Trump: A Different and Ugly Breed of American Political Demagogue

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Rub Donald Trump’s rough week against President Barack Obama’s flintily pious remarks to a journalism awards dinner and you produce a couple of sparks that seem to illuminate this campaign in interesting ways.

Trump has had a very rough week: He insulted his rival’s wife’s appearance in a vulgar tweet; his campaign manager was arrested for assaulting a young woman reporter; Trump made a stammering revelation that he doesn’t really understand the anti-abortion position he’s adopted out of partisan expediency; his unhinged series of foreign policy and defense pronouncements sent shudders through diplomats here and abroad. By week’s end, a range of national polls found that seven out of every 10 American women have an “unfavorable” opinion of the GOP frontrunner—the worst such rating ever recorded by a major political candidate.

Oh, and the most reliable surveys show Ted Cruz is likely to clean his clock by at least 10 points in the upcoming Wisconsin primary, thereby measurably increasing the odds of a contested convention in Cleveland this summer.

The bully of Fifth Avenue naturally has fired back on all this with one of the two arrows in his tactical quiver—attack. (The other, by the way, is braggadocio.) Thus, he has charged that Cruz insulted his wife first; that his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, either didn’t grab then-Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields, or she exaggerated what happened or Lewandowski was defending Trump from Fields’ assault on him.  Take your pick, though you might want to consult the video tape first.

The candidate also argued that a question by Chris Mathews, which prompted Trump to assert that he could imagine prosecuting women for obtaining restricted abortions, was “convoluted” and misleading.

Right.

Trump hasn’t quite gotten to explaining how he would abrogate the Geneva Conventions (they keep our troops “from fighting”) or exactly what a nuclear armed Japan or South Korea might mean for international security. It will be interesting—actually, probably horrifying—when he does, however.

The day-to-day of the Trump campaign is so head shakingly bizarre that it’s easy to become so appalled—or frightened—that he’s something rather unfamiliar to our politics, a demagogue in the European style. The commentators at the New Yorker—most notably David Remnick and Adam Gopnik—have been among the first to point out that Trump is now closer to the presidency that any previous American rabble rouser. But there is a crucial difference between the developer and failed casino operator and those who’ve come before, like, say, Huey Long, Father Coughlin and George Wallace. All sought either to take control of one of the two established parties or to make their obsession a power bloc within the existing partisan structure.

The New York Times recently plucked some numerical affinities out of the census data and matched them against the largest clusters of Trump supporters. What they found is that the U.S. voter most likely to cast his ballot for the developer is an unemployed white high school dropout living in a trailer park.

Trump is like a European demagogue—think Mussolini as the classic example—who conceive of a political party merely as a platform on which to perform their ego theater, something they could knock into ruins and climb over and up to power. That power is something they intended to exercise in their own right and not as head of a party.

Parties with their ideologies and interest groups, after all are a constraint—and the great man must know no constraint. That’s why, after all these months of intense campaigning, it’s still only possible to speak of “Trump” and not of “Trumpism.” From the start, it seems clear that, if Trump had a model for his campaign in mind, it was a hostile corporate takeover and not politics.

Enter Obama, who Monday evening told an audience gathered at Syracuse University for the award of the Robin Toner Prize for Excellence in Reporting that struggling news organizations must guard against putting profits before enterprise and investigative reporting, that “false equivalence” has to be avoided in covering campaigns—he clearly meant Trump’s—that journalism is “essential” to democracy’s function. He went on to plead for a focus on issues rather than minutiae and for reporting with perspective grounded in context.

Media critic Jack Shafer was quick to point out the “hypocrisy” of the president’s remarks, since his Administration is demonstrably the most hostile to journalists and the reporting process in decades. His people lead the league in stonewalled freedom of information requests, have used the draconian Espionage Act against alleged leakers more than all previous administrations combined and have pursued talented national security reporters like my old colleague Jim Risen through the courts in attempts to get them to reveal sources.

As former Washington Post editor Len Downie has written, “The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.”

But even a blind pig occasionally finds an acorn—and Obama is right about the lack of perspective in the Trump coverage.

Watching and reading it is a little like bathing in the effluent from a dysfunctional sewage plant; it has an effect. I suspect I haven’t been alone in recent months, finding, as I listened and watched Trump and his supporters dominate the airwaves and print columns, that I feel I no longer know the country in which I live. I’ve begun to wonder if I haven’t become what the Soviets once called “an inner émigré”—physically present in this country, but no longer part of it.

Trump is like a European demagogue—think Mussolini as the classic example—who conceive of a political party merely as a platform on which to perform their ego theater, something they could knock into ruins and climb over and up to power. That power is something they intended to exercise in their own right and not as head of a party.

Facts, though, are fine things and you can build perspective on them. Begin to do that, and one of the ideas that presents itself is this: While the Trump problem is real and genuinely disturbing, it is more specifically a Republican problem than it is a more general American one. Consider this, as my former colleague David Lauter has pointed out a survey of all the current national polls of any reliability, Trump is the single most unpopular domestic political figure in generations. The steady 30%-40% of the vote that he commands in the GOP primaries isn’t a majority and looks less impressive when you consider the Republicans’ continued slide into minority status.

Then, there’s the perception that Trump has tapped into a deep and bitter eddy of angry revulsion, part of a river of dissatisfaction that is undermining all the established institutions of American life and politics. There’s no doubt that we’re a battered people, that wages are too low or stagnant, that there’s too much middle class insecurity. People know that, but they also know that the economy is recovering and adding jobs in most places, albeit at a slower pace than any of us would like.

Unemployment is 5% and even industrial production is rebounding. According to Gallup, President Obama’s approval rating is 53%, an impressive figure at this stage of a presidency, when even Ronald Reagan’s was three points lower. George W. Bush was at 32% at this point and subsequently fell to 28%. Just under nine in 10 Democrats approve the job Obama is doing, as do have of all self-described independents.

That hardly describes a nation lost in a downward spiral of angry desperation.

By contrast, Trump’s 30-something percentage is roughly the same as those Republicans—a distinct minority of Americans—who now say they think Muslim Americans should be barred from serving in the military in any capacity. The New York Times recently plucked some numerical affinities out of the census data and matched them against the largest clusters of Trump supporters. What they found is that the U.S. voter most likely to cast his ballot for the developer is an unemployed white high school dropout living in a trailer park. Obviously, there are such people, but they’re hardly a decisive electoral, let alone national force.

More disturbing, as political scientist Jason McDaniel and researcher Sean McElwee have pointed, out “racial attitudes uniquely predict support for Trump,” including “racial resentment and explicit racial stereotypes.” Racism, sadly, remains a fact of American life, but not a decisive one. This is, after all, a nation which twice has elected an African American man president by convincing majorities.

Let’s be frank, as it has slipped into becoming the national white people’s party, the GOP has discreetly—often in code—cultivated this sort of support, while its mainstream continued to stir up a thin gruel of ideas that has little to offer but a politics of disparagement and refusal. When a true demagogue like Trump came along and spoke to the angry Republican minority openly and in their own language, the party establishment had nothing of substance to offer as an alternative.

The GOP elders have the party they made and that party finally as the candidate it almost inevitably was going to spawn. Theirs is now a place in which, as Yeats put it:

  The best lack all conviction, while the worst
                                  Are full of passionate intensity

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