The Politics of Demagoguery
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Any discussion of politics during this time of a Donald Trump ascendancy has to touch on the subject of polarisation. It would be virtually impossible not to have become aware of the split in the political thinking of North Americans, with the liberal left on the one hand and the conservative right on the other. Certainly every individual will have considerable nuance attached to the broad left/right distinction but given the two party system of US politics, the dialectical division is the salient distinction nowadays. Nevertheless, virtually everyone identifies with one side or the other, and in the US, most people will define that distinction by whether they are registered as a Democrat or as a Republican.
On an individual level, there is a great deal of variation and even disparity among the positions held, the beliefs supported, and convictions adhered to by those who clearly fall on either side of the divide, and these are crucial distinctions even among those who share a place on the left/right chasm. It is the system of US primaries that airs out those differences and helps the parties’ candidates fine tune their platforms to the desires and inclinations of their voters. But during the Bush the Younger and Obama presidencies that left/right split evolved from a political philosophy shortcut that could from time to time be jumped over into an unbridgeable, yawning chasm. There was no more “crossing the floor” as those of us in parliamentary systems would say. And for that reason, the internecine bloodletting that is characteristic of a primary battle has become ruthless and vicious. In the days when an individual felt that it was okay to vote Democratic in one election cycle and Republican in another, the primary fights were never as venomous as they are now that the voters feel that they must vote for the party’s nominee.
However, the Trump phenomenon has thrown a joker into the pack. Looking at the Republican free-for-all that has resulted in the most despised man in America almost certainly becoming the GOP candidate for the presidency of the United States of America, one can see that a lot of the old rules can be thrown out. Amid all sorts of discussions regarding what to do about this upstart, there has been much ink pilled over whether Trump represents “authentic conservative values”, and whether a third party candidate might be introduced to return to those values.
The trouble is that Trump very much represents the core values of the old Republican guard; so much so that an unshakable base of his support would, just as Trump pointed out, not change their views if Trump were to shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue. But Trump’s deeply troubling and overt racism, xenophobia, misogyny, authoritarianism, and bigotry combined with his willful ignorance of the constitution, US history, foreign and domestic policy, geopolitics, or anything else that a POTUS might find necessary, have made the remaining thoughtful Republican politicians wonder just what to do.
The last eight years have caused Republican office-holders to abandon any pretense of putting the country ahead of their careers or their political dogma. They have pledged to undermine Obama at every opportunity regardless of any negative consequences; they have even tried to shut down the government in their efforts to show that government itself doesn’t work. Although they have failed in that endeavour, there are actually some Republicans who have a vestigial shred of self -respect and sufficient integrity to question whether they should support their party’s nominee or do the right thing. Their problem is that they see Trump as an outlier and as not being a “true Republican”. In Canada, we’d call that an argument over whether someone is sufficiently pur laine.
What even the best of the Republicans are missing is that Donald Trump is not an outlier or a maverick at all; he is the logical outgrowth of everything that party has come to represent. Every hateful and horrifying aspect of Donald Trump is perfectly in tune with the written and unwritten policy of the GOP in the years since the Tea Party movement came to Washington.
The right has become the Party of Trump because, given the direction the Republicans were heading made it inevitable. With Trump it is fair to say that the US right has embraced the beginnings of fascism. And that is exactly where the party was heading.
A simple way to test this thesis is to look at exactly what Trump has promised, what Trump’s followers cite as the reasons for their support, and how that differs from or resembles fascism. When you do that, the interesting thing is that you find that virtually everything that the current right supports is, by any reasonable measure, a bad thing; everything they rail against is a good thing. So let’s see, does Trump qualify as a fascist? Or is my calling him that nothing more than typical liberal hyperbole and hysteria?
Authoritarian rule? Check. Remember Trump telling his adulating audience not to worry, that if he ordered his military leaders to commit war crimes, they would fall into place?
Intolerance? Big check. A big beautiful wall? Ban anyone of a particular faith from entry to the country? The necessity of further research to determine if the KKK is racist?
Demagogue? Check and recheck. Have you listened to him?
And what about his promises?
Well, he has promised to build a wall along the Mexican border. His followers love this, of course, but it is a bad idea, obviously. Mexican migration is a net exodus at the moment, so the wall would be counterproductive as well as just being offensive, and, well, silly.
He’ll slap a 25% (or sometimes 40%) tariff on Chinese imports. His breathtaking ignorance of macro-economics and international trade law comes to the fore here. He seems not to be aware of the impossibility of that action within the law or of the fact that, if done, it would implode the US economy as well as starting a catastrophic trade war. Another bad.
He’ll negotiate to lower the US debt. Very very bad. The only negotiating tool he would have is a threat to default. That would cripple the US credit rating and cause an international monetary and financial crisis.
He’ll eliminate the gun free zones in schools and churches and other places of gathering. Bad? It doesn’t get much worse outside of Trump’s world.
The effect of Trumpism on our understanding of 21st Century North American politics is that it is easy to see who is on the left (if you’re an American, that’s Democrat) and who’s on the right (that would be Republican). Just judge a statement or promise heard from a candidate or supporter and determine whether it is morally and ethically right or wrong. If it’s neutral, it could come from either.
If the statement or promise is what basic morality suggests is a good thing – providing aid to our handicapped neighbours, providing medical care for everyone, ensuring that minorities have a fair chance at employment and housing etc., ensuring that working people have a fair wage, extending civil rights to all (including the LGBT community), writing legislation that protects our environment, ensuring that the mega-wealthy contribute appropriately to the country that allowed them to accumulate their vast wealth – you can be sure it’s coming from the Democratic side of the aisle.
But if it is clearly immoral – cutting benefits to the poor and hungry, re-introducing torture, dictating behaviour for religious reasons, discriminating against minorities, aiding the wealthiest while forcing the poorest to support them, damaging to the environment, promoting a particular religion, stacked against minorities – you know it’s coming from Republicans.
At this point in the political sphere, one votes not based on simple disagreement as to how to achieve mutually agreed upon aims as Americans once did. Now the methods take second place; the aims themselves are different. There was at one time a shared vision of America; a country of moral leadership, of compassion, of firm democratic principles. Now, the extreme right – the only right that’s still in play – has a whole new vision and new aims as evolved naturally since they were first introduced by the Tea Party faction. And as we look at the Republican Party’s nominee, we can consider those aims and be afraid. Trump’s rhetoric and proposed methods are clearly fascist; but his vision of America as a compliant nation following his lead in bigotry, intolerance, nationalism, and authoritarian rule is also pure fascism.