Monday, May 16, 2011

Democracy Trumps Demagoguery-- For Now


I've said little about the Donald Trump fiasco up to this point. Now that he has announced, as many people had assumed, that he would not run for president, it's worth noting the glass-half-full and glass-half-empty lessons of this particular farce:

1. Demagogues will always be with us. The framers distrusted democracy and preferred republican government precisely because they feared the rise of demagogues, who might whip up people's passions and ultimately lead the country to disaster. Every era produces its demagogues of differing degrees; some are relatively annoying but harmless, while others are far more dangerous. It is often difficult to decide-- and a matter of political dispute-- whether a character is truly a demagogue or simply engages in demagogic tactics from time to time, and whether a figure is truly dangerous or not. Huey Long was probably a dangerous demagogue (certainly Franklin Roosevelt thought so), but was assassinated fairly early. Father Coughlin was probably less dangerous but ultimately overreached and lost his following. The jury is still out on Glen Beck, but one can only hope that now that he has left Fox News that he is on a downward slide toward irrelevance.

Compared with these characters, Trump always seemed like a relatively harmless demagogue, precisely because he came across as such a self-aggrandizing loudmouth; sometimes one thought that he was deliberately playing the part of the buffoon in order to entertain. Nevertheless, his race baiting-- and that's exactly what it was-- was quite dangerous, because it whipped up racial resentments and stereotypes (Obama is a mysterious foreigner, he is an undeserving affirmative action recipient, people should be appalled by black Americans overwhelming support for Obama, etc.)

By mainstreaming these despicable racial dog whistles, Trump may have eased the way for the opening gambit in Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign-- that Barack Obama is a "food stamp president." One waits to see how Gingrich will push the envelope in the future (he has already accused Obama of a "Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview.") Trump may inform us that he's always had a great relationship with "the blacks," but he did himself and race relations no favors by his tactics. And there is no guarantee that other demagogues that arise in the political system from now on will be either as laughable or as feckless.

2. Nevertheless, democracy is not helpless. Now for the good news: Despite the harm that Trump caused, ultimately, the public tired of him and his antics. The processes of democracy, journalistic coverage, and free discussion eventually convinced enough people that Trump was not a good candidate and his support fell precipitously. Part of this was due to Obama's release of his "long form" birth certificate, and part of it was because the death of bin Laden put Trump's silliness in proper perspective. But these causes should not be seen as unique: the point is that other issues and concerns eventually do surface in democratic politics. If these events had not happened when they did, others would have to push Trump aside. Trump's candidacy was a fool's errand, and it was only a matter of time before enough people discovered it. (Once again, however, future demagogues may be more canny, pick more powerful issues, and consequently last longer.)

3. Media positioning is ever more crucial, with unexpected effects on the party system. And now for somewhat more troubling news: contemporary media have so reshaped the nature of politics that the Trump phenomenon is only the beginning, not the end of this foolishness (and this danger). Politics and media entertainment are now thoroughly intertwined in ever new ways. Trump got into the race in order to boost ratings for his television show; he quickly became a leading candidate because of his media profile, and he eventually exited the race because NBC renewed his show. Mike Huckabee recently decided not to run because he has a cushy job with Fox News. His current political profile and the degree of public attention he receives (like that of Gingrich and Sarah Palin) depends a great deal on his continued association with Fox.

Fox News has become the stable for Republican presidential candidates, who flock there to stay in the public eye while deciding whether to run. One effect of this retreat-to-the-media strategy, however, is that the lifestyle it offers is so good, and allows prospective candidates so many different ways of making an excellent living, that when the race actually begins a few of the horses don't want to leave the stable. It is increasingly likely that Palin will join Huckabee and Trump and decide that lucre, if not discretion, is the better part of valor.

4. Media is the demagogue's playground, a force for good and for ill. The media, both mainstream and otherwise, cannot seem to resist covering demagogues, and demagogues, in turn, are especially good at using whatever media are around to promote themselves. As media change, so too do the techniques of demagoguery. Ultimately, media coverage did in Trump-- and gave him reasons to exit back to NBC-- as much as it promoted him. But in the meantime, he thrived.

The story of Donald Trump is the story of a political snake oil salesman who has learned how to manipulate the particular media we have now-- composed of a combination of traditional journalists, cable talk shows, blogs, online reporters, and social media. Trump has shown that within the current media ecology, a determined candidate can fool a great deal of the people for a considerable period of time, and make the media-- including professional journalists who should know better-- dance to his tune, to the exclusion of covering other, more important topics. This charade wounds democracy and (further) debases the profession of journalism without defeating either completely. The problem, though, is this: Trump may be a relatively early adopter of these tactics, but he will by no means be the last.

Older Posts
Newer Posts