Demagogue has become a very popular word in recent weeks. Spend a few minutes with virtually any mainstream media outlet, and it seems Donald Trump has changed his last name to it, attached to qualifiers from Hitler and Mussolini, to George Wallace, Joe McCarthy, and even Charles Coughlin. Some even prefer the fictional Voldemort.
While the concept of demagogues goes back to ancient Greece and the rabble-rousers of Athens’ early democracy, it is a term modern times has used to tag politicians, or wannabe pols, seeking to rise in popularity by playing on fear, an uneducated public, and general prejudices.
In modern American politics, the practice has rarely been successful. Despite his stand in the schoolhouse door, Wallace did not turn back the great civil rights movement. Despite his 15 minutes of fame, McCarthy’s redbaiting was ultimately turned away. And Coughlin’s radio diatribes against FDR did not stop the New Deal or the many federal programs that pulled our nation out of the Great Depression.
If we trust history as a guide, the vitriol coming from Trump, another aspiring politician, will eventually fizzle out. Voters will seek to cast a ballot in favor of something, not against someone. We will look for a vision for the future, not a condemnation of the past. And we will seek a leader who understands the differences.
We should not be fearful of Trump and the hate that he spews. We shouldn’t be responding with personal attacks on his appearance, like the White House Press Secretary did earlier this month. And we certainly shouldn’t reply be displaying an ignorance for our system of elections under our representative democracy system, as NYC City Council President Melissa Mark-Viverito did when she stated Trump “has no business running for president, period.” We need to realize that the electoral system typically sorts itself out, and that the demagogues of our political past have typically fallen victim to the common sense of the American voter.
No, we should not respond to the ugliness and hatred spilled by Trump and others this election year with more vitriol. But we should be concerned, very concerned, that such rhetoric seems to be tapping into a very real fear shared by far too many Americans today.
Joe McCarthy’s war on supposed communists and his far less-known attacks on what is now the LGBT community came and went. The Senate ultimately censured McCarthy, and he died in office a relative disgrace. Wallace may have remained popular in his home state of Alabama, but during the height of his segregationist rhetoric and spewing of racial hatred, his own political party wouldn’t have him, and he sough the presidency under the American Independent Party. Both modern-day demagogues. Both seeking political power and fame. Both ultimately denied the top prize because of a rational citizenry and the electoral process.
But this year might be different. When McCarthy tried to double down on his Red Scare rhetoric, he lost standing with both his colleagues and the voters. When Trump raises the stakes and says something even more outlandish and out of synch with reality, though, he rises in the polls. In fact, it seems Trump gains strength as his rhetoric gets nastier, his world view gets narrower, and his tone get more vitriolic.
And that should be what we worry about. Whether Trump is a demagogue or not is beside the point. So is trying to determine whether he is more Mussolini or more Wallace. The point is the Trump phenomenon may very well be the canary in our political coal mine, and too few are paying attention what that bird is telling us.
Why, in a nation built largely by immigrants, do so many see now immigrants as the single-greatest threat to our economy?
Why, in a nation constructed on religious liberty, do so many now rejoice around the idea of banning a particular religion from our shores?
Why, in a nation where government was responsible for programs such as the New Deal and the Great Society, do we now see government as the enemy, unable to help improve the common good?
Why, in a nation when the next generation has always done better than the previous, do we now believe that will not be as well off as our parents?
Why, in a nation politically built on compromises and collaboration, do we now preach ultimatums and blind loyalty to “our way” only?
Why, in a nation responsible for policy achievements like the Marshall Plan, do we now seek a path of isolationism?
Why, in a nation that once believed in the American dream and the ability of any man or woman to work toward success, do we now focus on who is to blame for our personal failures?
These are not idle questions meant to titillate or draw a nod or a head shake. These are serious questions that, in part, define a major shift in American thinking. And they could become questions that reflect a major change in American behavior and action, both at the voting booth and in our daily lives.
Demagogues rise because they are able to tap into the fears and worries of the American citizenry. In the past, the existence of those demagogues has been our societal signal to check ourselves and better ensure that policy and politicians are meeting the needs of the voters.
This time around, though, we aren’t doing those checks. And that is our big mistake. When one ignores the canary, lives and communities are put at risk. Rather than attacking our 2016 canary’s feathers or questioning why he is flying so violently out of the mine, we need to take a long, hard look at what is causing his upward flight in the first place. Trump is our canary. Unchecked, though, he can become the harbinger of the America to be.