The Trump phenomenon shows just how unexceptional we are. We, too, can be beguiled by a demagogue who channels the anger and resentment of many into a movement devoid of substance.
Using lies, deceit, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories, an accomplished con man has convinced a vocal minority to place him at the threshold of immense power and influence.
Many believed that couldn’t happen here. Our system had too many safeguard to allow such an aberration. The vetting process was too complicated and our political leaders too sophisticated for this to become reality. There were many in Germany and Italy in the aftermath of World War I who felt the same way. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were at first dismissed by the intelligentsia as misfits, incapable of achieving real power. In the unlikely event they did, it was thought, they could be managed by professionals and held back by the structural limitations of governance.
They were wrong. Both swept to power on a wave of public anger and discontent that were fueled by the blaming of minorities for social and economic ills. Both moved to consolidate power quickly by controlling the press, imprisoning their political enemies, and promising a rebirth of past glories, not unlike Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” cries almost a century later. How little time it took to dismantle democratic institutions.
The degree to which an all-powerful authoritarian leader can capture the imagination, if not the reason, of otherwise sensible people was evident in the public hysteria of the crowds that lined the streets of Berlin as Hitler passed by. As they surrendered to his will, little did they realize the path of destruction he was leading them to.
Hopefully, this election will be a wake-up call. Americans are not immune to the impulses that produce dictators. Under the right circumstances, a charismatic leader with a well-organized and disciplined movement can succeed in gaining power. Fortunately, although clever, Trump doesn’t have the discipline, the knowledge, or the organization to capitalize on his almost incomprehensible popularity.
What is it about this obviously deeply flawed man that many find so attractive? Apparently they don’t see or don’t care about his limitations and the risk he poses to the nation. They see only the personification of their anger and discontent. They’re mad as hell and he is their champion. How he proposes to address their grievances is beside the point so long as he rails against the established order. Believing anything would be better than what we have, they want change and don’t particularly care how it is achieved.
Assigning blame is a powerful emotion that often overlooks personal deficiencies while providing an outlet for frustration and anger against whomever or whatever appears to be responsible for the discontent. It is frequently directed against government, minorities, elites, and change in general; it’s a way to protest against the loss of personal autonomy and control. Blaming requires a target, and the real or imagined culprits are many.
Trump is a master of the blame game. Unable to accept any personal responsibility for his floundering campaign, he blames the press, political elites, special interests, and his opponent. Having already called the election “rigged,” he will be all too ready to stir up unrest by blaming the system if and when he (hopefully) loses. Not one to go quietly into the night, he may encourage demonstrations.
If we are not vigilant, that could happen next month and beyond. That is the lesson to be learned from this discouraging election cycle. American exceptionalism is a delusion. We certainly have had a good run, but so have other nations before us. History shows us the cyclical nature of power. We are also subject to its gradual decline and not immune to the appeal of the flawed horseman who harnesses public anger and discontent for a promised ride to glory that can only end in destruction.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.