Donald Trump (AP/Julie Jacobson)

Donald Trump is a new breed of demagogue

While Trump's nauseating tactics are familiar, the reception he's gotten is unprecedented. Here's what it means


Conor Lynch
October 19, 2015 3:59PM (UTC)

During the first Democratic debate, while grown-ups were discussing grown-up topics that had hardly been broached at the first two GOP debates, a certain 69-year-old with the disposition of a 16-year-old was enjoying himself a bit too much on Twitter, as is usually the case.

So it was that Donald Trump couldn't help pointing out that there was no famous celebrity with their own reality show, like him, on the stage: “Sorry, there is no STAR on the stage tonight.” Another tweet read: “Notice that illegal immigrants will be given ObamaCare and free college tuition but nothing has been mentioned about our VETERANS.” Of course, veterans had been mentioned, but when has the Donald ever permitted truth to get in his way. Perhaps what bored Trump the most was the debates relative civility; no insults, no bravado, no Rosie O'Donnell jokes. For Trump, this is what a debate is all about -- putting on a show and getting 'yoooge ratings.

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It is rather sad that the party of Lincoln is now led by a buffoonish demagogue like Trump, who prefers insulting others over debating ideas, and bragging about how much of a “star” he is instead of articulating a coherent platform. Trump seems to believe that being as unpresidential and unlettered as possible will get him to the White House, and he has proven that Americans are still very much susceptible to demagoguery.

Donald Trump is the first reality TV candidate. His rise signifies America's cultural decline into a kind of vacuum of celebrity worship and heedless consumerism, and it seems that America's desire for entertainment has finally spilled over into our politics. Trump, who is obviously having a hell of a time, has received praise from professional trolls, while being relegated to the entertainment section in the Huffington Post. He is, for all intents and purposes, an entertainer pretending to be a politician.

The Trump campaign is a uniquely 21st century phenomenon, utilizing all of the modern technologies and employing his celebrity and billionaire statuses in a time when wealth and fame mean everything. However, when he is stripped of these unique features, and you look at his core message, it is clear that Trump is not all that different from the many demagogues in our history books. His nativism and nationalism, and his regular use of scapegoats -- e.g. Hispanics, Muslims, foreigners -- has always been the strategy of right-wing populists, whether it be Nazi's scapegoating Jews or the know-nothing party scapegoating immigrants.

Indeed, the angry nativism and distrust of foreigners that Trump has engaged in is not at all new, and if we were in the 19th century, Trump would be attacking Irish and German Catholics instead of Mexicans and Muslims. As Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons write on the anti-Catholicism of the mid-century in their book, “Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort:”

Nativists condemned “Papism” as fake Christianity: an idolatrous perversion that mocked Holy law and promoted drunkenness, gambling, greed, and lawlessness...They denounced Catholics as foreign agents secretly plotting to take over the country and deliver it to the despotism of the Pope or European monarchs. In the early 1850’s, rumors that Irish Catholics planned to massacre Protestants sparked panic in many areas. These claims were made more plausible by the long-standing argument that Catholics were secret agents of Satan because the Pope was the Antichrist.

Now consider what one of Trump’s fans said last month:

"We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. You know our current president is one.... Anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That's my question: When can we get rid of them?”

Like anti-Catholic conspiracies of the 19th century and anti-Semitic conspiracies, which have long been a theme in right-wing populism (e.g. international banking, Jewish Bolshevism), anti-Muslim conspiracy theories are now in vogue. The training camp theory is quite popular with people like Alex Jones, who may just be the foremost conspiracy theorist of the day. Trump did not denounce this man, who was obviously disturbed, or his theories that Obama is a Muslim and that there are Jihadist training camps nearby. This is because many of Trumps biggest supporters believe these absurd stories, and he knows it. One of the main reasons he has become so popular with conspiracists is because he has been at the very front of the birther movement, a blatantly racist narrative that Obama was not born in America and that he is a Muslim (these conspiracies would not exist if it Obama had white skin and went by Barry).

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So then, the irrational and paranoid xenophobia that Trump has made a campaign out of is a kind of eternal reoccurrence in America life. Virtually every foreign culture that has immigrated to the United States has faced this hostility, whether it is the Irish and Germans, Chinese, Jews, Easter Europeans, Italians, etc. Of course, many descendants of these persecuted immigrants have gone on to become nativists themselves.

Trump’s campaign is incoherent, and all over the place (except for his consistent nativism, of course), and he has single-handily brought right-wing populism to the mainstream, or as Sen. John McCain said, he has "fired up the crazies." While the Republican establishment has done a good job over the years of keeping its populist factions in line, the party is now facing the real possibility of an outsider who has never governed in his life (this goes for Ben Carson as well) and has antagonized entire communities, becoming their presidential candidate.

In this day in age, there is almost no chance of Trump getting elected president. He is extremely popular with a certain part of the American population -- i.e. uneducated  white folks who fear the “browning of America” -- but on the national scale, he is very unpopular, especially amongst Hispanics, who represent nearly 18 percent of the population. Still, this movement could certainly be enough to damage the political system, as we currently see in congress.

Donald Trump is a new kind of demagogue, but his strategy is old. Right-wing populism has long influenced American politics, from the days of Andrew Jackson to the McCarthyist '50s, and while there is little chance of Trump actually getting elected president, he has proven that there is still a significant part of the American population prone to this paranoid and dangerous tradition.

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Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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