People, aren’t we better than this? Have we really become the Republic of Fear?
Listening to Donald Trump, you’d certainly think so. His proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country was only the latest of an endless series of ugly and bigoted tirades meant to stoke fear and anger. Yet adoring thousands still flock to his rallies.
The New York Times, after analyzing every public Trump utterance for a week, noted several powerful patterns of speech common to demagogues of the past century. They include dramatizing present or future threats with blatantly false “statistics”; blaming America’s problems on a dangerous “them,” whether Mexicans, Syrians, or undefined enemies; and demonizing political opponents with language never before heard in modern campaigns. And, oh yes, encouraging his devotees to beat up critics in his audience.
Yet Trump’s poll numbers continue to rise. Have Americans become so terrified that they’d embrace a cynical manipulator masquerading as a strongman? I’d argue not – certainly not yet. But we could get there if commonsense Americans fail to recognize the dangers posed by this snake-oil salesman, and recognize them soon.
I say “commonsense” Americans because I’ve always believed in the ultimate levelheadedness of the majority in this country. All the more so after spending decades covering parts of the world where strongmen can whip up the passions of an ill-informed and undereducated public.
But these are not normal times in the U.S.A.
Never mind that the economic statistics are good, the deficit way down, the unemployment rate down to 5.5 percent. Never mind that the country has become virtually energy self-sufficient and prices at the pump are astonishingly low.
This run of economic good news hasn’t soothed Americans’ unease.
What Trump understands is that this nervousness goes far deeper than the terrorist murders in San Bernardino, Calif., or previous lone-wolf attacks. Despite the real threat that the Islamic State presents to the homeland, the United States is still protected by two oceans and friendly neighbors. There is good reason that relatively few Americans have tried to join the jihadi group.
Rather, American angst reflects the fact that we aren’t immune to the tsunami of global change that has undermined the middle class – and made it harder to attain a middle-class lifestyle. Jobs are insecure and unions fading. Economic inequality is staggering. Technology and outsourcing are eliminating ever new layers of well-paying jobs.
One of the most important studies of our times, published by two Princeton economists this year, reveals that white, middle-aged men and women in the United States were dying at a sharply increased rate from 1999 to 2013, especially those with only a high school education. This cohort has decreasing prospects for good jobs. Its alarming death rate was largely due to drug and alcohol problems and suicide.
Like these workers, too many Americans have lost the American Dream and need a scapegoat to blame. What fodder for Trump to appeal to with his tirades against immigrants.
Yes, we’ve been there before, with 1920s laws against immigrants, with Huey Long, George Wallace, and other demagogues. But what makes the Trump phenomenon so dangerous is that it is part of a global phenomenon. Populists such as Marine Le Pen, whose ultranationalist, anti-immigrant party just made a stunning show in French elections, are popping up all over Europe, some of them quasi-fascist. They are embraced (and sometimes financed) by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. He is promoting a model of authoritarianism that he hopes will undermine the European Union and the “decadent” West. Putin recognizes that a peaceful Europe whose nations live together in harmony dates only to the post-World War II era, encouraged by a benevolent America. He thinks it’s time for a change.
And here comes the Donald, sounding for all the world like a Le Pen or Putin wannabe. He has been condemned by European leaders for his xenophobia, undermining any pretense that he could be a global leader. How the Islamic State jihadis must be laughing into their laptops watching Trump besmirch America’s reputation for tolerance – and giving their global recruiters a boost.
Yet three things make me believe Trump will not triumph.
First, I still believe most Americans are smart enough to deduce that Trump the showman is unfit to be president.
Second, that wizard of poll numbers Nate Silver, who predicted early on that President Barack Obama would win in 2012, has laid out why the current Trump poll numbers reflect only about 6 to 8 percent of the overall electorate and give little clue to the ultimate vote.
And lastly, the GOP finally seems to be waking up to the fact that Trump is destroying the party’s reputation. Jeb Bush called him “unhinged,” Lindsey Graham called him “downright dangerous,” and even Dick Cheney said his ban on “a whole religion” goes against everything America stands for.
But candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are still wary of criticizing Trump, hoping to woo his base. Shame on them. And conservative talk shows still promote him.
It’s time for the Republican Party to forcefully disavow the Donald as a potential candidate. He has no program except demagogic self-promotion. He must be repudiated for the imposter that he is.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.