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A Demagogue Attacks American Governance



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This presidential election season has in no sense been a “normal” one. It is the first in U.S. history of which I am aware in which a major political party chose a demagogue as its standard bearer, an individual who has repeatedly demonstrated his unfitness for the office for which he was nominated. In itself, this turn represents deep cause for concern in democratic terms, but that nominee, Republican Donald Trump, in keeping with his seemingly boundless vanity and willingness to hate, has employed a campaign rhetoric and discourse that has celebrated nativism, racism, misogyny and more. Indeed, he has attacked a host of groups in society and labeled each of his opponents with playground tags that his supporters have taken up as a sort of accepted gospel according to their revered leader. And he has gone further still, seeming to call for the assassination of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and most recently, following revelations that he had boasted about episodes of sexual assaults against women, he has offered comments on Clinton’s anatomy by way of a sideways attempted retribution for his current difficulties. Ironically, all that remark did was call public attention once more to his often expressed sexism and misogyny. Meanwhile, a rising number of women continue to share publicly accusations that Trump had kissed or groped them against their will. Meanwhile, too, as his polls have tumbled in the wake of these ongoing revelations and some major GOP party figures have (at long last) distanced themselves from him, Trump has sought to retaliate against all of these by attacking his accusers and declaring all such accounts untrue and the product of “unattractive” (another indicator of his unapologetic misogyny, were one needed) liars “and a vast conspiracy against him by the news media and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” [1] And he has gone further, as the New York Times has reported:

Mr. Trump has spoken in ever more apocalyptic tones in recent days as his poll numbers have fallen: describing Mrs. Clinton as deserving incarceration; warning that the election will be rigged; and suggesting that international bankers are colluding to bring about his defeat.[2]

Indeed, he has indicated he would appoint a special prosecutor to ensure that Secretary Clinton “goes to jail” for infractions that he never articulates, except in the most general of terms. Likewise, Trump’s chilling allusion to an international financial cabal “rigging the election against him,” so eerily reminiscent of decades old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, is both preposterous and deeply sad. It is now clear that this man, who appears very likely to lose the coming national election, intends to do all he can to delegitimize the nation’s electoral process and American sovereignty in the eyes of his followers, even as he is electorally defeated. In the mind of this narcissist, it is simply impossible that a majority of Americans might not choose his racial and nativist rantings as a reasonable path for the country’s future. So it is that someone or something must be scapegoated for his personal and public failures and failings, and that now takes the guise of not only a vicious unfounded assault on Clinton, but also on United States governance as well.

And in a deeply discomfiting turn, the roughly 30 percent or so of the American electorate still standing with Trump support his completely baseless attacks on “the media” and “businesspeople” colluding with the Clinton campaign to “rig the election.” These voters have rationalized and explained away the real estate mogul’s apparent long-term willingness to engage in repeated assaults on women, his penchant for conspiracy and fear mongering and his policy ignorance, and accepted at face value his claims that he would win office, but for the machinations of a secret group of conspirators conniving to prevent him from doing so. And, still more troubling, many of Trump’s followers go further than these hallucinatory rationalizations, suggesting in profoundly disturbing rhetoric that they are more than prepared to delegitimize their nation and its birthright of freedom on his say so. As one Trump supporter told a Boston Globe reporter recently:

‘If she’s in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it,’ Dan Bowman, a 50-year-old contractor, said of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. ‘We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed. But that’s what it’s going to take. … I would do whatever I can for my country.’[3]

This is vile nonsense rooted in lies and fear in a democratic nation supposedly committed to the rule of law, and it is the product of the imagination not of this misguided citizen alone, but of its instigator, Trump, who appears bent on undermining the faith of his supporters in the country’s democratic institutions. One may ask why he would take this course and, more importantly, why any American would follow him down it, but as significant as these questions may be, they are no longer the issue, as many citizens are plainly doing so. The concern now is the long-term political damage this manifestly unqualified individual is doing and will do to the nation in the remaining days of this campaign, since so many individuals have made it clear that they will accept virtually anything he may do and remain his followers.

In light of this situation, it seems appropriate to offer three central points. First, as many have rightly argued in recent days, the Republican Party’s willingness to nominate and support formally (as it continues to do) a manifestly inexpert figure who has so viciously attacked decency and civil and human rights alike throughout his campaign, should be a cause for deep soul searching on the part of that institution’s leaders. That effort should not take the character, as it did in 2012, of “what can we do to attract more folks to our terrific message so we can win.” Instead, it should be a meaningful reflection on the ideology that has underpinned and driven that orientation, and how it has fed the current fear- and hate-driven social movement Trump now leads. In particular, as Trump daily attacks the legitimacy of American democracy, a stance which some GOP leaders are now appropriately decrying, the Republican Party should consider the relationship between its decades-long attacks on democratic governance in favor of markets and its followers’ willingness to esteem a demagogue. Likewise, the Party should reflect on its equally long-term embrace of race as a mobilizing tactic, its profoundly disingenuous current campaign to prevent certain individuals from voting and its decision to obstruct governance processes throughout the Obama presidency in the name of acquiring and maintaining power. Ironically, all of these GOP choices and more have fed the fear and anger of the Party’s core group now supporting a rampaging demagogue over whom the GOP has lost all purview.

Second, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress need to stop playing to the least common denominators in their districts, i.e., their gerrymandered partisan bases, in January 2017 if they wish to have any hope of addressing the Republic’s manifold challenges. This may be too much to ask in the face of recent history and the extremist beliefs of many of today’s congressional leaders, but it is one of the few reeds on which the regime may lean when so many of its sovereign are so willing to sully civil rights and risk freedom by embracing a charlatan.

Finally, lawmakers of all beliefs should unite, and soon, to make the case that freedom cannot survive without a realization among all citizens that all U.S residents are owed their civil and human rights, regardless of their race, creed, sexual orientation, gender, national origin or any other characteristic.  Our nation’s political leaders should also remind their constituents that all who enter our nation as its guests or would-be citizens should be accorded the same dignity and respect that they expect as Americans.

Failing progress on at least the issues outlined here, it is unclear how deep the impact of Trump’s demagoguery and his willing followers may ultimately be on America’s democratic experiment. But, if the consequences of Trump’s anti-democratic movement cannot be known with surety now, history nonetheless teaches that they are unlikely to be positive. Dan Bowman, the Trump supporter quoted above, provides ample evidence of that ominous fact.


[1] Burns, Alexander and Nick Corasanti, “Donald Trump Assails his Accusers as Liars, and Unattractive,” New York Times, October 14, 2016, Accessed October 15, 2016.

[2] Burns, Alexander and Nick Corasanti, “Donald Trump Assails his Accusers as Liars, and Unattractive,” New York Times, October 14, 2016, Accessed October 15, 2016.

[3] Viser, Matt and Tracy Jan, “Trump’s Supporters talk Rebellion, Assassination at his Rallies,” The Boston Globe, Accessed October 15, 2016.

Publication Date

October 23, 2016