I was out to dinner recently with a friend who said he agreed with Donald Trump’s views but was uncomfortable with the way he expressed them. Perhaps what he should have said is: “I used to agree with his views until I heard them expressed.” To harbor such sentiments is one thing; to hear someone promote them is another.
I am disappointed but not surprised that Trump is riding so high in the polls. Historically, demagogues have been able to tap into public anger and resentment and achieve power. Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler are two extreme examples. While fearful of a Trump presidency, I am confident that many who actually agree with him will decide not to vote. Hopefully, they will recognize that the application of their resentments will harm the country.
Many in Italy and Germany dismissed Mussolini and Hitler as rabble-rousers with little chance of achieving power, underestimating the extraordinary appeal of strong personalities who promised to make their respective countries “great again.” Both achieved a period of prosperity before scapegoating and expansionism led to disaster.
Despite claims of American exceptionalism, we are subject to all of the miscalculations and weaknesses that have undermined other great powers. The historical ebb and flow of empires carry lessons ignored at our peril. While the day will come when we will no longer be the leader of the free world, that can be delayed by prudent, tolerant, careful, calm, and patient governance. These are not qualities one sees in Donald Trump.
They are qualities that President Obama possesses, and for which he is often criticized. Too many associate bluster, self-promotion, and arrogance with leadership. They expect simple solutions to major problems. The success of our government is based on balances of power between and within the branches of government. That requires understanding, cooperation, and compromise. The public is understandably upset at the breakdown of the process, which many attribute to Washington insiders. They want a hero to surface who can break the logjam and make government work.
Along comes “The Donald,” rich, charismatic, politically incorrect, and a plain talker who promises that, with the force of his immense personality, he can fix the system. “I make deals,” he proclaims, which are apparently irresistible. Like all demagogues, he lacks humility, that one overriding virtue so essential to personal equilibrium. Balance is as critical for a governor as it is for a government.
Granted, humility is not a quality one is likely to see on the campaign trail. It’s as rare as an “I don’t know” in a presidential debate. Unfortunately, honesty is seen as weakness while passion is viewed as strength. Ironically, many of the qualities necessary for a good leader are considered liabilities during today’s hyper-intensive campaigns, where heat counts more than light.
Ted Cruz, a subdued version of Trump, is a more likely nominee. A smart, articulate favorite of the Tea Party, he has chosen a Trump-lite path to the nomination. His confrontational style has not endeared him to his Senate colleagues, all part of his calculation as an insider to play the outsider. His considerable intellect functions within a framework of ambition and arrogance that appears boundless.
Trump is more personable, but Cruz is more electable, and, thus, a greater threat to Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee.
I’m concerned that many Republicans, who will not vote for Trump because of his antics and unpredictability, will embrace Cruz as a more respectable version of Tea Party conservatism. Trump may be more of an opportunist than a true believer. More clever than his opponent, Cruz is a believer. He is drafting in Trump’s wake, picking up voters who have been alienated by his more strident message. However, one must be wary of electing someone who is disliked by so many of those whot have known him. Sometimes great intellectual gifts produce major character flaws.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.