A few hours after Donald Trump won last week’s Nevada caucuses, I woke up in the middle of the night with a bad feeling that, as a country, we were now just a Super Tuesday landslide away from putting Trump on the path to the Republican presidential nomination and, potentially, turning over governance of our republic to a man who fits the textbook four-part definition of a demagogue.
Like others I’ve discussed in “Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies,” Trump’s rise has been one of sheer hubris, overblown promises and an almost effortless seduction that can sweep up even the toughest critics. Consider the normally hard-nosed Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who reported “my legs are shaking” after talking Trump with focus group participants last August.
Last month, Trump boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and still not lose votes. Saturday, Trump was apparently tricked into retweeting a Benito Mussolini quote from Twitter account “@ilduce2016”— set up, apparently, by the website Gawker — and brushed it off by saying of his demagogue forbear that “Mussolini was Mussolini” and that it was a “very good quote.”
Demagogues know they’re getting away with something so shameless that even they sometimes experience it in the third person: Think of Louisiana governor and U.S. senator Huey Long telling an interviewer: “There are all kinds of demagogues. … Some of them deceive the people in their own interests.” Or the ancient Athenian demagogue Cleon, who berated an audience for being “victims of your own pleasure in listening” before telling them, “I am trying to stop you behaving like this.”
Indeed. When it comes to Trump, my worry is too many voters won’t realize, until it’s too late to stop him, the four specific and very real dangers posed when someone like him comes to power.
First, a demagogue imperils his country in the international arena. During the Peloponnesian War, the brutal but charismatic Cleon proposed slaughtering all the male inhabitants of the rebellious island of Mytilene — and it was initially adopted. His plan was reversed at the last minute by a vote of the Athenian assembly, but its consideration meant the end of moderate politics in, and the ultimate decline of, Athens.
In the years after World War I, Mussolini translated his populist nationalism into the belligerent foreign policy of spazio vitale, which claimed that Italy had the right and duty to seize territory across the Mediterranean region and presaged Italy’s World War II invasions of France, Greece and Albania.
Compare that to Trump’s 2011 call for America to impose regime change in Libya, saying, “we should go in, we should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick.” He has assured us that “torture works.” He has promised to use targeted assassination against Islamic State fighters, saying, “you have to take out their families.” He advocated a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the United States for an unspecified period of time, doing his best to wipe out years of goodwill built with countries like Jordan and Egypt while painting a bigger terrorist bulls-eye on Americans’ backs.
He’s even bragged that he’d “get along very well with” Russian President Vladimir Putin, the autocrat who took Crimea by force and continues to prop up Syria’s despotic President Bashar al-Assad.
A President Trump seems likely to escalate tensions abroad and to create unnecessary and dangerous hostilities, while hollowing out our values so that we are no longer the beacon of the free world. Earlier this month he endorsed torture “much worse” than waterboarding, prompting former CIA director Michael Hayden last week to suggest that military and intelligence officers might “refuse to act” on Trump’s orders. A recipe for chaos.
The second danger is that the demagogue will surround himself with incompetent and dangerous advisers. Huey Long famously recruited political operative Gerald L.K. Smith to help run his populist “Share Our Wealth” campaign. After Long’s assassination, Smith became known as one of America’s most notorious anti-Semites.
President Richard Nixon, who tried his best to qualify as a demagogue with his Checkers speech and Southern strategy, was aided in his decision-making — en route to resigning in disgrace — with his reliance on incompetent and unscrupulous senior White House aides like H.R. Haldeman and Dwight Chapin, whose primary experience was in advertising rather than policy and government.
Trump has been the GOP frontrunner for months, yet he equivocates on questions about advisers he’d choose. Two weeks ago, on foreign policy, he promised, “I’m going to be announcing a team in about a week that is really a good team.” That’s a promise he’s made, and broken, going back to last fall.
Last year, Trump announced the hiring of Iowa activist Sam Clovis as a “senior policy adviser,” promising that he would “tap into [Clovis’s] expansive expertise in economics, national security and international relations.” And while Clovis was an Air Force colonel and is an economics professor, he’s light on proven policy expertise. In an October CNN interview, Clovis balked at questions about Trump’s assorted inconsistencies on policy. Meanwhile, Trump’s national spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, wore a bullet necklace during CNN appearance, suggesting provocation will be a staple of a Trump administration.
The third danger is that the demagogue, who ascends to power by manipulating the passions of his followers, will fall prey to passions of his own. Take former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a demagogue who built his television empire peddling sexist representations of women and brought those same values into his administration. He became notorious for his “bunga bunga” parties with teenage prostitutes and was convicted on corruption charges.
Trump’s Achilles heel is his narcissism. He bristles at any slight, no matter how small, and is determined to make anyone who threatens his self-regard pay. Just imagine how he’d behave with strong-willed congressional opponents who attack him publicly and challenge his administration’s policy agenda.
Fourth, demagogues like Trump threaten dissenters in an effort to silence them. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) used the subpoena powers of an obscure U.S. Senate subcommittee to terrorize Americans he deemed enemies of the state. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt described how, in both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, demagogue-led thug regimes tolerated only state-approved groupthink while suffocating individual voices and ideas.
Trump regularly encourages his six million-plus Twitter followers to harass his critics. And of a protester at one of his recent rallies, Trump said: “I’d like to punch him in the face.” He wants to “open up” libel law to make it easier to cow journalists unfriendly to his cause.
It all bodes ill for our representative democracy and deeply-rooted faith in constitutional principles. Alexander Hamilton warned us, in The Federalist No. 85, of his worry about the rise of a “military despotism of a victorious demagogue.”
And here we are.
Trump isn’t winning based on experience or ideology. Polls show that voters gravitate toward him because he’s convinced them he’s the candidate who “tells it like is,” when, in fact, he’s done just the opposite. On the most important questions about he’d govern, he’s managed to sidestep voters’ and journalists’ questions. He’s said little that suggests he’d hew to constitutional norms. And he’s conducted himself in a manner not befitting a leader of the free world. In a vacuum, we’re left to assume that he’d govern much like demagogues who’ve come before.