‘Unless we have leaders who are able to situate themselves as far less important to the public at large than are the institutions of our democracy, then we will have Trumpian clones every now and then who will court the vote by addressing the voter’s basest fears and stoking his anger…’
THERE has never been a US President like Donald Trump. One who has defied conventions, broken almost every rule or tradition in the book of polite society, one who apparently mocks civility, insults his opponents and treats them as enemies. And now, days after the 2020 elections has been called for Joe Biden by every traditional news media outlet – as they have always been since the Associated Press began the practice in 1848 – Donald Trump refuses to concede and is digging in.
As a commentator on a news network remarked, “this will be a transition like no other.”
US campaigns have always had their nasty side. When George H. W. Bush first ran for the presidency in 1988, his campaign released an attack video against his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Which is par for the course, as many voters have been swayed by attack videos, one of the most powerful being the “little girl and atom bomb” video used by Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats against Barry Goldwater in 1964. (Try to look that up if you’re a political junkie – it remains riveting to this day.)
But the Bush video against Dukakis (the Willie Horton ad) was a game-changer in many ways, mainly because it stoked racial stereotypes and fears. It made such a line of attack “conventional” from then on, and US campaigns have been on that downward slippery slope ever since.
So much has changed since 1988. The advent of information technology and artificial intelligence has made attack ads even more “potent” campaign weapons, because they can be total fakes except that the viewer would have no idea that there was a reason to doubt its authenticity.
And that’s where the hidden danger in democracy rears its ugly head, aided and abetted by a candidate like Donald Trump who applies his “win at any cost” business “scruples” to the political arena. When it is time to court the vote it doesn’t matter to a candidate with a Trumpian outlook that he or she is pandering to the public’s basest desires or fears, or driving wedges between communities of people. And yes, no lie is out of bounds; in fact, to the rabid followers, the more outrageous the lie the more outraged the reaction. And an outraged following results in greater participation rates and higher turnouts.
America and other societies that go down this Trumpian path will eventually have to confront a painful reality – it becomes very difficult to bridge the divide and get the different parts of society to start functioning as a whole. And that’s how democracy finds in itself the seeds of its own troubles, if not in fact of its own demise. Because its soul gets corrupted. From within.
From my perspective the first responsibility to guard against this happening in any democracy lies with the men and women who propose themselves as leaders. Unless we have leaders who are able to situate themselves as far less important to the public at large than are the institutions of our democracy, then we will have Trumpian clones every now and then who will court the vote by addressing the voter’s basest fears and stoking his anger, rather than appealing to his higher ideals and better instincts.
Demagogues can find fertile soil in a democratic system. That is the hidden danger.
But if some men and women do choose to go down this path – and there will always be those who will so choose – then the ultimate responsibility to reject them shifts to an enlightened citizenry, a democratic society’s ultimate salvation in this battle for its very soul.