America’s Battles with Demagogues
“With his victories yesterday, I believe it is now time for Republicans to accept and respect the will of the voters and coalesce behind Donald Trump.”
– Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott.
Two years into his first term and with the rosy bloom of the New Deal’s earliest days fading, Franklin Roosevelt faced attacks from the left and the right. Unemployment was still off the charts. Farmers continued to struggle. The elderly demanded economic security. Populists insisted on more from the president, including specifically more punitive action against Wall Street and the wealthy, while west coast longshoremen, motivated in part by radical leftists, closed down ports prompting an often-vicious police and military response.
Roosevelt: Battling his own demagogues
A Louisiana showman named Huey Long was making noises about a direct challenge to Roosevelt – from the left. The great journalistic observer A.J. Leibling described Long as “a chubby man, he had ginger hair and tight skin that was the color of a sunburn coming on. It was an uneasy combination, like an orange tie on a pink shirt.”
Long’s other uneasy combination was a gift for moving audiences and devising clever and simple rhetoric, the kind of entertaining, divisive talk that attracts those looking for simple answers that are wrong. Reporters loved him even while acknowledging his excesses.
Father Charles Coughlin at the height of his powers
A Michigan Catholic priest’s rich Irish brogue mesmerized his millions of radio listeners every week with tales of how the economy and American society must be reformed in the interest of “social justice.” Father Charles Coughlin wanted to make America Great Again and eventually turned on Roosevelt and began calling the president’s program “the Jew Deal.”
A well-intentioned if misguided physician in California hatched a crackpot old age pension plan – The Townsend Plan – that virtually overnight attracted the support of millions of desperate elderly Americans. There was no Social Security, most states had no welfare programs, and the daily life for many, many Americans was beyond bleak. Dr. Francis Townsend’s pension plan was simple, understandable, economically crazy and had it been implemented might well have bankrupt the country. It was also widely popular. It took guts to oppose it and not many did, at least directly.
FDR Had It Easy…
For his part Roosevelt lamented that his presidency had been reduced to “fighting Communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism, Townsendism…to save the capitalist system” from “crackpot ideas.”
Huey Long. The media loved him
In retrospect the great 32nd president had it easy. Within a few months of Roosevelt’s comment about what he was fighting against, Long was dead at the hand of an assassin and Coughlin was brought down by his own outrageous language, with his own bishop eventually ordering him off the radio. Townsend, always in over his head, continued to try and rally his followers, but FDR’s own Social Security program, approved by Congress in 1935, took any remaining breeze from his sails.
Through the looking glass of our time its tempting to view the 1930’s – the Great Depression, vast economic dislocation, the rise of totalitarian movements in Europe and elsewhere – as a fading anomaly, a one-off set of circumstances that America survived.
Yet, waking from yet another post-primary hangover to realize once again that a qualification deficient, serially lying, race baiting demagogue has taken another long step toward the nomination of a major political party and might – just might – con his way into the White House should remind us that our democracy is a fragile thing. We are only one chubby, ginger-haired, short-fingered vulgarian away from a much different and much more dangerous country. We have been there before and escaped the trap. Will we be so lucky again?
George Wallace on the campaign trail in 1968 — Image by Bettmann/CORBIS
Pundits struggle to find parallels to what confronts America. Is Donald Trump a latter day Barry Goldwater, a right wing, anti-civil rights libertarian who threatened to use nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia? Or is he a new George Wallace, a race baiting segregationist who actually won four southern states as an independent in 1968? All states, by the way, that Trump has won in primaries.
But the comparisons don’t do justice to Trump. Goldwater and Wallace had actually held office and they advocated real programs however misguided. Trump combines the worst of the earlier dangerous men, his rhetoric and indeed his demeanor are more toxic, his mastery of the tools of the authoritarian more absolute. He is truly in a special class.
I’ll return one day to analysis of why Donald J. Trump has risen so high based on so little in the way of intellect, preparation, temperament and judgment, but today the only question that remains is whether “real” Republicans; those not swept up by Trump’s grandiose, substance-free promises to build walls, deport millions and torture our enemies into submission, will disavow this truly dangerous demagogue? Trump, always able to climb one more rug higher on the ladder of outrage, now predicts – and in the process encourages – riots if he is denied the Republican nomination. That alone should be enough to scare frightened Republicans into action against him.
The Political Courage to Say “No” To a Charlatan…
Again, a historical parallel might be instructive. As Huey Long – even at his most outrageous, never as offensive or dangerous as Trump – rose in popularity in the early 1930’s, fellow southern Democrats were among his most outspoken critics. Powerful senators from Arkansas and Mississippi hated Long and did everything in their power to thwart his ambition. They took him on in Senate debate, worked with Roosevelt to limit his appeal and never would have supported him for the White House.
Contrast that with Senator John McCain in Arizona who faces a Tea Party challenge this year from his political right. McCain, the war hero kept captive in North Vietnam for five and a half years, was one of Trump’s first targets. The draft-deferred Trump – he reportedly had bone spurs in his heels, but has never fully explained his deferment – dissed McCain as a loser for having his plane shot down and for being tortured in captivity. McCain finally roused himself to lamely lament Trump’s divisiveness, but would not reject the con man as his party’s nominee. Same with Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and near as can be known every other member of the Senate save Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, who has had the political courage to disown Trump.
The Man Who Would be President
McCain surely knows the principled and correct thing to do is to completely disavow the man who will soon head his party, but he’s unwilling to risk a backlash from the hard right who want to take him down at home. Undoubtedly, it’s a tough political position. Yet, why work so hard to go back to the Senate if you can’t muster the courage to stand and be counted by really opposing a dangerous charlatan like Trump? What’s the point of being a United States senator if you’re willing to accept the unacceptable?
It’s worth noting that when Trump was asked about McCain’s mild criticism the real estate developer told CBS News correspondent Major Garrett that McCain, “has to be very careful.” When pressed as to why, Trump threatened: “He’ll find out.” Sounds like the basis of a good, solid working relationship doesn’t it?
There will be a special place in political hell for the likes of Chris Christie and Ben Carson, the co-chairs of the Trump Opportunism Caucus. One suspects they endorsed the bloviator-in-chief after removing all the mirrors from their homes. After all, how could they possible face themselves while shaving?
All That’s Left is Refusing to Support Him…
Still, it is the collective political impotence of the Republican “elites” which will be one of the great artifacts of the 2016 election. They originally celebrated the depth of their dream team of candidates, raised vast sums for many of them and completely missed the rise of the vulgarian until they were powerless to deny him ownership by eminent domain of their party. The only thing they have left is the power of refusal, the power of one-by-one to say “I’ll not support him.” When all is said and done, when all the primary ballots are cast, who will stand up with Mitt Romney – so far he’s in lonesome company – and call his man a sham?
When Trump is standing before the Republican convention in Cleveland in a few months who will crowd into the picture with him? It will be the photo of the year, maybe the image of the young century. Who other than Christie and Carson will share the stage with the genuine American demagogue and who will have the political courage and personal integrity to disavow the most dangerous man to get this close to real political power in anyone’s lifetime? Who among the Republican “elite” will have the courage to denounce, distance, disavow and in the end not vote for Trump?
It once was said in American politics that political power wasn’t worth holding unless you were prepared to lose it over a matter of high principle and conscience. One day our kids and grandkids may well ask, “What did you do to stop him?” That might just become a defining question of our time.
For Republicans, so long guilty of denying, abetting and even encouraging him, stopping Trump has come down to saying you cannot and will not vote for him.