Demagoguery destroys nations.
America. Conceived under tyranny and borne by patriots fighting for freedom and liberty.
Its ideals – our ideals – ring through our founding documents. Our Declaration of Independence boldly states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Constitution recognizes fundamental and natural liberties destined to remain ever untouched by the corruption of mischievous faction. These rights, to be heralded above all, constrained government and set forth the vision of our nation: A state dedicated to the equal liberty of all its residents.
To be sure, our nation has not always lived up to its ideals. The tree of liberty has been occasionally watered with the blood of citizens fighting for righteousness and always with an eye towards expanding liberty, both within and outside our country.
But now our country finds itself in unchartered territory. For once, the denigrating forces of demagoguery have consumed enough voters to find itself in the Oval Office. This presents dual problems for the country.
First, Donald Trump’s gross incompetence and actions motivated solely by animus, whether at racial or religious minorities or those who dare criticize him, threaten the global order and the continued democratic traditions here at home. His political career started by alleging incorrectly that the country’s first black president was born in Kenya, not the United States.
While campaigning for president, he called for a complete ban on Muslims entering the country; claimed that challenger Ted Cruz’s further had been involved in the JFK assassination plot (another lie); called for Hillary Clinton to be jailed; and continuously railed (incorrectly, again) that outside forces would collude to steal the election from him.
Now, as president, he’s wrongly furthered the notion that 3 to 5 million ballots had been cast illegally. He called Russian interference into the 2016 election a “witch-hunt” and “hoax.” His tweets and virulent diatribes against the media as well as other foundations of our democracy threaten long-standing democratic mores and encourage millions of voters to live in willing ignorance.
Secondly, and intimately related to the dangers Donald Trump himself poses, his core supporters fervently embrace and believe all that Trump says – and only what Trump says. That endangers democracy as the only person who can reach and influence millions of Americans is Donald Trump, a man whose lies as president already near 1,000.
These supporters have, by and large, foregone the values that make America great. They care little about the Constitution or the democratic norms that have long brought success to our grand experiment. Fundamental freedoms and liberties mean little so long as their abrogation benefits Donald Trump. Charlie Sykes best described the phenomena when he decried conservatism’s morphing into an ideology that abandoned principles to instead annoy liberals.
Trump supporters lust for, or seeming desire, authoritarianism led by Trump (who many proclaim to be the “God Emperor”). Demagoguery’s potent appeal leave many inebriated from the violent, ignorant, and condescending rhetoric from a man whose cult of personality attracts the constitutionally and ideologically ignorant. And to them, Trump can do no wrong and his actions need not be motivated by the pursuit of constitutionalism or constitutional rights.
Now, their fervent belief that press critical of Trump is at best “fake news” and at worst, as adviser Kellyanne Conway put it, “unpatriotic.” That precludes them from learning about policy, truly judging Donald Trump’s character, and challenging their fanaticism. Instead, they turn to the likes of Fox News, which has portrayed itself as a de facto state media outlet, often ignoring information or revelations that would hurt Trump while attacking liberals or Democrats in a (succeeding) effort to further tribalize political divisions.
This leaves the country with increased polarization driven not so much by ideology but by different sets of facts and different truths, as irrational and impossible as that may be. It’s possible these voters cannot be reached by any outlet with integrity. Would that extend to Democratic politicians or activists? Probably. Divisions, then, may be insurmountable.
Such a phenomenon, of course, is neither new nor confined to Trump supporters. Factions motivated by demagoguery have arisen throughout American history. Democracy has long been known to suffer from a demagoguery problem, but America has largely remained safe from such forces due to a fervent belief in natural rights and our Constitution – democratic mores, in the worlds of Alexis de Tocqueville. But as mentioned above, those democratic mores seem to be disappearing, perhaps as collective memories of the horrors perpetuated by illiberal and autocratic regimes fades.
The far-left also suffers from such a problem. Democratic socialists and their even more radicalized comrades similarly distort history and facts to abandon constitutional rights and advocate instead for a revolution – democratic or otherwise – to change the regime. They, however, number far fewer than those on the Trumpian right and so, for now, pose less a threat to our democracy’s success.
And so we see ourselves in the midst of our nation’s decline. Liberties, rights, and democratic behavior becomes increasingly unimportant to large swaths of the population interested only in promoting their tribe (in this case, Donald Trump). We’ve been here before and we’ve already emerged a stronger nation. But it’s always taken a national emergency or collective, bipartisan action, the likes of which seems unlikely in this highly polarized time.
The best remedy may be a return to fundamental American values. We must promote natural rights and use our history as a common building block to unify the nation and return political discourse to how we can best collectively protect and further these liberties to all Americans.