Like Donald Trump’s frequent insults and penchant for statements that startle rather than stimulate, the “demagogue” meme advanced by his detractors wears thin.
If a demagogue stands as a figure who gins up popular prejudice to avoid serious intellectual argument, then the critics as much as the criticized deserve the epithet. Trump periodically makes crude arguments. His belittlers respond in kind. “If thou gaze into an abyss,” Nietzsche reminds, “the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
Trump’s recent call for a moratorium on Muslim immigration stands as a case in point. Whatever the merits (or demerits) of such a one-size-fits-all immigration policy, the reflexive labeling of it as “unconstitutional” serves as an example of a massive dodge of the serious issues he raises perhaps less than seriously. The people who wrote the Constitution, in fact, almost immediately passed a law that did something more extreme than Donald Trump proposes. The First Congress limited the naturalization process to “free white persons.”
Odious? Sure. Unconstitutional? No. Many of the same people who crafted the Constitution supported the Naturalization of Act of 1790. A certain demagogue labels all he dislikes as “unconstitutional” as a means of banging the gavel down on debate. It’s easier to dismiss an argument than to dissect and deconstruct it.
The bloviating billionaire surely provides his enemies with ammunition.
His publicizing Lindsey Graham’s cell number, comments about Carly Fiorina’s face, and below-the-belt “I don’t know about that” remark about Ben Carson’s Seventh-Day Adventist faith all suggest that old-money does not inoculate one against nouveau riche manners. Trump displays a gauche preoccupation with the president’s birth certificate. His unprovoked, non sequitur attack on Rand Paul to kick off the presidential debate at the Reagan Library evoked the dictator in Woody Allen’s Bananas declaring the official language of San Marcos Swedish and commanding citizens to wear underwear over their pants.
The press calling a candidate a “demagogue” often speaks to the professional malfeasance of journalists, not politicians. The word signals that the professed devotion to objectivity and truth and fairness no longer applies. Whereas a political demagogue might establish martial law, the journalist employs the “d” word as a get-out-of-jail free card to legitimize the use of the unrestrained emergency powers of the Fourth Estate. Hereby does the front page become the op-ed section.
Every Clark Kent toiling at the Daily Planet imagines himself Superman laboring to save the world.
Buzzfeed, a kind of Weekly Reader for adults but with more pictures, labeled it “entirely fair” for its reporters to call Trump a “mendacious racist.” The memo to its writers rationalized, “He’s out there saying things that are false, and running an overtly anti-Muslim campaign,” adding, “these are facts.” Certainly using race to limit citizenship, as the founders did, deserves the “racist” tag.” But one’s acquired beliefs don’t equate to one’s immutable characteristics, and the protections of the Constitution apply to citizens in the United States and not foreigners abroad wishing to become citizens. To borrow Buzzfeed’s buzzwords, “These are facts.”
Megan Garber ofthe Atlantic recently called “demagogue” a “term of last resort: a description — a deeply loaded epithet — that is summoned only when a particular politician or media figure or other modern people-leader has moved so far away from the mainstream that the Overton Window has receded well into the distance.”
Leaving aside the important question of whether namedropping “Overton Window” inoculates one against charges of demagoguery as effectively as wearing a turtleneck under a tweed jacket or contemplatively scratching one’s chin does, clearly the frequency of “demagogue” stands as an insult of first resort. The de rigueur comparisons of Trump to Governor Wallace or Father Coughlin betray a Chicken Little quality. In other words, the boy who cried wolf, even when an actual wolf appears, finds such a skeptical audience because of his reputation as a demagogue of sorts.
The “d” word rarely crossed the lips of Trump’s critics when Barack Obama described his election as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” fibbed that “if you like your doctor, you’ll be able to keep your doctor,” called a mass shooting “something we should politicize,” or cultivated a cult of personality during his initial presidential campaign that culminated in a Leni Riefenstahl-style event for the small screen at a football stadium in Denver complete with Greek columns and hysterical throngs.
But “demagogue” serving as a stock epithet to describe any Republican peddling ideas disliked by the media works to undermine criticisms of Trump.
General Wesley Clark called Ted Cruz “the definition of a demagogue” earlier this week. Dana Milbank opined that “[Ben] Carson has exhibited the demagogue’s belief that those who don’t agree with him aren’t just wrong: They are un-American and dangerous.” One Salon.com headline informed: “The real Chris Christie: a power-hungry demagogue indifferent to truth,” while another blared, “Carly Fiorina is more dangerous than Donald Trump: Her brazen demagoguery puts his to shame.”
We’re all demagogues now, even, especially, the people calling other people demagogues.