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Demagogues and Democracy – It Can’t Happen Here?

John Aubrey Douglass, Senior Research Fellow - Public Policy and Higher Education, Center for Studies in Higher Education | September 16, 2019

In a recent edition of Foreign Affairs, a number of articles discuss the current shift toward autocratic leaders — leaders who “practice a brutal, smashmouth politics, a personalized authoritarianism.” Putin wants to be a latter-day Peter the Great, infatuated with asserting Russia’s power and place in the world, and, through a revived nationalism, reclaiming, in some modern form, both Russia’s tsarist and Soviet empire. Xi’s China Dream is a rewind to hero-worship politics. He demands increased loyalty to the party, and to himself personally, to preserve the existing order and to facilitate a new global economic dominance — Hong Kong’s disruptions notwithstanding.

The illiberal democracy movements in Turkey and Hungary? Erdogan’s politics are rooted in Islamic nationalism and ruthlessly eliminating opposition emboldened by a failed coup. Now he is caught in a geopolitical quagmire and economic decline partly of his own making. Hungary’s Viktor Mihály Orbán’s rise to power began as a liberal activist turned nationalist bent on “dismantling democratic institutions and undermining the rule of law.” His political power, like others in Europe and elsewhere, is fueled by the fear of an immigrant wave and economic instability.

What links all of these nationalist movements? Among other things, a contemporary breed of demagogues who know how to leverage societal divisions and who resort to exaggeration and deception — and worse.

Societies with strong democratic traditions and civil discourse may appear to be partially immune to the worst scenarios of nationalism gone haywire. But reflecting on the history of the United States, and the election of Donald Trump, and the gyrations of Brexit, perhaps democracy itself is more fragile than many of us would like to think. Others have thought so.

Writing in the midst of the Great Depression and reflecting on nationalist movements in Europe and America, Sinclair Lewis warned of a dystopian American future in which a charismatic and power-hungry demagogue leverages fear and nationalism to become president. He promises to return to traditional values and, yes, in his own way, make America great again.

Detriot Federal Theater Poster

Works Progress Administration poster for the stage adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel, It Can’t Happen Here. The performance was on Oct. 27, 1936, at the Lafayette Theater as part of the Detroit Federal Theater.
(U.S. Library of Congress photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The first American writer to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, Lewis was a prolific critic of capitalism and fascism. Published in 1935, It Can’t Happen Here is a novel (and made into a play as well) that shows how fascism could emerge in arguably the world’s first modern republic as an outgrowth of economic disruption and anger. Once in the presidency, Lewis’ main character, Berzeliu “Buzz” Windrip, quickly forms a paramilitary force, eviscerates the power of Congress, reduces the rights of minorities and women, and generally becomes the dictator most American’s fear.

The parallels with Trump are uncanny. Lewis describes Windrip as “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.” The fictional Windrip notes affection for dictators. Speaking to a reporter in the midst of his presidential campaign: “Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word — just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours — not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini — like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days — and have ‘em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again.”

Historians have studied the cycles of nativism in the U.S., repeatedly associating them with new waves of immigrants, and an ingrained distrust of politicians, and a perceived, or real, ruling urban business class. Hence, American history is dotted by populist movements that share many of the components of today’s Neo-Nationalist movements, including a fear of the other, and corresponding with geographic economic decline and political displacement.

Although one can go back further in time, the Native America Party was formed in 1855 as primarily an anti-Catholic, anti-immigration political movement — also known by critics as the “No Nothing” party.  Some 40 years later, in the 1890s, another powerful populist political movement emerged that also blamed immigrants and corporate interests (banks and railroad monopolies) for agrarian economic decline. And indeed, monopolies in banking and transportation did drive many farmers to economic ruin. The Jeffersonian concept of the yeoman farmer as the bulwark of American society was rapidly giving way to a new industrial and urban age. Populists captured state legislatures in many mid-western states, and also used the rhetoric of nativism and a golden age myth.

On the other side of the Great Depression and World War II, and in the thick of the Cold War era, Richard Hofstadter was the first to study the right-wing movements of America’s past in an effort to understand McCarthyism. He also attributed McCarthy’s political viability to “status anxiety” and, for many Americans, a deep distrust of government, as well as intellectuals and the universities that produced them. He called these adherents “pseudo-conservatives” because they claimed to uphold American traditions, yet projected their own fears and anxieties that were grounded in contradictions. Anti-immigrant, anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science — sound familiar?

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States,” later opined science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, “and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Daniel Bell and other sociologists, including Nathan Glazer and Seymore Lipset, who coined the phrase “radical right,” along with Hofstadter, initiated the first serious scholarly research on populist right-wing nationalist movements. This included the beginning of the slow but sure collapse of the Republican Party into an increasingly reactionary political movement, defined largely for what it was against: communists, the civil rights movement, desegregation, immigrants, any kind of tax, the establishment of Medicare in 1965, social security and curbing the other elements of an emerging welfare state.

Johnson Signing 1964 Civil Rights Act

President Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Indeed, President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Right Act that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and then the Voting Rights Act the following year, meant the end of a viable Democratic Party in most southern states. It was an outcome that Johnson and other progressive lawmakers knew was probable, but worth the political sacrifice. So-called southern Dixiecrats then abandoned the big tent Democratic Party to align with the New American Right of the Republican Party. Republican presidents, starting with Richard Nixon and including Ronald Reagan, increasingly pursued a “Southern Strategy” honing their message around the themes that helped solidify the right-wing populism we see today in the United States.

Demagogues and populism are, of course, not the strict ownership of the right wing. Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here was loosely based on Louisiana governor and then senator, and Democratic orator, Huey Long, who drew large crowds with his “Share the Wealth” presidential campaign. Long urged the establishment of a “net asset tax” that would fund subsidies to low-income Americans and relieve epidemic homelessness, symbolized by “Hoovervilles” found in most corners of the U.S. A deeply corrupt politician and complex egomaniac, Long rode a wave of discontent in the midst of the Great Depression, promising anything that would get him elected.

The objective here is to simply provide a sense of our political history, and the nature of nationalist movements and actors in the United States. Trump has many of the worst characteristics of Lewis’ Buzz Windrip — impulsive pathological liar, sowing division, and savvy in ways of messaging and using the media. The difference is that Windrip’s character seemed more methodical. Will Trump’s twitter rampage and assaults propel him to a second election victory?

Trump and Putin meeting in Helsinki 2019

Trump and Putin meeting in Helsinki 2019

There are fears among moderates and liberals that Trump’s presidency, and his followers, may lead to an American democratic system meltdown. Trump’s professed admiration for dictators, his soft-denial of Russian interference and thereby support in his 2016 election, the solidification of conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court that repeatedly has supported the Trump administration in court cases, his continued nationalist and self-serving rhetoric, the staunch support of powerful conservative media outlets (and Russia), all point to a gerrymandered erosion in America’s brand of democracy. It is a topic widely written on. The current Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has stated that only a significant Democratic margin of victory in votes in the next election, lest it be contested, will assure a smooth transition to the next president.

At the same time, the structure of America’s democratic institutions, if a bit weakened, remains relatively strong. The reasoning goes that elections still have consequences — witness the Democratic mid-term victory and retaking of the House. The checks and balances of the legislative and judicial branches should guard against radical swerves in policy and military engagements detrimental to the national interest — one would hope. Polls show consistent disapproval of most of Trump’s policies and his leadership. All lead to the conclusion that America can withstand a Trump presidency.  After all, if presidential elections were an actual plebiscite (all votes counted equally), he would not be president.

Yet America does have a history of embracing demagogues under the flag of nationalism. The message of the past is to keep vigilant. It shouldn’t happen here!