Whether by design or ignorance the print, television and online media insist on examining the candidacy of Donald Trump through the wrong lens. I have read and listened to countless pundits describe the style of his candidacy as “unprecedented” and even express admiration that he has appeared to secure the Republican nomination while defying conventional wisdom on how to run a campaign. It is time to start telling like it is and to stop treating Trump like an ordinary presidential candidate. Trying to understand Trump’s success in the context of conventional politics misapprehends what Trump is and what he is doing.
Trump is a demagogue, and he is employing the very old tricks of that trade, saying whatever is necessary to inflame the passions of the voters and turn them against his opponents and toward him. There is nothing unprecedented or admirable about demagoguery. An important tool of a demagogue is to invent scapegoats against whom he or she can generate anger and then offer simplistic solutions aimed at the objects of that anger. It is much easier to get voters worked up over the ideas of Mexican immigrants stealing American jobs and corporations sending jobs offshore than it is to get them worked up over up the complexities of global markets and the loss of manufacturing jobs to advancements in technology.
Trump’s recent comment denying the existence of a drought in California is a perfect example of his approach. Under the usual “rules” applicable to campaigns such a stupid comment would have sunk a candidate in that state. Trump knew what he said was untrue, but he also knew that blaming federal regulators for the shortage of water would do more good than harm to his candidacy. The message is remarkably simple, and has been remarkably successful: There is someone or some group to blame for every problem, and the solution is to have the biggest and meanest candidate bring that person or group to their knees. Get angry, and then get even. Even coarse insults and name-calling fit into the scheme: Who cares about bad manners and a foul mouth when it is Trump’s toughness that is needed?
The real question is why has such a sizable segment of the electorate become a fertile ground for demagoguery at this point in our history? It is clear that years of spewing vitriol at President Obama and other Democrats by the Republican Party and its conservative talk show allies have convinced many Republicans that the country is far worse off than it actually is, and that these are desperate times requiring desperate measures. Personal antipathy toward Clinton alone does not explain Trump’s success because there were plenty of responsible Republican candidates willing to run against her. The Republicans and conservative talk show hosts are reaping exactly what they sowed, with their angry diatribes against Democrats pushing Republican voters toward the candidate most willing to exploit that anger.
Everything that Trump says is calculated to help him win. He loses no opportunity to remind voters how angry they should be. Trump knows that anger tends to displace reason, and the longer that he can keep his audiences riled up the less time they have to reflect upon just what it is that Trump would do if he became President. Anger is not the only emotion tapped by Trump. His comments about women, Muslims, ethnic minorities and foreigners are intended to attract the vote of every bigot, misogynist, and xenophobe in the country. According to Trump only he can protect us from ISIS. Anger, fear and resentment are the currencies being used to close this deal, and if you don’t understand that you understand nothing about his campaign.
Do not expect Trump to switch gears during the general election campaign and focus on laying out his plans for achieving the outcomes he has promised. He knows that if forced to go into too much detail many of his bold pronouncements, such as promising to “totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network,” will be exposed for what they are, which is hollow rhetoric. He will spend as little time as possible trying to appeal to the intellect of the voters and as much time as possible appealing to their emotions. His attacks on Hillary Clinton, assuming she is nominated, will be unrelenting. The more time that she or her proxies have to spend defending her character and her record the better it will be for Trump.
Because of their lack of guiding values and principles demagogues tend to make terrible leaders. We need to start thinking about that before it is too late.