Donald Trump is our creepy new face of demagoguery

Roundup
tags: election 2016, Trump



Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are professors of history at Louisiana State University and coauthors of "Madison and Jefferson" (Random House). Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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. ...




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