Donald Trump’s Appeal

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I am not all that surprised to see an egotistical demagogue like Donald Trump run for the U.S. presidency. It has happened before, usually without any serious consequences.

The literal definition of a demagogue, by the way, is “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.” The definition fits Donald Trump to a tee.

What has alarmed me to no end, however, is to see so many Americans enthusiastically supporting him and his rabid claims. Nothing he says ever offends them; it simply makes him more popular. It’s like throwing red meat to a pack of wild animals. He keeps ratcheting up the kind of rhetoric that in any previous election would have destroyed a candidate. But he seems to enjoy total immunity.

As Kevin Drum recently wrote for Mother Jones,

He started off slow with wild claims about immigrant Mexican rapists, knowing it would draw in the rubes. Then he laughably claimed that he’d get Mexico to pay for a border wall. Nothing happened. He insulted John McCain for being a POW. Nothing happened. He started telling obvious lies. Nothing. He lied on national TV and was called on it a few minutes later. Nothing. … He claimed that thousands of Muslims in Jersey City celebrated 9/11. Nothing. He mocked a disabled reporter in front of the cameras. Nothing. He suggested taking out terrorist families. Nothing. He appeared on the radio show of a crackpot conspiracy theorist. Nothing. [He then] insulted an audience of conservative Jews. [Still nothing.]

On Monday Trump called for a blanket ban on all Muslims entering the United States. The media has strongly criticized him for this, as have some other candidates, but Trump’s own audience responded with loud cheers.

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Many commentators have tried to explain Trump’s sustained appeal to such a large and enthusiastic audience. The best analysis that I have come across to date comes from Glenn Thrush writing for Politico. He put it this way:

The mystery of why Republican voters love Donald Trump more each time he makes up a story about Muslims dancing on rooftops after 9/11 or slimes a disabled reporter isn’t really very mysterious after all. All that engineered outrageousness isn’t about fact, or politics, or messaging, it’s about channeling the rawest emotions of his fans (and they are fans, not political supporters in a conventional sense). …

The base is seething, for real, with a recent Pew poll finding three times as many Republican voters describing themselves as anger-motivated compared with Democrats. Trump may be the ultimate it’s-all-about-me candidate, but the piercing paradox of 2016 is that it actually isn’t about him — but about his ability to capture the mood of his voters, and that, more than anything, explains his pundit-defying durability. …

Trump may not be telling the truth, but he’s sure as hell telling their truth. This allows him to shatter most conventions of presidential campaigning. … Trump has ridden up to 30 percent on almost unrelentingly negative, Reagan-on-downers message: Build a wall to keep out Mexicans; my opponents are fat, stupid, ugly, nasty, sweaty and poor; keep your “Morning in America,” I’m calling my campaign book “Crippled America.”

The question is no longer whether Trump can win the GOP nomination. He can. It’s whether his message will appeal to general election voters … who don’t share his anger or definition of the truth.

As I said at the beginning, I am not overly concerned with Donald Trump’s demagoguery. But I am absolutely appalled at the enthusiastic support his message has with such a broad swath of conservative American voters. A Bloomberg Poll released on Wednesday showed that

Almost two-thirds of likely 2016 Republican primary voters favor Donald Trump’s call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S., while more than a third say it makes them more likely to vote for him.

Trump’s message to the masses is deliberately inflammatory, intolerant, xenophobic and racist. He is articulating a kind of populist vitriol and scapegoating that we have not seen since the rise of fascist Europe in the 1930s. And his base seems completely OK with that.

glenn_becks_white_nationalist_fansIt is not as if we are talking about a few out of touch radicals championing some marginal extremist cause. This is a broad groundswell movement endorsing the kind of virulent nationalism that was seen in Nazi Germany. It has been nurtured by a throng right-wing talk radio hosts and Fox News, and by a broad network of committed local activists.

It has grown from an easy to dismiss fringe phenomenon into a successful “main stream” movement that now occupies center stage in the political arena. It is nothing less than a homegrown fascist, white nationalist populist movement.

It is extremely dangerous. And it has found its home within the Republican Party.

Photo credits: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images; Chalrie Lright/ Getty Images; Mike Mergen/AP