogue – some have moved on, not improperly, to label Trump a fascist – is a product of both opportunity and circumstance. You cannot separate the Age of Trump from the circumstances that have been in the political foreground now for nearly a decade: the ultra conservative disdain for a government that actually governs, the complete abandonment of bipartisanship, the abject failure to address immigration from Mexico and Central America, the visceral hatred for the nation’s first black president, the completely partisan response to a health care crisis that condemned millions of Americans to a life without the security that they can see a doctor (and pay for it), lock step opposition to addressing growing income inequality and the new Gilded Age excesses of the nation’s economic elite.
Add on a Supreme Court that by the narrowest of margins wiped out any limits on money in politics creating a system where economic oligarchs secretly lavish outrageous sums of money on favored candidates and causes, and you truly have the toxic opportunity that Trump has so successfully exploited.
Of course, every demagogue needs an unpopular enemy. Huey Long had his villains – “the Rockefellers, the Mellons, the Barachs” – while Coughlin’s target were “the Jews.” Trump began his romp toward the Iowa caucus by demonizing Mexicans as “rapists and murderers,” but like all skillful demagogues he was able to switch his target in the space of a Twitter message when the circumstances presented. Radicalized Islam provided what Trump really needed to exploit the fears of Americans in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino. Trump is far from the brilliant businessman he claims to be, but as a classic narcissist he is a master manipulator. Hot buttons are all that he pushes.
Trump’s approach is not unprecedented in our history, but he has clearly demolished all the old boundaries. Historian David Kennedy of Stanford University told the Washington Post recently that branding an entire religious class of people puts Trump “further out there than almost anyone in the annals of [U.S.] history.”
Once upon a time a candidate for President of the United States had to at least pretend to offer a coherent policy agenda, but a demagogue labors under no such uncomfortable constraints. Trump, with all his bravura on display in carefully choreographed mass rallies with security offered by his own private forces, and yes the comparison to those grainy black and white photos of fascist rallies of the 1930’s is intentional, never offers a specific and credible policy proposal.
Making America Great Again…
Trump will build “a beautiful wall” along the Mexican border and “make Mexico pay for it” without ever grappling with the details or impossibility of such a silly proposal. Trump would bar all Muslims from entering the country, even American citizens, create a register of Muslims and “look closely at the Mosques”, without even a passing nod to the U.S. Constitution. His answer to Islamic State terrorism is to “bomb the hell out of them.”
Predictably Trump has prompted a noticeable increase in white supremacist activity, while Muslim’s face threats and religious facilities are vandalized. Trump has no advisors and relies on no one but his friend in the mirror. His policy positions are as thin as his political and foreign policy experience. Any inconvenient question is an attack. His opponents are losers, unworthy of the moment Trump commands.
At the same time, Trump is both more politically attuned and more manipulative than the rest of the Republican presidential gang who cannot figure out how to deal with him. He avoids the third rail of American politics and unlike most Republicans defends Social Security and Medicare, while promising to tax the most wealthy. His “base,” of course, hates government, but loves those entitlements and hates those elites.
Trump will make “America Great Again” without ever saying what “again” means. When was American great in a way that Trump might endorse? I hesitate to play the Nazi card, but Trump begs the reference. The demagogic Austrian made the same claim and addressed the same perceived grievances in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
In 1990, Trump’s lawyer told Vanity Fair magazine that, “Donald is a believer in the big-lie theory. If you say something again and again, people will believe you.” Trump’s lie that “thousands” of Muslim’s celebrated the attacks on the World Trade Center, was completely debunked by fact checkers and those who were there, has now been repeated so often it has become accepted wisdom among his followers.
Trump, make no mistake, is both a profoundly dangerous and astoundingly devious man; the social media empowered demagogue of our time. He has recognized both the opportunity and the circumstance of America in 2015 and he rides the wave, while the nation reaps his whirlwind.
The Burden of Citizenship is Responsibility…
“There is a burden of responsibility that comes with being a citizen of a constitutional democracy,” University of Virginia historian Michael Signer told NPR in a recent interview where he was asked to analyze the new and uniquely American demagogue – Donald J. Trump. “And if you decide to go with your gut as opposed to caring about those values, then you are hurting this country.”
Demagogues, Signer says, have “been talked about for millennia as flatterers, so they flatter the people. They play to our need for gratitude. And we’re supposed to better than that. So one of the reasons that demagogues are hemmed in is because people say, I hear you, that feels good, but I’m not going to fall in love with you. This is too indulgent. And politicians, usually, are too ashamed to do what demagogues do. And then, Trump, who’s a creature, comes from the entertainment world, comes from a culture of narcissism, he doesn’t care about any of those rules. So I don’t think it’s OK to say, well, you know, I know about the principle of separation of church and state, and I know about not having violence in our politics, but I’m going to go with Trump anyway because I’m so angry at the system. That’s not OK. It’s definitively not OK in the United States of America, and it needs to be condemned.”
Put me down as condemning. What we have seen in the fact-free, demagogic, big lie tirades of a dangerous man is not the country a Lincoln or an Eisenhower, a Reagan or a Kennedy or a Carter would recognize. We all have a burden of responsibility to say enough. You do not speak for us. This is the United States and we are better than you think we are.
The proper, indeed American response to fear and paranoia is to deal in facts and reason, elements unfortunately as missing from the national dialogue and from Trump’s language as any shared sense of responsibility among citizens in a constitutional democracy.
As we swing wildly at the “un-Americans” of the moment and cheeringly embrace complete nonsense we risk doing real harm to our always fragile democracy and we risk squandering the one sure and most powerful weapon we hold over our real enemies – an open, decent, inclusive albeit often messy political system that rejects demagogues, deals with reality and embraces values that should set us apart.
The modern Republican Party created the environment that has permitted the Age of Trump. Republicans own their demagogue. Now, can they stop him?