Donald Trump is our creepy new face of demagoguery

Our history is filled with demagogues. But factor in a pliant media and a reality TV culture, and we have a problem

Published September 8, 2015 2:14PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
(Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

We’ve elected a number of presidents less erudite than the framers of the Constitution envisioned, so why should anyone be surprised by the shock without awe coming from the unloved Republicans who are clamoring for attention these days? Donald Trump has put them off their game. The usual pandering isn’t working. If we didn’t already suffer from historical amnesia in this country, the electorate’s momentary obsession with the insult-comic Trump would be a crushing reminder of the role demagoguery has played in our past.

The colorful Louisiana politician Huey Long (“Every man a king”) is already a distant memory, but his Depression-era promise of a massive redistribution of wealth made President Roosevelt squirm. If reality TV had existed in the 1930s, “the Kingfish” would surely have gone at least as far as “the Donald.” This ruthless reformer brooked no interference when he upped taxes as governor and rebuilt roads and schools; he used methods of intimidation to get his way. He planned to run for president, until someone shot him to death at the state capitol.

Demagoguery has a long history in this country. It goes as far back as the 1780s, with James Madison’s critique of Virginia governor Patrick Henry, the impulsive, passion-filled revolutionary orator who passed the bar after a few months of cursory study and won court cases through sheer charisma, but whose crude methods for seizing political advantage irked the more restrained, more conventional politicians. Henry did not attend the Constitutional Convention, but he tried to get Virginians to vote down the document by predicting an onslaught of federal “bloodsuckers” (tax collectors — an early iteration of “death panels”); he claimed a northern-led government would sell out western farmers to cruel overlords from Spain, which at that time controlled the Mississippi. Madison was thinking of Henry when he worried “how frequently too will the honest but unenlightened representative be the dupe of a favorite leader, veiling his selfish views under the professions of public good, and varnishing his sophistical arguments with glowing colors of popular eloquence?”

Demagoguery works, because loud diatribes capture attention much more quickly than reasoned argument. Sensational claims resonate with cheering/jeering bigots, and sound bites make superficial ideas seem bigger than they are. That’s what many of the candidates are counting on.

Narratives change, sometimes overnight. For a certain breed of Republican, the "Muslim-ish" Obama was always tarnished. If the president can be made to appear careworn now, then anyone who conveys the appearance of bringing energetic leadership to a nation that’s treading water seems to have a shot. Which is to say, our country is proving itself once again ripe for demagoguery.

The TV punditocracy feigns relevance. The weakest of its many simplistic rationalizations is the one that goes, “Trump brings authenticity to the campaign.” The wry political humorist John Fugelsang put it brilliantly in a recent appearance on “The Ed Show,” when, in discussing the Trump phenomenon, he quipped: “You can be completely authentic and still get everything wrong.”

Meanwhile, every day a candidate who sits at two percent reminds someone with a microphone that Rudy Giuliani looked unstoppable at the same moment in the campaign cycle. Trump’s downfall is predictable, because it’s only reasonable to assume that once the American people start demanding well-defined policies, his charade of a campaign will sink, and we can all move on to the next missing aircraft, punctuated by the occasional, less entertaining GOP debate and the inevitable beckoning toward a reconfigured (slightly higher energy) Jeb Bush. Isn’t that how the star-struck media anticipates 2016? Follow the money — the real money.

Campaigns have evolved, but the entertainment factor has always been present. In eighteenth-century Virginia, elite politicians had to “treat” voters, which meant providing food and drink; otherwise, they couldn’t collect a crowd. By the 1820s, mass political rallies thrived on alcohol-accented barbecues — as a newspaper of the time put it, voters raced for free food with knives already in hand, like ravenous animals. The election of 1840 featured coonskin caps and songs that mocked the rival candidate. Nineteenth-century stump speeches contained vicious insults — or Andrew Johnson, our seventeenth president, whose mudslinging talent transformed the uneducated tailor’s career. One of Johnson’s opponents called him “a living mass of undulating filth.” And that was well before he was impeached.

Again, demagoguery was with us when the nation was birthed. In 1787, Madison recognized that the people, the demos, could be swayed by crude emotional appeals. He had watched Patrick Henry lead weak-minded Virginia assemblymen to cast their votes according to his wishes. In Federalist No. 10, considered his most important essay on dangers facing the young republic, Madison argued that the way to quash demagogues was to open up western lands and invite citizens to spread out. Mobs could form in cities, but no ungraceful firebrand could elevate himself if his popular appeal was short-circuited by physical distance.

Needless to say, Madison could never have imagined the Internet, cable news or the fame-engine of reality TV. When Washington Irving’s brother and writing partner William, a New York congressman when Madison was president, called America a “logocracy” (from the Greek logos), he meant that an entire nation was invented out of words, woven from rhetorical strands of symbolism. Today, Irving’s logocracy translates to the ever-present media blitz. In the 1950s, a host of critics warned that the new medium of television would numb brains and lead to indoctrination or mind control — this made sense to Cold War America.

Our culture is more accepting now, though TV journalists glory in the dominance of their medium to such an extent that they’re unwilling to acknowledge their complicity in the dumbing of the vote. The constant repetition of stories, looped images and knee-jerk responses to constant polling numbers, are, for them, just part of the business of news. They’re shaping how average voters think by what they cover and how they spin it — polls do not highlight independent thinking among voters. Who doubts that there is a direct correlation between the TV news echo chamber and poll results?

Why else has a majority come to regard Hillary Clinton as a practiced liar? Her pre-Benghazi tenure at the State Department was widely appreciated. She worked tirelessly. But for weeks, if not months, the only story that seems to warrant coverage is her email server — and it’s been allowed to morph with the old slur attached to husband Bill for lying about sex and Hillary’s apparent complicity in the hyped-up Whitewater scandal. Just say “Whitewater” and you’re on to something. Like “Benghazi.”

Meanwhile, the GOP candidates are mired in ridiculous questions about what women can or cannot do with their bodies, because, aside from the manufactured threat of invasion from ravenous Spanish-speaking illegals, Republicans are not about to engage in topics that actually warrant news coverage. Is this why American democracy is so superior to whatever they have in other countries? Let’s be honest, demagoguery has become a fixed value in TV news.

While Trump did not invent political demagoguery, the Trump Effect would not have staying power without reality TV, a perverse embodiment of the American Dream premised on the idea that anyone can become a star. It’s what game shows represented earlier, but is exponentially greater. Trump is a contestent on the presidential campaign version of "American Idol" and "America’s Got Talent." So are his GOP opponents. They attract voters just as those shows do. Text “two” if you like Ben Carson.

In the context of Tea Party-driven hatred for Washington inertia and career politicians, Sarah Palin was just the warmup act. Donald Trump, possessing a recognizable brand for years now, is the far more accomplished, moneyed successor to the gold-digging Palin, who simply converted the McCain campaign into her personal reality TV contest and mined her audience as she created a brand. Her squeaky-squealing thing doesn’t capture as many minds these days as Donald’s braggadocio.

Palin and Trump make perfect candidates in an amoral age when demagoguery is no longer the sideshow but the main attraction, guided by the power of technology to obtain instantaneous worldwide dissemination. The Internet has shown that it’s possible to enjoin masses of people to combine for ethical purposes, but it has also sought out the ugly and tracked mud into American homes. There’s a connection between the viral nature of Anthony Weiner’s Internet sex “crime” and Donald Trump’s insult-filled tweets, featured on cable news in a segment we like to call “the Daily Trump.” Democracy ogles at more than one kind of “perv” these days — our lowdown politics are light years beyond John Edwards’s love child.

The real victim is the republic James Madison wanted. Who’s left to pay attention to the persistence of poverty, to crumbling infrastructure, to the health of mother Earth? Who’s minding the store? Until he’s interrupted by the next missing jetliner, it’s the Daily Trump.

So here’s a debate featuring constitutionalist Madison and candidate Trump:

“Mr. Trump, exactly what are the limits on presidential authority, as laid out in the Constitution?”

Trump (seizing the initiative): “Limits are there, but it won’t stop me from being the best president this country has ever seen. I’ve built golf courses all over the world. By the way, I’m actually a great golfer.”

“Kindly explain the process involved in removing a constitutional amendment, which is what you have called for in ending birthright citizenship as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment?”

“If I say it needs to go, it’ll get done. I have great people.”

You can tell Trump thinks he’s smarter than the political theorist, who probably wears a hairpiece.

In Madison’s republic, authenticity meant honest engagement with issues of import. Today, bluster is confused with authenticity. Is Trump being authentic? No, he’s reprising a role he perfected on "The Apprentice." He’s the corporate bigwig, the boss of the boardroom, who now plays to the camera in the guise of a crass, greed-is-good American Bubba — the oafish cap he sports makes him one of the guys. It’s all part of the show.

We have the style of democratic politics Madison feared: candidates pandering to a crowd. You take time out to dress down and chew on some Iowa farm-fried product, and you keep folks entertained with off-color remarks, and you spout familiar slogans like, “Let’s make America great again.” Remember the “compassionate conservative” ploy? Evidently, it’s gone back to being a contradiction in terms.

We’ve been through a campaign like this before — a long time ago. In 1828, the electorate decided that frontier braggart Andrew Jackson’s self-proclaimed gut instincts trumped the Harvard "book-larnin’" and diplomatic expertise of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. Adams was “sedentary,” the synonym for “low-energy” in 1828.

Those who flock to a demagogue want to democratically elect a strongman, a monarch. That’s precisely what Jackson’s Whig opponents denoted him: King Andrew I. And he still got re-elected handily, after finding a personal enemy in the National Bank. “The Bank is trying to kill me,” he railed in 1832. “But I will kill it!” And he did. Even before Darwin, Jackson subscribed to “survival of the fittest.”

It’s not that different in Trump’s world. His imperial personality comes from "The Apprentice" and its social Darwinian ethos: survival of the fittest in the corporate jungle. Winning is all Trump thinks about, to judge by his fluctuating stands. The guy who asserted that the Democrats are always better for the economy is a Republican now. Four years ago, he was the proud defender of birthright citizenship when he accused Barack Obama of being born outside the United States. No longer.

“You’re fired!” has become “You’re deported.” In Trump’s game-show world, there are good immigrants and bad immigrants. Two of his wives were immigrants, so he doesn’t have any trouble visualizing marriage as a pathway to citizenship. Why doesn’t he express outrage over green-card wives or mail-order brides who hitch themselves to an American “sugar daddy,” and get a free pass to the American Dream? Don’t ask for logic.

Mass deportation is his rallying cry. It sounds like he just wants to round up poor Hispanic immigrants and ship them back to where they came from. His “plan” is reminiscent of the insensitive President Jackson’s infamous Indian Removal plan, and the failed plan of the “philanthropic” American Colonization Society of that era, which advocated removing slaves and free blacks to the “bosom” of Africa whence they came. Then there’s the modern urban phenomenon of removal of the poor to facilitate neighborhood gentrification — something Trump knows about. The American Dream has its votaries. But, understand this: its beneficiaries have to “look” a certain way.

We have no indication that Trump thinks very hard about consequences. Half-baked generalizations roll off the tongue of the superlative-seeking demagogue. Will his followers ever demand facts from him? Probably not. When you are a demagogue, you only have to promise stuff, identify and threaten the bad guys, make bold declarations like, “I’ll be the best president for the military,” and keep the fans excited. Nothing is real. That how politics operates when it’s all reality TV. And don’t forget to wear your flag pin in the next scene.

A Guide to Dodging Gaffes, By Donald Trump


By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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By Nancy Isenberg

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