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Fear and Bigotry: Democracy’s Achilles Heel?



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Many analysts have sought to determine which groups of voters have supported Donald Trump thus far in this campaign season. The consensus seems to be that the developer has drawn his core support from white working class (non-college-educated) middle-aged males who believe they have been adversely affected by globalization and that government has not done enough to assist them in their plight. Many in this group are convinced that public officials have exacerbated their personal difficulties by proving too willing to countenance what they view as unfair trade deals and undue immigration, among other concerns. In addition, many of these citizens believe their relative social status has declined, even as income inequality has risen markedly. Indeed, analysts of all stripes agree that this population is collectively angry about its economic and social standing. But there is far less agreement among commentators concerning who bears responsibility for this group’s situation. Some argue these people are “failures” because they did not individually respond to economic and social change effectively (this was a primary theme of the 2012 Republican National Convention), while others have observed that these voters’ individual and collective anger is understandable, if inappropriately targeted. Likewise, some analysts have suggested that because there are grounds for at least a share of these voters’ ire, and because they have voted for a demagogue and the U.S. is a democratic society, their choice is, per se, a legitimate one. Other political commentators and scholars, however, have argued that supporting a manifestly unqualified “semi-fascist”[1] who has repeatedly demonstrated his unfitness for the Presidency by his obvious ignorance and his appeals to bigotry is an abdication of democratic responsibility. Analysts and partisans surely disagree concerning who should be held accountable for the circumstances confronting this voting bloc. As noted, they also differ in their assessment of whether these individuals’ choice of candidate is a legitimate one, especially since many of these citizens, when asked, claim to realize that Trump lacks the knowledge necessary to be President. Some voters and commentators have suggested that the GOP nominee’s nearly complete dearth of substantive policy understanding and his racist and nativist campaign appeals need not be concerning because he can (and could) rely on advisors to provide leavening and expertise. Others, however, aware of Trump’s continuing hate-oriented vitriol and apparent interest in creating enmity and conflicts for their own sake (concerning race, religion, military service, imagined personal insults¾ the list is long), even in the face of contrary counsel, have suggested that the nominee cannot be substantively “advised,” as he believes that his view is always superior to that of others. Finally, some have argued that Trump, with his hate and fear mongering, is simply signaling that new policies are necessary, although this argument is easy to dismiss, as demagoguery is hardly a responsible or democratically effective way to press for political or social change.

Indeed, this issue has emerged as central for me as this campaign has progressed.  Put simply, one can well understand the unease and frustration of Trump’s primary supporters, but nevertheless ask why this voting bloc has responded to autocratic, xenophobic and racist appeals and not demanded policy and ideological changes from their party and political leaders in a more responsible and democratic way. On this question, commentators differ, too. Some, especially local media outlets, have continued to suggest that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are equals as candidates, and these analysts treat the campaign as a horse race, concentrating on the drama of the Republican nominee’s tweets and Clinton’s latest polls and speeches. This stance, it seems to me, is both morally and democratically irresponsible, as it tolerates an authoritarian turn, deliberate race baiting and ugly bigotry on Trump’s part by giving him a megaphone to press his assertions while appearing to equate his rhetoric and behavior with that of his rival. This is nonsense and a recipe for tyranny. The critical challenge of democracy is now, and ever has been, that it demands prudence and veneration of equality of its citizens, and those embracing and/or peddling autocracy and hate against immigrants and on the basis of religious faith or any other characteristic are patently undermining these fundamental requirements of self-governance. Put more directly, those embracing Trump’s messianic claims and screaming epithets against Muslims or Jews, or maligning the disabled and others at the candidate’s rallies, as seen in a video released by The New York Times of footage taken at the GOP nominee’s campaign events in recent months, daily undermine not only the nation’s founding values, but also its capacity for democratic self-governance as they do so.[2]

Some other Republican political leaders meanwhile, continue to countenance Trump’s vacuousness and demagoguery on the view that should he win, their favored party will likely also retain its hold on Congress, or if he loses in a close election, they will nonetheless likely maintain power in the nation’s legislature. In my view, however, justifying a demagogue on such purely personal and partisan grounds is morally bankrupt and a complete repudiation of these political leaders’ pledge to uphold the Constitution. In short, it is not reasonable to embrace the authoritarianism, bigotry and nativism that Trump has unleashed on the basis of an argument that it is “okay because it may ensure continued power for me and for my party.” In fact, such a choice entails the usurpation of democratic governance for the nation and that should not, and cannot be sacrificed for partisan concerns.

All of this said, one is left pondering why a portion of the electorate, so self-professedly angry at elites, has nevertheless elected to support an individual who is neither “one of them” in any sense, nor knowledgeable nor temperamentally suited to assume the Presidency. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has offered the most persuasive analysis of this concern I have encountered to date, but his answer is still inadequate in my view. It is also profoundly discomfiting:

Tolstoy wrote of ‘epidemic suggestion’ to describe those moments when humanity seems to be gripped by a kind of mass hypnosis that no force can counter. The resulting movements, like the Crusades or the 17th-century Dutch tulip craze, cannot be controlled. We find ourselves in such a moment.
To imagine that the words I write, or those of countless others lamenting the world’s lurch toward the politics of violence, may stem this ‘epidemic suggestion’ is to indulge in fantasy. It is part of the infernal nature of such eruptions that everything feeds them, including outrage. The slouching beast is insatiable.
Warnings of danger are just the self-important whining of those in whose favor the decadent, soon-to-be-destroyed system has been rigged. The movement is the answer. Mendacity is the new truth. Choreography is stronger than content. The world is upside-down.
Writing into such an environment is like directing a canoe into a gale.[3]

I share Cohen’s view about writing in the current political scenario. What is more, I can think of no compelling substantive reason (I do not count their fear and loathing as such concerns) why those now supporting Trump have chosen to do so, given the dangers he poses to self-governance. Moreover, I can think of many demands Trump’s followers might have made and courses they might have adopted that did not call popular self-rule and the country’s future as a nation into question, as supporting Trump has done. Yet, I remain unwilling to follow Cohen in believing that the American people writ large are incapable of resisting the GOP nominee’s embrace of blind and ignorant hatred and authoritarianism, or of crafting reasoned strategies by which to address the genuine needs and concerns of his core constituency.

In fact, pollsters have found that there are indeed anti-Semites, white nationalists and racists among Trump’s followers, but I do not believe that is true of all of those presently supporting the GOP nominee. I remain hopeful that the more outrageous he becomes—and he daily has shown himself to be incapable of self-control and responsible behavior—the more those who support him reflexively on grounds of fear, power, party or ideology, or without thinking too deeply about the implications of what he represents for the nation, will begin to see him for what he is and ensure he is not elected. As I have argued often in this space, those who contend that continued assaults on self-governance are merely partisan posturing that can be dismissed need only look at the latest polls concerning the massive decline in Americans’ collective belief in their nation’s institutions (of all sorts) for strong evidence to the contrary. Oddly, those surveys suggest that many of our nation’s political elites have convinced millions of Americans in the last 40 years that self-governance is a problem rather than freedom’s accompanying responsibility, a heavy burden that those who have so proselytized must bear.

Nonetheless, I continue to hope that the nation’s citizens will prevent Trump’s attempt to usurp their birthright by recalling they collectively represent the bulwark of democracy. Only their prudent action can preserve self-governance and freedom in the face of a would-be authoritarian demagogue.


[1] Peter Steinfels, “The Semi-Fascist Candidate,” Commonweal, 143 (11), May 15, 2016, 10-12.

[2] Erica Berenstein, Nick Corasanti and Ashley Parker, “Unfiltered Voices from Donald Trump’s Crowds” The New York Times, August 4, 2016, Accessed August 4, 2016.

[3] Roger Cohen, “Trump and the End of Truth,” The New York Times, July 25, 2016, Accessed August 4, 2016.

Publication Date

August 14, 2016