Remember Germany’s 1930’s Weimar Republic and the diminutive, firebrand populist who eventually seized power? Although he sees no problem in quoting Mussolini and at least initially hesitated at denouncing the Ku Klux Klan, Donald Trump is not exactly comparable to Hitler, at least not quite yet, but then neither was Hitler at the beginning. The true extent of depravity only became evident after he had seized power. While Trump is no Hitler, what both men do have in common is an unbridled narcissism, as well as a genius for playing to the mob.
What makes the current primary race in the US particularly interesting, however, is what it has to say about the current psychological state of the country at large.
It’s not so much that people love Trump as it is a recognition that a large portion of the public rejects the existing political establishment. They want change, and they are attracted by anyone offering it. In that sense, Trump shares something in common with the Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders. Both men are populists. Both men have a keen sense that the public wants a profound change and both are expert at playing to the emotions of the crowd, albeit to different segments. Trump’s advantage is that he does not appear to be bothered by facts or for that matter any deeper knowledge of political realities. He constantly changes his rhetoric to suit the mood of the moment. The underlying message is that if life is difficult these days, it’s because someone else is taking unfair advantage so smash him in the face, or build a wall to keep him out. It’s not an uncommon argument. Saddam Hussein preached the same logic.
For Sanders, the argument is a bit more subtle. Sander’s argues, somewhat plausibly, that unsustainable inequality is gradually strangling America’s economy. When it comes to tactics, both men tend to remind you of a familiar phrase of France’s far right advocate, Jean Marie Le Pen: “I say out loud what most men feel in their gut.” That is basically what populism is all about. The trouble is that many of the instincts that emanate from one’s gut tend to be bestial. Civilization demands self control, logic and coherence, not a return to primal instinct.
The only candidate with enough experience to be president is almost by default, Hillary Clinton. But her weakness stems from the fact that she is both reasonable and well connected. That implies a close relationship with the existing establishment, and consequently more of the same. From the public’s perspective, the establishment’s success rate hasn’t been exactly stellar lately and people are ready to try something different.
Republicans blame America’s troubles on Obama. Democrats blame what they see as a disloyal opposition and an obstructionist Congress. A more objective analysis might focus on the fact that the world is undergoing an immense transition, with global wealth and influence shifting from the wealthy north to the newly emerging south. The US is not really poor or weak, but its brief period as the world’s only hyper power is drawing to a close. Like other empires or pseudo empires before it, the US will gradually evolve into merely being first among equals. The fact that the US is no longer the sole mega power carries an economic cost for Americans. Mainly, it means that Americans will have to work harder and become more innovative if they want to stay on top. In that respect, Bernie Sanders is right in pointing out that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy individuals, means that there is less money for the public to buy things, and that slows down the global economy.
Sanders’ analysis is partly correct, but what is less clear is how he would change the situation. Placing super taxes on the rich and closing the major banks are simplistic approaches that create their own problems. Sanders might take a look at the experience of France’s Hollande if he thinks that his approach would be smooth sailing. As it happens, even Sanders realizes that he no longer has much of a chance of beating Hillary to the nomination. It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. It is questionable whether anyone who insists on labeling himself a socialist in a political environment that considers socialism to be anathema was serious to begin with. Sanders regularly explains that he is a “democratic socialist” and says he is happy to explain what that means. Not surprisingly, hardly anyone takes the time to listen.
Trump has been further helped in his campaign by the fact that the other two leading candidates, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are basically opposed to the idea of government in general. The Tea Party philosophy, which characterizes their brand of conservative thinking, really amounts to a form of anarchism masquerading as conservatism. It is a crazy situation in which people who blame the government for not working ask to be elected so that they can render government even more non-functional. The Republican campaign has been so dysfunctional, frequently degenerating into food fights broadcast by Fox News, that almost anything now seems possible. Democracy, as the current US election campaign is demonstrating, can be a frightening thing. Democracy does not guarantee good government, only the government that the public deserves. The US public has been bludgeoned by hundreds of TV channels, broadcasting mindless entertainment and news media that was consciously “dumbed down.” Now the country is paying the price. Unfortunately the rest of the world, which will have to cope with the fallout, does not get to vote.