A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1795
December 14, 2015

AMERICAN DEMAGOGUES

MONTPELIER – When I was a boy, during the later three terms of Franklin Roosevelt, I often heard the sentence, “In America, any boy can grow up to be President.”  It was meant to be an inspiration to us, even though it omitted several qualifying ethnic and religious characteristics. In recent years, though the sentence has added the word, “woman,” it has taken on more than slightly ironic overtones. Even a quick look at the current crop of candidates for the Republican nomination illustrates the aphorism perfectly:  It appears that not only can anybody become President, but it’s possible that anybody may. As an old Irish friend used to say, “I’ve never seen the like of it!” and a current French friend e-mails, “What in hell is going on over there?”

What’s going on is that a large percentage of Americans has, figuratively, stopped to read and believe the news as printed in the supermarket checkout counter tabloids. Never have so many been so fascinated by simple-minded bombast, and yet believed that out of it all a serious candidate will somehow emerge. Meanwhile, it’s a battle of bouffons armed with inflated pig bladders.

The main player in this farcical drama is, of course, the real estate tycoon Donald J. Trump. Traveling by private jet and helicopter and beholden, as far as anyone can tell, to no wealthy donors to his campaign, he looks less over his shoulder – as the other candidates do – and more at the faces  in the crowds before him. What he sees there are dissatisfaction, frustration, and the desire for better-paying and more secure jobs; anger at apparent government waste, inaction, and unresponsiveness; fears of terrorism and the rise of non-Aryan ethnic and religious groups; and a hunger for solutions. What he gives them are simplistic red-meat declarations of what he will do as President, which elicit throaty roars from his enthusiastic supporters.

Mr. Trump is every medium’s dream candidate because, to use the old term, he sells newspapers  With a gold-colored coif impossible to take seriously – the mind reels at the thought of it waving in the Washington breeze at the swearing-in ceremony – and a you-got-a-problem-with that, pal? bluster, he’s the first American populist ever to appear credible while wearing thousand-dollar suits. Watching a Trump rally is like watching the first scene of Julius Caesar.  

Yet Trump and his counterpart of the left, Bernie Sanders, have succeeded in moving their respective fellow candidates in their directions. The candidate most likely to inherit the current crew when the wind goes out of Trump’s sails in the Republican primary, is Ted Cruz, a man who certainly understands the incredible complexity of the situation in the Middle East, yet had this to say when asked how we would deal with ISIS if he were President: “We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion. I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out.”

The word for it is demagoguery (Greek: speaking for the common people). It’s been employed now and then in our history, as when fomenting our first revolution. It’s most popular during periods of stress before a war and during financial depressions. Thus its most recent flowering before this one was in the period 1925-1939. In his excellent book, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression, Alan Brinkley describes the popular response to our last great populist demagogues, Huey “The Kingfish” Long and Father Charles Coughlin. As the rich got richer, banking regulations weaker, and the poor poorer in the years leading to the financial collapse of 1929 and the Great Depression, Long whipped his followers into a white hatred of Wall Street bankers. It’s safe to say there was little sympathy among the destitute in 1929 when they heard of ruined bankers and stockbrokers jumping from high windows.

Coughlin, a Catholic priest who started a radio show that slid slowly from religion into populist politics, supported Roosevelt’s New Deal at first; but when he noticed that the President had appointed several conservative advisers, he became an ever more virulent opponent. Like his contemporary, Herr Hitler, he scapegoated non-Aryans, “deviants,” and “international bankers” (a code word in those days for “Jew”). His broadcast at one time boasted 40 million listeners; his daily mail ran into the tens of thousands. In 1935 the Kingfish declared himself a candidate for the presidential nomination in 1936, but was assassinated shortly afterward. Following that, an increasingly strident and unhinged Father Coughlin was eventually forced off the air in 1940 by broadcasting regulations. But he had during his tenure evoked the worst impulses of his listeners.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. We have Rush Limbaugh and his ilk (now apparently fading) and Donald Trump, an obvious narcissist with a good nose for what disgruntled people want in the way of entertaining oratory. He and his followers remind me not so much of Hitler, as many pundits have suggested, as of Mussolini. Watching video of the black-shirted bully boys in one of Trump’s audiences beating and ejecting a heckler reminded me creepily of an episode in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece Amarcord, in which the narrator’s father, a masonry foreman, is detained by the fascisti for “questioning” – with several bottles of castor oil.

It’s a story as old as human organization: When people are hurting and confused, they crave simple answers to their problems or, hearing none, seek  somebody else to blame. Demagogues help them to find that someone, tell them why he should be feared above all others, and then propose robust action – often homicidal and usually absurd –  to obviate the threat.

A favorite teacher long ago once told our class never to follow anyone who defines himself or his mission by what he’s against, but to consider instead the person who tells you what he’s for.

Photo by Willem lange