Donald Trump — love or loathe him — has demonstrated the ability to appeal to a reportedly discontented electorate.
He is most effective and popular among white Americans who harbor deep levels of economic and national-security-related anxiety. And as the violence repeatedly meted out by Trump supporters against protesters at his events has evolved into all-out attacks on his supporters by protesters, Trump has demonstrated once again exactly how he appeals to these voters and why his tactics work. Note the content of Trump's tweet below.
Many of the thugs that attacked the peaceful Trump supporters in San Jose were illegals. They burned the American flag and laughed at police
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2016
The people who engaged in violence weren't just Trump's political opponents or people angered to the point of violence about his policy ideas; they are "illegals," based on unclear evidence, according to Trump.
It's not a coincidence that Trump opted to make a connection between "illegals and violence" or other behavior which many Americans will consider deplorable, said Michael Signer, the part-time mayor of Charlottesville, Va., University of Virginia lecturer and the author of "Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracies From Their Worst Enemies." Trump has tapped into a long-standing political tradition — one not seen often in the United States but one that has certainly been effective when used by figures such as Mussolini and Hitler. And like them Trump is a demagogue, Signer said.
Signer's book features a helpful checklist for identifying a demagogue. A demagogue views himself or herself as a person of the masses and regularly attacks and criticizes "elites," has honed the ability to trigger strong waves of emotion and uses that emotion for political gain. Finally, a demagogue threatens to break established rules, long-held principles and systems of governance.
In practical terms in the United States, that's work that involves pitting some Americans against others, using stereotypes to respond to and provoke emotion in voters, and breaking established social, legal or political norms. It also can, and often does, involve working to replace reason with group suspicion, stereotypes and rage. For Trump, some or all of the above have been prominent parts of his campaign.
And while Signer initially did not regard Trump as a demagogue the likes of Sen. Huey Long, Sen. Joe McCarthy and Gov. George Wallace, he has changed his mind. Like those men, Signer believes Trump has demonstrated a willingness to use a system of democracy to gain power and then keep and expand it via tyrannical maneuvers. "That's the cycle of all demagogues, before an overthrow of some kind and the eventual restoration of democracy," Signer said. And Signer is not trying to be dramatic.
So Trump didn't invent or even import this type of campaigning. In truth, demagogues were such a concern to the Founding Fathers that they were discussed several times at the Constitutional Convention and at the beginning and end of the Federalist Papers, Signer said.
More recently, The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Yorker, Time, the Atlantic, CNN, Politico and many others have either asked whether Trump is a demagogue or editorialized saying he is. People with minds as expansive and disparate as Mario Vargas Llosa and Stephen Hawking have also agreed: Trump is a demagogue.
What follows is a partial list of a few key Trump examples of group suspicion — and what some have described as demagoguery. Take a look for yourself with Signer's checklist in mind.
During the speech in which Trump announced his plan to seek the White House, Trump said: "When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people."
At a rally in New Hampshire, Trump took a question/comment from the audience. This is the exchange that followed: "We have a problem in this country: It's called Muslims," the rally attendee began, going on to describe President Obama as a Muslim. (This is false, of course). "We have training camps, growing, where they want to kill us. That's my question: When can we get rid of them?" Trump told the man if elected his administration would "look at that."
Trump called for a database to monitor and track Muslims in the United States: "We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” he said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago."
Trump also repeatedly insisted — despite ample evidence to the contrary — that he saw Muslims celebrating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New Jersey. (This is also false.) Here's what he said anyway: “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” he told a crowd in Birmingham, Ala. “And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. ... I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down — as those buildings came down. And that tells you something.”
Trump ridiculed people who did not contact law enforcement about the couple involved in the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting — an act of terrorism — because of fears that their reports would contribute to or be understood as racial profiling. “Can anybody be that dumb?” Mr. Trump said. “We have become so politically correct that we don’t know what the hell we’re doing. We don’t know what we’re doing.”
He also said in a statement posted on his own website: “Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life."
As the Syrian refugee crisis escalated and images of a child who drowned during his family's attempt to reach Europe continued to circulate around the world, Trump described the situation in distinctly different terms: “Look at what’s happening all over Europe. It’s a mess, and we don’t need it. … When you look at that migration, you see so many young, strong men. Does anyone notice that? Am I the only one? Young, strong men. And you’re almost like, ‘Why aren’t they fighting?’ You don’t see that many women and children.”
When asked about the use of torture and the idea of punishing the families of terrorists for their family member's criminal actions (a violation of the Geneva Conventions, the well-established and long-standing international practices and rules to which the United States has agreed), Trump said both would be advisable because of the behavior of those the government believes pose a security risk and because of beheadings carried out by terrorists. "Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works,” Trump said during a campaign event at a retirement community. “Half these guys [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works.”
"They’re chopping off our heads in the Middle East,” Trump said. “They want to kill us, they want to kill us. They want to kill our country. They want to knock out our cities."
Trump told the Wall Street Journal that U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel had “an absolute conflict” or inability to fairly do his job in ruling on whether to make public documents detailing Trump University's practices. Curiel, Trump said repeatedly over a period of days this month, is a man “of Mexican heritage” and a member of a Latino lawyers’ association. Mr. Trump said the background of the judge, who was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrant parents, is a problem because Trump's campaign has included repeat pledges to seal and wall off the U.S.-Mexico border and deport about 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom hail from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
On Sunday, Trump added to his list of judges unqualified or unable to fairly hear cases in which he is involved. When asked if he thought that a Muslim judge might bring personal bias to cases in which he is involved, Trump told CBS News: "It's possible, yes. Yeah. That would be possible, absolutely."