by William P. Hausdorff
The scary prospect of a close election
Clinton remains favored in almost all poll summaries, though individual polls still come up with surprisingly narrow margins. But the pollsters’ emphasis on likelihood of winning, regardless of the electoral vote gap, may set American democracy up for a fall: a tight election, combined with a House and Senate possibly both still Republican may be one of the worst situations. Under that scenario, Trump’s allegations of rigging and lack of legitimacy could run rampant, and completely discredit democratic institutions under an endless series of Congressional investigations.
What accounts for the continuing tightness in the polls? I once conceived of an amusing evening parlor game with friends: try to imagine what Trump could possibly say or do that would finally cause a significant portion of his supporters to bail. As untreated sewage continues to flow freely from Donald Trump’s mouth, including explicit racist attacks, his boasts of paying no taxes, of contemptuously stiffing small businesses and of lurid claims of sexually harassing women, we finally have an answer: nothing.
So what really fuels the Trump supporters, and even the hesitancy of many young people to commit themselves to voting? Hatred of Hillary Clinton, stoked up by decades of Republican Party efforts, clearly looms large. My attempts to discuss with Trump supporters how they can possibly believe their candidate will implement what he says, given his pathological narcissism, self-aggrandizement, sense of entitlement, and personal greed, are almost immediately answered, not with explanations, but with attacks on Clinton. This just mirrors Trump’s own pattern in the debates: almost every request for him to provide his position immediately became an attack on Clinton.
The demonization of Hillary Clinton
The catalogue of scandals, events, and terrorist groups that she is responsible for is a textbook example of “demonization.” As Richard Hofstadter put it, the paranoid style in American politics includes
the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary.
In this case, it’s not even a metaphor: Trump mentioned in a debate what he previously said in August: "He [Sanders] made a deal with the devil. She's [Clinton’s] the devil."
Perhaps this is just part of politics, and all of us succumb to the notion that certain political opponents are completely devoid of positive value. Towards the end of Bush Jr’s 2nd term I was stunned to realize that neither I, nor most of the politically knowledgeable friends and colleagues I queried, could come up with ONE positive thing his administration had accomplished. This might be taken as evidence of demonization, as even under previously detested presidents like Nixon and Reagan it wasn’t difficult to find some positive aspects. I was therefore relieved when a few savvy friends noted that the Bush administration’s PEPFAR program on AIDS research in Africa was, all in all, quite a good thing.
I don’t recall, however, anyone ever positing that Bush was a demon or even the “focus of evil in the modern world” as Reagan had described the Soviet Union in his 1983 address to the National Association of Evangelicals. At the time, it was easy to dismiss Reagan’s statement as inane Cold War hyperbole—were hunger, poverty, environmental destruction, ethnic and religious strife really all the Soviets’ fault?
But Reagan wasn’t in a silly mood. In that same speech, immediately before he spoke about the Soviet Union, the amiable President proceeded to demonize another group—non-believers in God--through this sinister anecdote:
But I had underestimated him. He went on: "I would rather see my little girls die now, still believing in God, than have them grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God."
There were thousands of young people in that audience. They came to their feet with shouts of joy. They had instantly recognized the profound truth in what he had said, with regard to the physical and the soul and what was truly important.
Fortunately, Reagan’s endorsement of the idea that it would be better if one’s own children died, rather than grow up and become non-believers, did not receive much publicity.
The dangers of demonization
Demonization can nonetheless become dangerous. One problem is that we then suspend rational thinking, presumably because demons can only be stopped by violence. The most consistently demonized entity in the American press is usually whichever member of the Kim family is currently leading North Korea. During the Bill Clinton administration in the 1990s Kim Il-Sung suddenly became the focus of all evil in the popular press, and it became impossible to consider that the North Korean dictator might actually be a rational actor, amenable to negotiation. As ex-President Jimmy Carter tersely phrased it:
I think we were on the verge of war.
It was only when Carter decided to make a controversial, personal visit to Pyongyang did it became clear that Kim was ready to deal, and tensions were effectively defused.
The demonization of Saddam Hussein made many otherwise reasonable people unable to imagine what could be worse than a vicious dictator and, of course, led directly to the invasion and destruction of much of Iraq, not to mention the expansion of Al-Qaeda and birth of ISIS.
In the case of Trump, it would have been nice to think he was being amusing in a Hugo Chavez-sort of way. In Chavez’s 2006 address to international leaders at the UN, he referred to George Bush:
This is another abuse and another abuse of power on the part of the devil. It smells of sulfur here, but God is with us and I embrace you all.
However, Trump’s pattern of demonization tends to be tinged with violent rhetoric, such as his comments that 2nd amendment supporters have “ways” to prevent judges from being named, and that Clinton should consider forgoing Secret Service protection. Demonization of Hispanics and Muslims may already have inspired actual violence.
The demonization of Vladimir Putin
These days, demonization is not just the province of Trump. We are deluged by depictions of a thuggish, kleptocratic regime led by Vladimir Putin in which reporters and political opponents are mysteriously murdered. Taken together with events in Crimea, Ukraine, Syria and especially Aleppo, it can be difficult to believe Putin is not the essence of evil.
Of course, Trump’s bromantic infatuation with Putin’s “toughness,” his fantasy-world depiction of Russia, Iran and Syria merrily targeting ISIS and his complete denial of US intelligence conclusions regarding Russian interference in Ukraine, not to mention the US presidential campaign, is unseemly at best. Frankly, it is almost unbearable to envision Trump in Putin’s dacha’s sauna as they down shots of vodka (or just orange juice, for the Donald), roll in the snow, and gently whip each other’s naked sweaty backs with willow switches.
Nonetheless, not everything Trump says—such as the idea of not-demonizing Putin--is wrong.
In fact, a strong argument can be made that Putin is quite a rational actor, and that misguided policies by successive US governments have triggered some of his actions.
For that reason, it was encouraging to hear Hillary Clinton note in the 2nd debate her experience in negotiating agreements of mutual interest with Putin.
The demonization of Donald Trump vs the MacArthur alternative
If we look beyond the election, demonizing Donald Trump, very popular among despairing newspaper columnists these days, is probably not a long-lasting solution answer either. It is perhaps worth reflecting as to how some in the political establishment once handled another serious threat to American democracy, a charismatic figure with presidential ambitions who also didn’t want to participate in a traditional campaign: General Douglas MacArthur, hero of the Pacific battles in World War II and military ruler of the defeated Japan.
As Commander of United Nations forces in the Korean War, MacArthur openly advocated the bombardment of China and its invasion by Chiang Kai-shek’s troops, in the process utterly disregarding the potential for nuclear war, and directly challenging the war policies and authority of then-unpopular President Truman.
In April 1951 he was dismissed by Truman for insubordination, but as vividly described by Robert Caro, MacArthur’s “forceful, colorful rhetoric” and “his hold on the public imagination,” subsequently led to a series of wildly popular rallies in San Francisco and New York. He gave a nationally televised speech to a Joint Session of Congress that elicited a rapturous response.
Caro quotes a Senator saying,
“This is new to my experience; I have never feared more for the institutions of my country. I honestly felt back there if the speech had gone on much longer there might have been a march on the White House.”
That speech was followed by a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue that further crystallized the fears of many. One journalist recalled it as
“the only time in my life that I ever felt my government to be fragile…. I’ll never forget watching him go up Pennsylvania Avenue. I had a very strong feeling that had he said ‘Come on, let’s take it’ and had started to charge toward the White House…. [T]he adoring crowds that thronged the streets would have gone with him.”
This threat was eventually defused by allowing MacArthur (and other generals and officials) to offer their views within the context of a Congressional hearing on US administration policies in Korea. The hearing was managed in a way that showed how isolated and uninformed MacArthur really was, and allowed passions to ebb.
In Caro’s retelling, there appear to be two key elements here: first, the involvement of a senior, well-respected conservative political leader (segregationist Georgia Senator Richard Russell). Through the use of cogent questioning of MacArthur and eminent witnesses, Russell helped to courteously, dispassionately, and systematically dismantle MacArthur’s uninformed and delusional ideas.
Secondly, the hearings were carried out in a controlled setting, in untelevised Senate Hearing Rooms, which precluded both revelation of secrets as well as grandstanding displays to the masses, and which took place over a period of several days. MacArthur wasn’t demonized, but shown to be naïve, absurd, and dangerous.
In and amongst his intensified ravings about rigged elections, Trump recently launched a thunderous tweet based on zero evidence that the firebombing of GOP headquarters in Orange County, North Carolina was carried out by “animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems.” As far as I can tell no other Republicans, not even Breitbart and Fox News, have yet echoed these Reichstag-like accusations, but neither have they condemned them.
Where are the calm, right-wing Republicans here who perceive Trump as a threat to American democracy? Will any stand up to forcefully and dispassionately dismantle Trump’s wild claims that the devil’s supporters are violently attacking the Republican Party, and that US elections are rigged?
If not, perhaps it’s time to only let women vote.
If not, perhaps it’s time to only let women vote.