Disciples of Distrust

tags: election 2016, Trump

Garry Wills is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern. 
He is the author, most recently, of "The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis."

As a candidate for president, Donald Trump is so odd and unplaceable that people have cast about to find some past exemplars of his behavior. They have tried out various demagogues for a template—Father Charles Coughlin, for instance, or Joseph McCarthy, or George Wallace. Some have even rolled out the big guns, comparing him to Hitler or Mussolini, but let’s not get silly. Trump has not killed millions of people. He has not even begun on his first thousand.

Even comparing him to American demagogues is unfair—unfair to the past demagogues. They had specific bees in their bonnets, which attracted other nuttinesses, but which remained their craziness of choice. The bees in Coughlin’s bonnet were Jews, McCarthy’s bees were “Comsymps,” and Wallace’s were blacks trying to vote or go to school. Trump, by contrast with these specialists, has a capacious bonnet, which admits any irritant he happens to see passing by. His fixations are shallower than those of his putative forebears, but they cover acres and acres.

Some think there must be some personal charisma in the demagogues being considered. But they are, each in his own repellant way, quite different. Coughlin was a priest tending a shrine to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux who found that he had a syrupy radio voice. McCarthy was a ferret who fancied himself the Grand Inquisitor from the Dostoevsky novel he was not literate enough to read. Wallace was a strutting little fellow dwarfed by the doorway he stood in to keep blacks out. Trump looks like an overripe former matinee idol, a male Norma Desmond insisting that he is still wonderful (make Hollywood great again). These are not people of great charm.

Some suspect that the demagogues must have twisted or damaged psyches; but probing such muddied puddles does not get us far. Leaders are made by followers. The real question should be: what did the followers want that they could supply? Demagogues can touch exposed nerves, but some perceived crisis has to expose the nerves in the first place. Each of these men (only men) rode a turgid wave of turmoil caused by some menacing development. The Depression was the crisis Coughlin claimed to meet, by blaming it on the Jews. The cold war created the Commie scare that gave McCarthy his hunting license. The civil rights movement made Wallace a grubby improbable knight of the Old South. What is the crisis that created that parasite on the Republican Party called Trump?

What do his followers want to be saved from, even by a not-very-palatable savior? Two crises have, with some justification, been listed. First there is the shock some whites feel at having a black man in the Oval Office treated as superior to them. A second crisis is the growing income inequality, letting whatever money is still being made float inevitably up to those who are already rich. These anxieties do, undoubtedly, gnaw at Trump’s followers. But I think a deeper crisis underlies them both, not shouldering them aside but pitching in to make them both more pervasive and more intense. ...

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