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About the Author
Alan Wolfe is professor emeritus of political science at Boston College as well as a contributing editor to the Wilson Quarterly. He is the author of One Nation, After All: What Middle-Class Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, the Right, the Left, and Each Other, a 1999 New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
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Had Donald J. Trump, a man with obvious authoritarian proclivities, achieved the presidency through authoritarian means, we would have had to acknowledge a serious flaw in our electoral system. But he achieved it through democratic means, which suggests that there is a serious flaw within us.
When any future ranking of America's worst presidents is published, Donald Trump's name will appear there. The only open question is whether he will top the list, given that James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson are already on it. Listing every boast Trump made, every lie he told, every slander he directed at his opposition, every humiliating remark he made or action he took against women, every fact of history of which he was unaware, every foreign leader he demeaned, every racist he defended, and every paranoid conspiracy theory he endorsed might well produce a book in itself. Instead let me proceed on the assumption that the mere mention of his name conjures up for most of my readers sufficiently horrific associations that the burning question immediately becomes not how he got himself elected, but why, of all the potential leaders available to them, Americans chose this particular one as their president.
Pundits explain Trump's victory away by pointing to the money provided by his wealthy backers, the allegedly poor campaign run by his opponent, the help he received knowingly or unknowingly from Russia, the false equivalency relied upon by the media, the unprecedented intervention of the FBI, even the misuse of social media. If only matters were so simple. The unhappy fact is that Trump was elected, and elected fairly, by the American people. He entered a crowded field for the Republican nomination and defeated all his many rivals, quite decisively, and without any election rigging. In a society that relies, rightly or wrongly, on the Electoral College to decide the winner, he won the necessary electoral votes as well, and by a substantial margin. Trump is right to linger on the success of his 2016 campaign. It may not have been possible to predict all the trouble in which Trump found himself after his election, but a great deal was already known about his shady business dealings, his refusal to release his tax returns, his overt bigotry, his bragging about his sexual conquests, his ignorance of the wider world, and his personal cruelty to anyone who stood in his way. He won because at least some found him attractive anyway.
Perhaps Americans, realizing that they made a serious mistake in 2016, will come to regret their decision. Perhaps Trump will serve only one term, or even, depending upon the results of the investigations surrounding him, less. The hard core of his base may at some point tire of him. Or he may tire of them. But the fact of his victory is what counts. It cannot be taken away or excused away. It is a brutal reality, the single most important political event in the United States since JFK's victory in 1960, if not FDR's election to a first term in 1932. There is no way to pretend it did not happen, and no way, at least no easy way, to overcome the damage it has already done to the reputation of our country. If Trump's accession to the presidency does not cause intense introspection, nothing can. It is, furthermore, not an explanation of one rogue election we need. It is a discussion of what kind of nation we have become.
* * *
All too often, at crucial points in their history, Americans find themselves responding to demagogues: Henry Ford, Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin, Theodore Bilbo, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, Spiro Agnew, Patrick Buchanan, Sarah Palin, Roy Moore, and now the president himself are all examples. A demagogue is a politician who appeals to people's unreflective emotions and relies on a simplistic worldview to win and hold office by any means necessary. Not all of our politicians are demagogues: Barack Obama, whatever else one thinks of him, with his heightened sense of irony and innate political centrism, was the very opposite of a demagogue (except to critics on the right such as Charles Krauthammer). Hillary Clinton was too predictable to be a demagogue, and Mike Pence, despite extremely right-wing views, is too lacking in charisma to be one. Whether we have elected too many for our good is for each person to decide; in my opinion, we risk danger to ourselves and to our institutions every time we choose one. The 2016 election was not unprecedented: it was the culmination of a series of elections that have deviated from meaningful conceptions of the democratic ideal, except that this one resulted in the choice of a president the likes of which we will likely never see again in American public life. All demagogues resemble each other, but the one chosen as president in 2016 still found a way to be sui generis.
What makes Donald Trump unique, even among all other demagogues in our history, or so I will argue in the book that follows, is that he has revealed for all to see why demagogues happen: the demagogic style flourishes as a substitute for mature leadership. Demagoguery is a near-perfect expression of what I am calling the politics of petulance. Like a snake-oil salesman, the demagogue discovers the susceptibility of the people to nostrums of relief designed to distract them from the real causes of their worries. In the demagogue's world, emotions take precedence over facts, remedies are hastily assembled, policies are promoted irrespective of their consequences, enemies are identified, scores are settled, crimes become common, distractions are offered, and when none of these remedies seem to work, as they invariably do not, the leader and the people, joined together in mutual frustration, lash out like six-year-olds at a world beyond their ability to comprehend. Most demagogues never reach the pinnacle of power; their strength and appeal lie in being an outlet for protest. Now, by contrast, we have a demagogue holding the most powerful position in the country and maybe even the world. Is it any wonder that no one seems to know exactly what he, or we, will do?
Fortunately for us, demagoguery is a well-studied subject. Because we have had demagogues before in our history, we also have a body of literature seeking to understand them. Joe McCarthy, the Communist-hunting senator from Wisconsin, followed so quickly after his demise by the radical right that nominated Barry Goldwater as the Republican candidate for president in 1964, provided the most sustained attempt we have to understand the "moments of madness" that from time to time overtake our politics. The thinkers who provided us with insights into the meaning and significance of the McCarthy years were trained in different disciplines: literary criticism, history, the social sciences, and theology. They were nonetheless united by their insistence that a well-functioning political system requires an ability to say no to unfiltered desires in the name of some future goal. That is exactly what the Joe McCarthy and the Goldwater right were missing. Their impulsivity, their search for scapegoats, their simplicity, and above all else their irremediable petulance — all revealed an approach to politics lacking in personal and political growth.
We are living now with so much wrong in our politics because we failed to heed the warnings of those who tried to make sense of the last time the United States became obsessed with demons that did not exist and turned to a charlatan to make them go away. One can only hope that it is not too late to learn what to do when demagoguery threatens.
* * *
The words demagoguery and democracy both originated in ancient Greece, and the questions I am asking about their relationship are among the oldest in political theory. In book 5 of his Politics, Aristotle wrote that "in democracies changes are chiefly due to the wanton license of demagogues. This takes two forms. Sometimes they attack the rich individually, by bringing false accusations, and thus force them to combine (for a common danger unites even the bitterest enemies); sometimes they attack them as a class, by egging on the people against them." This was a lesson fully absorbed by the American founders, most of whom knew the writings of the Greeks and Romans intimately. How, you might wonder, would Publius, the name used to characterize the three authors of the brilliant Federalist Papers, bring the wisdom of all eighty-five chapters to an end? Alexander Hamilton, who is much admired on Broadway these days, wrote that last chapter, and in its very last paragraph, he cited philosopher David Hume before adding this: "These judicious reflections contain a lesson of moderation to all the sincere lovers of the Union, and ought to put them upon their guard against hazarding anarchy, civil war, a perpetual alienation of the states from each other, and perhaps the military despotism of a victorious demagogue, in the pursuit of what they are not likely to obtain, but from time and experience." Contributing his thoughts a few decades later, Alexis de Tocqueville did not write extensively about demagogues, using the term only twice in Democracy in America. But he did worry a great deal about despots: "Despotism, then, which is at all times dangerous, is more particularly to be feared in democratic ages." At times, Tocqueville believed, the passion for equality in America could turn into a raging fury, and at those times, a restraining force would become necessary. Despotism is dangerous because American democracy, without an aristocracy such as there was in France, lacks any such restraints.
Although worries about demagogues are centuries old, an admission of their existence can be taken as too severe a criticism of the society that produces them. That may be why, in the years after the end of World War II, with the Great Depression finally over and some kind of peace seemingly in hand, the country experienced what the sociologist C. Wright Mills called the "new American celebration." To the extent that demagogues were discussed during these relatively placid years, they were treated as outside the pale: lonely, even if rather colorful, figures lacking a national following, whose influence was therefore containable. The single best treatment of the demagogic style back then was Robert Penn Warren's novel All the King's Men, based on the figure of Huey Long, published in 1946 and transformed into a masterful film three years later; the figure of Willy Stark realistically conveys both the dreams he held out to his followers as well as the nightmares that followed from his corruption and short-sightedness.
Warren wrote fiction; in matters of fact, it was widely believed in the early postwar years that we were too good a society to nurture too many bad characters. Demagogues were seen as products of unusual periods such as the Great Depression, which did indeed produce, in addition to Huey Long and Fr. Coughlin, the anti-Semite Gerald L. K. Smith, the agrarian radical William Lemke, Francis Everett Townsend and his plan for pensions for all older Americans, as well as the delightfully named California version of the same thing called "the ham and eggs movement." All of these demagogues, save Huey Long, who had been assassinated, created the Union Party — let's call it "Demagogues United" — and nominated Lemke as their candidate for president in 1936. The party's overwhelming defeat suggested that perhaps demagoguery itself was finally finished. Given sufficient calm abroad and at home, which optimists felt would follow in the postwar period, we might never have to face demagogues again.
This optimism suffused not just popular culture but the writing of history. The future Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin wrote in The Genius of American Politics that Americans were pragmatists who instinctively feel uncomfortable with implacable pronouncements, dogmatic declarations, and dug-in sectarianism. Unlike European countries, this one never served as a home to serious political philosophers, he argued, mostly because it did not need them: the American way of life gave people all they needed to address their problems at home and abroad. From such a perspective, the Civil War was not a clash between two different moral conceptions of the good life, one slave and one free, but an argument over points of constitutional interpretation. Politics and religion, furthermore, were not at war with each other, because both sought "a kind of lowest common denominator." No demagogues appear in Boorstin's book. Though the lectures on which it was based were given while Senator Joseph McCarthy was running amok, Boorstin never paused to reflect on the anti-Communist crusade and what it might mean. "Genius," in my view, was as poorly chosen a term as one could find to characterize American politics in the 1950s. So lacking in any kind of critical analysis was Boorstin's book that he was quickly labeled a follower of "consensus history," and the term rightly stuck: there are no hints of Madisonian or Hamiltonian pessimism, any dash of Lincoln's tragic realism, or any mention of the South's thirst for vengeance in this fairy-tale treatment of American political history. In his view, as in many others, demagoguery just couldn't happen here.
Yet Joe McCarthy offered living proof of our lack of political genius. As demagogues go, the senator from Wisconsin had quite a remarkable run. He had had no experience in political life before his first (successful) run for the Senate in 1946. Once elected, as his biographer David M. Oshinsky wrote, "every time he took to the floor to speak, trouble seemed to follow. Harried colleagues accused him of lying, manipulating figures, playing fast and loose with the Senate's most cherished traditions." He was a notorious liar willing to say anything that he thought would advance his cause. His language "was shrill and exaggerated. ... Words like 'fantastic,' 'unheard of,' 'sensational,' 'unbelievable,' and 'incredible' jumped from the pages." He saw conspiracies everywhere. Very few liked him; many more feared him. Although his staff prepared his speeches, he inevitably departed from the text to settle scores and launch accusations. He hated the press, which usually returned the favor, although he did show a genius for manipulating it. For all his success, politics was not really his bailiwick: "Reckless, uncompromising, bored with detail," as Oshinsky puts it, "he was ill-suited for law-making." If all this sounds familiar, perhaps that is because the demagogue, like the harlequin in a commedia dell'arte performance, is now a stock character in the larger comedy called contemporary American politics.
The McCarthy period and the radical right posed a fundamental challenge to those whose business it was to understand America. Scholars like Boorstin chose one path. Richard Hofstadter, although wrongly identified as a consensus historian, chose a radically different one: he searched for an explanation of the historical roots of the frenzy that characterized American politics during the 1950s and 1960s. Hofstadter, who sat in the very center of the group that sought to treat postwar American politics out of a fear of irresponsible demagoguery, remains essential reading to us today, as Boorstin does not, because he made a serious attempt to return to the questions asked by Aristotle, America's founders, and Tocqueville about the relationship between democracy and demagoguery. If there is any key to understanding just how Donald Trump became our president, it can be found among the ideas of Hofstadter and his friends, colleagues, and contemporaries.
* * *
For Hofstadter and others, the Great Depression, World War II, totalitarianism, the Moscow purge trials, the Stalinist Gulag, and the Holocaust, however dreadful for the people who experienced them, were high times for political theory. Cruelty, racism, violence, authority, power, retribution, nationalism, mass society, propaganda, terror, imperialism, human nature, and international justice — these are only some of the subjects to which thoughtful scholars and intellectuals turned in the years after World War II. The writers who emerged to reflect on these matters had unusual depth and wisdom. They were the first generation of intellectuals, at any time in the history of the world, to ponder the problem of statehood in the wake of the atomic bomb. The war these men and women fought was a cold one, in which victory would be determined by ideas, and they were convinced, rightly as it happened, that their side had the better ones. These individuals were, I believe, the wisest group of political thinkers to appear in this country since the intellectuals who created it and wrote its founding documents.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Politics of Petulance"
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Mature Liberalism
Chapter 2: Democracy’s Demagogue
Chapter 3: The Return of Mass Society
Chapter 4: From Conspiracy to Irony
Chapter 5: Tragedy, Comedy, and American Democracy
Chapter 6: Immature Democracy
Chapter 7: Some Lessons for the Future