Every so often, I try a thought experiment. “Can you imagine if…”
Sometimes, since I’m obsessed with tennis, my questions involve contemplating what might have happened if a particular player had hung around an additional five or six years on the pro tour. Sometimes, since I love music, I wonder what additional heights a composer like Mozart or Schubert, a performer like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin might have scaled had they lived another few decades.
Increasingly, these days, my questions involve trying to imagine other figures in American history saying, and getting away with saying, the sorts of things that POTUS 45 spouts on a regular basis.
As in, “Can you imagine Franklin Roosevelt telling the world that many Nazi protestors were ‘good people’?” As in, “Can you imagine Ronald Reagan crowing about his crowd size while touring a region utterly devastated by hurricane winds and rain?” As in, “Can you imagine John Kennedy publicly urging “the torture” on terrorism suspects and the roughing up by the police of criminal suspects?”
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When all politics is reduced to a sort of Reality TV show, the image becomes all important. The image of outrage. The image of a tough man cracking down, or of a weak woman screwing things up. It’s the sort of demagoguery that subsumes everything to a leader’s ego, that turns crowds into mobs and nuanced history into propaganda.
The answer, of course, to all of these questions is that such utterances are, quite simply, unimaginable. While there have, of course, been many demagogues in American history, from across the political spectrum – Senator Joe McCarthy, for example, Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, radio’s Father Coughlin – it’s hard to think of a president who comes close to Donald Trump in playing so fast and loose with words.
Responsible political leaders of large, powerful countries don’t behave in the way that Trump does, and they don’t reduce profoundly important political and diplomatic and moral questions to props in a popularity contest.
Part of Trump’s ability to dominate the media conversation is about the horror of what he says day in and day out. But a large part of it is also about the shock value of how he says it. Even when Trump’s talking about something relatively innocuous, he makes sure to say it in a way that will grab headlines and enter the slipstream of social media circulation.
It’s a sort of punk sensibility, a way of giving the middle finger to mores of civility, and, in so doing, giving a nod and a wink to an angry support base that has long felt disenfranchised, even unmanned, by the restraining, manicured mechanisms of the two-party political process.
Trump plays the 21st-century demagoguery game extraordinarily well. He knows both how to press buttons with his offensive language and how to maximize the attention he receives for so doing.
And he also knows that, in the era of Twitter and Facebook, where social value is derived from the accumulation of anonymous online “friends” and “followers,” pretty much no publicity is bad publicity; that no matter how much the opinionated classes bemoan his crassness, and express astonishment at his flirtation with violence, for a large part of his “audience” – and, as an entertainer first and a politician second, he views the public as nothing more significant than a TV studio’s crowd writ large, and the great political debates of the moment as nothing more than malleable television scripts – it is solely the spectacle that matters.
It’s like a permanent world wrestling match – loud, obnoxious, blood-and-bruises entertainment. It is the spoof rock band Spinal Tap’s volume knob that, entirely gratuitously, goes up to 11 on a scale of 1 to 10.
While Trump is the Twitter age’s first political superstar, the character traits that he demonstrates are quintessentially, and timelessly, demagogic. First amongst them is a willingness to say anything to curry the favor of his particular audience, no matter the long-term cultural or human damage that results.
How else to explain his impulsive embrace of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories in front of crowds hostile to vaccines? Or his declaration, to followers suspicious of American international involvement, that public health workers who went to countries with Ebola outbreaks should be banned from returning to the United States if they contracted the disease?
Or his announcing before a group of CIA employees that America ought to have forcibly seized Iraqi oil supplies? Or his repeatedly stating as true the myth that U.S. forces more than a century ago ended radical Islamic terrorism for a generation by executing suspects using bullets dipped in pigs’ blood.
The truth or falsehood of such statements is entirely beside the point. Trump uses such imagery not because he genuinely believes such actions are a vital part of public health or national security strategies but because he knows that, as his outrageous statements get amplified in the media and online, they play well with a large, and fired up, section of his political base.
Time and again, Trump takes stands on issues not on the basis of what he genuinely believes – in fact, if he has an ideological or even an emotional core, he has made it notoriously hard over the years to decipher – but on what he intuits will play well with the “audience.”
Does he actually believe climate change is a “hoax?” It doesn’t matter; in saying it is, he appeals to voters who drive large vehicles, run on abundant supplies of cheap gas and want to continue doing so without being made to feel guilty about their actions. Did he really believe for all those years that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya? Again, his core belief here is beside the point: He recognized there was political capital to be made in mining this racist notion, and so he mined it for all it was worth.
Did he really think Hillary Clinton ought to be locked up for her use of a private email server? Given his own attachment to an unsecure cell phone, it’s hard to accept that he was genuinely morally outraged by Clinton’s actions. Does he really believe that Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis are historical figures as worthy of building monuments to as were Washington and Jefferson? He might, or he might not. But, either way, he knows there are conservative, Southern votes to be had by jumping into the fray on this issue.
When all politics is reduced to a sort of reality TV show, to a space where one has to put air quotes around the word “reality,” the image becomes all important. The image of outrage. The image of a tough man cracking down, or of a weak woman screwing things up. The image of a no-nonsense fixer coming to the rescue of a broken polity.
This is demagoguery of the highest order. It’s the sort of demagoguery that subsumes everything to a leader’s ego, that turns crowds into mobs and nuanced history into jagged edged propaganda.
It’s the sort of demagoguery that, in times past, has led millions to swoon at a Great Leader’s words, and then led those millions to follow their Great Leaders down utterly destructive, morally calamitous paths. It’s the sort of demagoguery that can, over time, break a political system and lead to a succession of evermore-opportunistic strongmen leaders fighting over the spoils.
We are, on paper, still a pluralist, democratic political culture. The question is, do we have the wherewithal to sustain this culture through four years of Trump’s undiluted demagogic leadership?
Sasha Abramsky’s 2013 book,“The American Way of Poverty,’ was listed by The New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of the year. His new book,”Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream,” was released this week by Nation Books. He can be reached at email@example.com.