10
Feb

Demagoguery and Democracy

It’s hard to believe we’re only three weeks into the Trump Administration. In that time, I’ve written three articles assessing how we got here and where we’re going; I’ll summarize the thrust here, but I hope you’ll follow the links to the articles and give them a read in the original to get the full argument. (That also helps my “metrics” and keeps my editors happy!)

On Inauguration Day, I published a piece originating in a conversation a few days earlier with my friend, Jimmy Cauley. Jimmy was the campaign manager for an obscure state legislator in Illinois who was elected to the US Senate in 2004, named Barrack Obama. Jimmy has been saying for a long time a lot of the same things for which J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, has been celebrated in the last year (except Jimmy’s a whole lot funnier). The conversation reminded me of a piece I’d written when Obama was elected president; I’ve raised similar warnings since about Democrats’ failure to address the concerns of white working class Americans. But I was surprised, when I went back and reread my 2008 diatribe, by the Republican response that year that completely foreshadowed the Trump message “by redefining who has been in charge”:

It really hasn’t been George Bush, the largely Republican Congresses, or the 7-2 Republican majority on the Supreme Court – it’s been a national elite of “cosmopolitan” types (you know, highly-educated, diverse, globally mobile)….

Of course, resentment of elites has a long history in America.   What has changed, however, is that those who might have felt “bitter” about being left behind by the new economy in prior ages – Jacksonian Era frontiersmen, Southern planters and Western ranchers, underpaid workers in Pennsylvania steel mills or West Virginia coal mines – all voted Democratic, and the Democratic Party was unrepentantly proud to speak for them. Today, the Democratic Party increasingly consists of the well-educated, the worldly, the owners of the keys to the economy of the future – and it is at risk of losing interest in helping those it sees as “bitter,” unfathomably ungrateful, and not just inferior but frightening.

You can read the full discussion in The More Things Change.

Many fear a fascist takeover driven by such demagogic reaction. In Make America Hollow, I argue that “[t]he Americas Bannon and Trump envision are depressing, but not totalitarian: One is illiberal but not necessarily authoritarian, the other authoritarian but not necessarily illiberal. Both lead to a society embodying not so much the banality of evil as the evil of banality.”

Bannon’s conformism is not that of Stalin’s Russia, but of the roughly-contemporary Peyton Place; his vision of America is one – socially, economically, politically, religiously – out of an idealized 1950s…. Matt Bai paints a similarly dispiriting picture in a recent piece asserting that Trump – like other contemporary demagogues – is less Orwell’s 1984, with its “vision of fascist repression,” and more Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, “with [its] trivial, substanceless society.”

Where Trump and Bannon come together “is not the creation of a fascist state, but rather the opposite: The hollowing out of the state as a viable institution.” That, of course, is a subject I write about frequently. Please read the whole piece for more.

Like all demagoguery, much of Trumpism is driven by misrepresentation. Rather predictably, President Trump has chosen a Supreme Court nominee who claims to be guided by the intent of the Framers; as the apparently-rare liberal who actually agrees with conservatives that the Constitution must be “strictly construed” according to “the intent of the Framers,” I’ve got news for them: That doesn’t mean what they think it means.

[T]he Constitution has been amended many times – sometimes in fashions that dramatically changed its meaning. For all intents and purposes, the post-Civil War 14th Amendment represents a new Constitution, fundamentally altering the balance of power between the states and the federal government. It’s debatable that all those 18th-Century guys in white wigs, whom self-described patriots today like to single out, believed in a largely denuded federal government – the motive for many, like Alexander Hamilton, in creating the Constitution was precisely the opposite – but the 19th-Century Framers of the 14th Amendment clearly did not.

You can read the full discussion at A Constitutional Reality Check.

Easy links in this update:

– The More Things Change

– Make America Hollow

– A Constitutional Reality Check

As always, I welcome your comments below!

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